The world marks the fifth year of the war in Iraq with no end in sight. Just as others in my generation could not remember a time when there was no Vietnam war, my life seems to have begun with the current massacre. What came before has been erased.
I was just a whippersnapper of 65 back then when in February 2003, I signed on with the Human Shields and rode up to Baghdad in a London double decker bus to interpose my body between Bush’s bombs and the Iraqi people. Most of us were sure we were going to die and we were prepared to pay the price to stop the war before it began. But we didn’t die and we didn’t stop the war. Five years later here I am, to my amazement, turning 70. The war like my life goes on. And on.
As the crude reality of imminent attack closed in on Iraq, Saddam flew a bunch of us Shields up to Mosul 240 miles north of Baghdad during the first week of March 2003. Mosul is Iraq’s largest Sunni majority city and with a population of 1.7 million, the nation’s third city behind Baghdad and Basra. Despite the Sunni majority, Mosul has a lively ethnic mix. Bordered by Kurdistan, a substantial portion of the population wears the Kurdish colors. Turkmen, Christians, and Yazedis – the non-Muslim sect slaughtered by unknowns in August 2007 – are all players in the ethnic push and pull. There are few Shiaas in Mosul.
Saddam rewarded the loyalty of Mosul’s Sunnis by selecting many of his elite army officers from the city and the now-outlawed Baath party ruled local politics. In the summer of 2003, Saddam’s sons, Uday and Qusay, on the run from their American pursuers, sought refuge in Mosul only to be taken out by U.S. sharpshooters when they were betrayed by a local Judas.
But all that came months later. When we flew into Mosul in the first days of March 2003, Saddam’s minders had the buses waiting. We toured the local public hospital, viewed the dying babies, and were shown the empty supply rooms. We visited an abandoned Mosul University campus and stood before the Winged Lion of the Assyrians that guarded the gates to the city. We visited a communications center bombed by the first Bush in 1991 and a Christian church, also bombed by the Americans. We drove out across the lush valley and climbed up to a first century Christian monastery carved out of the mountainside. The blackened cubicles were covered with centuries of candle wax.
It was raining hard, a cold dense rain, and the flocks of sheep on the road were soaked through. Everything was a deep dark green – Mosul is in the mountains above the deserts of central and southern Iraq. We ate a huge lunch at Saddam’s expense. There was plenty of Arak, “the milk of lions”, to wash it all down. I bought a Saddam watch from a street peddler outside the airport.
Mosul, the capital of Nenevah province, a region celebrated for its many now-looted ruins, was a strategically sited city in the middle of the U.S.-imposed no-fly zone. Nenevah abuts Syria on the northwest and Turkey further north and it became a critical transit point for black market oil out of the country and foreign fighters flocking to join the resistance further south.
The Sunnis of Mosul bristled at the presence of U.S. troops who encamped on the outskirts of town and often drew fire from the locals. 22 American troops were killed when a suicide bomber entered their mess tents in December 2004.
The November 2004 U.S. push into Fallujah just days after George Bush had been re-elected president, triggered an uptick in fighting in Mosul as insurgents fleeing that western city moved north to Nenevah. U.S. convoys sent south from Mosul to join their comrades in Fallujah sometimes crossed paths with the rebels on the roads.
While the brutal battle for control of Fallujah raged, a similar battle was joined in Mosul. The militants seized whole districts, attacked police stations and prisons, and confronted Iraqi army patrols. U.S. troops were poured back into the fray. Repeated curfews were declared.
The battle for Mosul has ebbed and flowed ever since, sometimes more intensely than in Baghdad. Every night, bodies are dumped in the neighborhoods to the left bank and the right of the Tigris river. Explosions and gunshots puncture the sleep of the citizenry. Last year, as the Bush surged kicked in down river in Baghdad, a fresh wave of insurgents converged on Mosul compounding the daily violence, some of which is recorded police blotter-style by the Mosul Observer.
The “Killing Harvest” as the paper mordantly labeled the reports seems particularly preoccupied with the profession of the victims. In 2007, according to my casual count, one or more barbers, butchers, printers, jewelers, policewomen and men, bakery workers, “wage earners”, wood merchants, opthomologists, an ex-Iraqi body building champ fleeing sectarian violence further south, and a woman who had converted a room in her house into a beauty salon, were slain in Mosul. Doctors were both kidnapped and killed with some regularity. Ditto with journalists. Mosul University professors and their students were popular targets – the “Killing Harvest” meticulously lists the victims’ faculties and colleges. Agriculture. Statistics. Humanities.
Many of these deaths and maimings are attributed to “explosive devices” and others to drive-by shootings. Car bombs in cars set off car bombs in houses and whole neighborhoods collapse. This is apparently what happened this past January 22nd in the Zajilli district where a grain storehouse in which explosives had been cached blew sky high, killing 60 and wounding 280 (Red Crescent.) When the Nenevah police chief showed up to survey the damage, he was stoned by survivors whose homes had been destroyed. A suicide bomber hurled himself at Brigadier General Saleh Ahmad al-Jabouri, killing and wounding a score more.
