I was about to begin the prayer when a Franj threw himself upon me, seized me, and turned my face to the East, telling me, ‘That’s how you pray!’
Usamah Ibn Munqidh, Chronicler (1095-1188)
In the 11th and 12th centuries, Frankish crusaders rampaged through the Muslim regions of Asia Minor, Syria, and Palestine. Glorious, walled cities were torched while surrounding agricultural land–vineyards and olive and date groves, were reduced to fallow ground. In 1098, the barbarous armies of the west, victorious at Ma’arra, celebrated by skewering, grilling and eating Arab children. Jerusalem fell to the occidentals. Thousands of Muslims were killed in the gold-domed Al-Aqsa Mosque; Jews were sealed in their synagogue and burned alive. Today the military occupation of Iraq, though far less brutal, feels to many like a crusade.
“The Americans are monsters and freak people,” says Sheikh Mohammed Mahmoud Letief, a very powerful spiritual and political leader in Ramadi. “They are treating us worse than Saddam. The soldiers are insulting Iraqis by treating them like animals. They don’t know anything about our culture and how we treat people.”
Compared to the cluster bombs and dead children of the war, these complaints about the occupation’s humiliation and brutality may seem unimportant, but the routine depredation of deeply religious and honor bound Iraqis is a hugely important part of why so many Sunni’s are resisting the occupation.
At times the military’s destructive activity is due to the cultural ignorance of young soldiers. At other times it is a conscious tactic meant to rip apart the social ties holding this society together.
Ramadi is an hour and half drive west from Baghdad along Iraq’s major east-west thoroughfare, Route 10. Hang a left about 30 minutes beyond Fallujah, and you enter this town of 400,000.
To say that Ramadi is a hotspot for the resistance is an understatement. During a drive through the city center, the burnt remains of Humvee tires lay close to a blown-out portion of median strip–the telltale sign of an expended Improvised Explosive Devise. On a side street nearby, a pick-up speeds by. In the cab, the driver and passenger conceal their faces with kaffiyas. The third passenger, riding in the bed of the truck, is also masked and brandishes a kalashnikov. A short distance behind are two Iraqi police cars in hot pursuit–filled with gun toting cops.
Because of this rebel activity Ramadi is the scene of a collective, retaliatory punishment perhaps unequaled in Iraq. This repression includes the familiar forms: house searches, detentions, home demolitions, and checkpoints. However, it is also the scene of intense emotional and psychological warfare–a callous and often intentional effort to crush the pride and self-respect of an entire population.
Outside Sheikh Mohammed’s home, the street is filled with children spilling out from a nearby elementary school. A surreal mural of brightly painted Disney characters and blue Smurfs is painted on a wall opposite–beat-up pickups and rusty sedans drive slowly past. The vehicles slow down or stop completely to wave or give their regards to the Sheikh. Always, he takes time to stop and talk, often holding hands with the man he’s speaking to, never rushing the interaction.
Only in his mid-thirties, the Sheikh has gained the respect of Ramadi because of his family lineage, his skills at mediating disputes between various clans and above all because of his religious scholarship.
Since the March invasion of Iraq, the Sheikh’s neighborhood has had electricity for no longer than three-hours at a time and the water is routinely cut. During one of my visits, the water has been off for more than twenty-four hours. Inside his darkened home, the Sheikh describes American methods in Ramadi.
“When they enter mosques, they don’t know the Koran from any other book, they throw it on the ground, they kick it. If they come to my home, they will go to my library and destroy all the books. This means they are against us, against our culture–against Islam.”
The Sheikh then relates what he describes as a “funny and sad story.” A seven-year-old boy was standing next to a mosque as a military patrol approached. The child threw a rock–hitting one of the passing vehicles. The soldiers answered, “by shooting over one hundred large caliber bullets into the mosque”. The military convoy then surrounded the place of worship and demanded to speak with the religious leaders inside. The military asked them to turn over the child. The soldiers then took everyone in the mosque, maybe fifty, handcuffed them, and made them stand with their faces against a wall. “They didn’t differentiate between sheikhs, the old, or the young”, explains Sheik Mohammed. Continuing, he says, “If they were looking for the child, why did they treat all the people in the mosque so poorly?”