The Killing Harvest reports also kept tabs on the yet-unidentified bodies dumped in the districts, some charred beyond recognition, some missing their heads. Sometimes the bodies are hung up under the bridges as a warning to all who walk there.
The killings are spread throughout the city. On March 30th, 2007 the Forensic Pathology hospital received 24 bodies in 24 hours killed in 18 separate incidents. Last April was the cruelest month. 64 bodies were collected during the last week of the month. There were 24 mortar attacks, 29 explosions, and 23 armed clashes. Totals for the whole month were 244 homicides, 137 explosions, and 123 armed “incidents” – the surge in violence in Mosul obeys Bush’s surge strategy in Baghdad.
About a third of Mosul’s killing harvest deaths are attributable to U.S. military kills. “United States helicopters shell X neighborhood in X district, killing or wounding X number of civilians” is a frequent entry. Three women. Four brothers. An 11 year-old child.
U.S. troops blow the doors off homes and shoot the homeowner when he tries to protect his family. On May 16th, after six car bombs had gone off in the city and two bridges across the Tigris were blown, “U.S. Army soldiers shot Kamal Abdul Baqi, an 83 year-old retired teacher, when he refused to allow their guard dogs to search his house. Mr. Abdul Barqi is both blind and deaf.” (Mosul Observer.)
As the Battle of Mosul has resurged with Bush’s surge, U.S. troops seem to be increasingly jumpy. When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates flew into that city on December 5th, two unidentified men were shot dead for “lunging” at U.S. soldiers. The troubled year ended appropriately enough December 31st when U.S. troops shot a Christian couple in the head after the Americans’ patrol had been targeted in the Tahreer district.
I have been living in Mosul for months now without ever having checked out of this cavernous hotel in the old quarter of Mexico City where I’ve been in residence for the past 23 years. In a book project begun upon in 2006, I’ve been collaborating with a spirited Iraqi teenager from Mosul, weaving together four years of “Iraqigirl’s” blogs (iraqigirl.blogspot.com) into a narrative (working title: “Iraqigirl – Coming of Age Under U.S. Occupation.)
Iraqigirl has indeed come of age during Bush’s war in Mosul. When she began her blog in July 2004, she chatted up her Barbies and her bears and posted pictures of her pink room on the Internet. Then she would tell about walking outside her door on the way to school and finding a corpse in the street. “That’s nothing”, a school chum tells her, “there was a body without a head on my street.”
Iraqigirl’s life is fixated on family and school – school and studying provide a stabilizing space in the middle of the chaos of war. But sometimes when she gets to school, her classroom has been hit by a missile. Just getting to school can put her life and that of her family at risk. One day, her dad, a respected doctor in Mosul, was roughly pulled from his car by U.S. troops, forceably searched and made to stand in the broiling sun for hours while Iraqigirl’s sister and her two year-old daughter sat in the sweltering car. When the baby began to cry, her mother was afraid to reach for the bottle of water in her purse because any movement could have caused the U.S. soldier standing by to shoot her.
Iraqigirl’s relatives have been killed. Some have had to leave Iraq. Her beloved grandfather grew weary and died LAST May. “Bomb cars” break out the kitchen window all the time but the family no longer replaces them. What’s the use?
Iraqigirl’s resentment at how Bush and his war have messed up her childhood is redemptive. “I’m 16. These should be the happiest years of my life. I should be a wild girl doing crazy foolish things” she complains, locked up one night after the next by the eternal curfews. “We go to sleep at 10 o’clock now like the chickens. Are we chickens?” she asks.
Black humor abounds. One day, her sister narrowly escaped a car bomb blast outside the university. When she returned home, as Iraqigirl tells it, Najma refused to do housework. “I was going to die today and you want me to wash the dishes?” she told her mom. Anne Frank’s ghost floats over the Mister Bean jokes Iraqigirl intersperses in the texts.
The year of Bush’s surge has been a rough one for Iraqigirl and for Mosul. The curfews keep her counting the walls (“there are still four in each room”) and she is terminally bored as only a teenager can be. Her college board exams were called off three times because of the war in Mosul. But there are pluses. “The sound of the American airplanes has helped this community to discover the value of silence.”
Now the al-Maliki government in association with its U.S. puppet masters has declared the Mother of All Battles to take Mosul back from the insurgents Bush’s surge brought to town and troops are reportedly massing for the final assault. The U.S. invaders have established dozens of checkpoints in the city and plans to build walls between neighborhoods. Iraqigirl is pessimistic about the future.
“Life is one thing we are not very good at
Your lost friend from where Iraq once was.
“IRAQIGIRL – COMING OF AGE UNDER U.S. OCCUPATION” is a manuscript looking for a publisher. Readers are encouraged to send contacts to email@example.com