The story is finished, but I’ve failed to see the funny part. Maybe something has gotten lost in translation. Then I remember: earlier, the Sheik had described the Americans as the “silly people”. The humor, which the Sheikh is trying to convey, pivots on how insanely the Americans behave.
Throughout the visit I hear a child’s piercing cries from inside the kitchen. The Sheikh explains apologetically that his oldest son, age four, is terrified of Americans. The boy is worried that the visiting strangers will take his father away.
To illustrate the brutality of the occupiers, the Sheikh takes me to a farm in al-Sigaria, a small village to the southeast of Ramadi. By chance a US military patrol is in full swing. A number of Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Humvees straddle the single entry point into town. Driving through, to the right, a squad of burly US soldiers lead away a small boy, perhaps ten or eleven years old. The boy looks miniscule compared to the armored soldiers.
This is the village where, in July, the US military raided the home of Shaaker Mahmoud Moklef. Suspecting him of being an IED engineer, they tossed concussion grenades into the rear yard, then blew the front door off with explosives. The soldiers entered the courtyard–guns blazing–killing the 52-year old farmer along with his wife and son. Shaaker’s two daughters survived–the oldest required surgery for a gunshot wound to the leg. No IED making gear was found.
Ali, one of Shaaker’s brothers, looks deeply angered and saddened when talking about the killing of his brother and his brother’s family. However, for Ali, and his older sibling Jamal, the brutal deaths were only the beginning. For months, they were unable to locate the bodies of their family members and perform a proper burial. The corpses had been disappeared by the perpetrators. In the case of Shaaker’s son, the body has still not been delivered to the family thus ensuring their emotional wounds remain open.
Inside the home of Ali, the Sheikh and I drink hot, sweet tea with the younger brother and Jamal. Ali painfully recounts the story of attempting to track down the body of Shaaker’s wife. After many months, they learned that she was buried behind a military hospital in the ancient city of Babel, just to the south of Baghdad. According to Ali, as the bulldozer began to exhume the woman’s body, other corpses were uncovered, revealing a mass grave. When the wife’s body was disinterred, they found that her hands were still bound.
Before the incident, the oldest daughter, Ala, was the top of her class receiving the highest marks amongst her peers. Now, explains Ali, “she’s traumatized, always getting zeros.” Following the gunning down of her parents and brother, she was transported to the hospital in a helicopter lying next to the bodies of her slain parents and brother.
Walking from Ali’s house toward the scene of the July carnage, a thick fog engulfs the low-cut homes of al-Sigaria. The swaying palms rustle–serenading our somber approach. We make our way through the twisted metal remains of the front door and enter the courtyard.
We meet the two daughters. Heads bowed, their posture, their eyes, and their silence confirm the violence which happened here. Despite their apparent sadness, they still exude an aura of dignity–welcoming us into their home.
Back in front of the home, by the kobuz oven, the Sheikh says: “This is a poor village. The Arab people here do not have many possessions, but they are rich in their hearts.” The Sheikh contrasts this assessment by repeating an earlier description of Americans. “Only monsters are capable of treating people so badly.”
We leave al-Sigaria–lunch awaits us back at the Sheikh’s house. As he drives his modest white sedan, I tell him the next time I come to Ramadi, I hope that I can visit him and his family in a free Iraq–a country without a dictator or an occupying army. He responds, “You are always welcome. Your home will be in our hearts and our eyes.”
Here in Ramadi, the Sheikh and others, describe an assault on their culture which is playing out like the history of the Crusades. In the West, the occupation of Iraq is pitched as a project of liberation–of bringing freedom to a country which for many years was compromised by the brutal apparatus of Saddam Hussein’s regime. However, from the perspective of those in the heart of the so-called Sunni Triangle, Hussein has been replaced by a far worse entity–one that keeps the population subservient, but also sets out to undermine their way of life.
As we re-enter the tempest of central Ramadi–stacked traffic and bustling market place–the Sheikh says, “One day, those living in the East will be able to live along side those from the West. Then there will be true peace.” As we pull out of town and head for Route 10, we pass a long line of vehicles waiting for patrol, an Iraqi Police checkpoint, and more US military patrols trawling for action.
ROB ESHELMAN is a San Francisco-based journalist currently working in Iraq. His articles have appeared in the Brooklyn Rail and Counterpunch. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com.