While sitting here at my desk struggling to find the perfect attention grabbing line with which to open this article, I focus my gaze upon the small silver ring I have been wearing on the middle finger of my right hand every day for the past 10 months. This seemingly insignificant distraction just so happens to be the fundamental symbol of my inspiration for writing this article. It is nothing but a simple trinket that, aside from its obvious Arabic/Mid-Eastern design pattern, looks as if I could have retrieved it from a bubble gum dispenser at the local supermarket. However, the ethereal emotional strings that link this modest bauble to my heart are beyond precious to me and worth as much or more than any of my other material possessions.
The ring was a friendly gift from an Iraqi man with whom I worked while on a deployment to Iraq in the summer of 2005. He was a soft-spoken, middle aged man with a round belly and a gentle soul; his name was Hajji Haitham. He had earned the “Hajji” title for completing the highly respected religious trek to Mecca when he was a young man. He and his brother Laith, who also worked with us, were Sunni Muslims and former Iraqi Intelligence officers of the Saddam regime. Following Saddam’s ousting, Hajji Haitham, his brother Laith and a few hundred other former Iraqi intelligence employees, as well as new post-war hires, began working alongside American intelligence agents to establish a new Iraqi Intelligence Service. The agency’s objective is to support the emerging democratic government and assist coalition forces in intelligence collection and analysis; according to the “Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for the Transitional Period”, Chapter 3, Article 27D, dated 08 March 2004, “shall collect information, assess threats to national security, and advise the Iraqi government. This Service shall be under civilian control, shall be subject to legislative oversight, and shall operate pursuant to law and in accordance with recognized principles of human rights.” Like Hajji Haitham, the majority of the Iraqis I worked with were Sunni Muslims, but there was a profound sprinkling of Shiite Muslims and Christians, and even a significant female populace that composed a percentage of the workforce.
When I arrived on my first day of work and discovered that I would be working side-by-side with Iraqi civilians and even former Ba’ath Party members, I fully expected to be disrespected and ogled barbarically; but my new coworkers were a far cry from the ignorant, heathen, womanizing degenerates our media often portrays typical Mid-Easterners as being. I quickly realized that I had been severely mistaken in my negatively preconceived and stereotypical perception of the Iraqi people. They were predominantly members of the middle and upper-middle classes of Baghdad society; most were in non-polygamous marriages, wore fashionable western style corporate or business casual attire in the workplace and were familiar with and accepting of American customs and mannerisms.
I developed a uniquely compelling relationship with many of the Iraqis with whom I interacted on a daily basis and found it more enjoyable to socialize with them than some of my American counterparts. It was an interesting two-way learning process that I reveled in and absorbed like a sponge. At the time of my arrival in country I could barely locate Iraq on a world map, four months later I was well versed in Iraqi culture, history, and even had an elementary grasp of basic Arabic phrases and greeting. The Iraqis were equally enamored with me and my stories of young-adult American culture and life in the U.S.A. They were good people; patriotic people who wanted to rebuild their country and see it succeed and compete with the modern world.
Rubah, an engineering graduate of Baghdad University, explained to me, “America is great country with many wonderful things; we want to be like that. This is why we work with Americans and help them to make Iraq better.”
This seemed to be the common sentiment amongst most of the Iraqis I socialized with, both at work and throughout the country. I realized there was a slight inconsistency between the concepts of the Iraqi people and the American government regarding the overthrow of Saddam’s regime and the redevelopment of the country. America’s agenda was to liberate an oppressed society from its tyrannical dictator and put the power into the hands of the people using a democratic government as the vessel. The Iraqis’ hopes it seems, were that the Americans were coming to simply push Saddam aside, hoist an American flag in central Baghdad and basically declare Iraq the 51st U.S. state, with shopping malls, fast food chains and Disney World to follow shortly. I don’t think they realized that they were going to have to work so hard to support themselves and secure the country on their own. I believe this is one of the significant factors that contributed to the disenchantment of many Iraqis following the initial arrival of U.S. troops and the collapse of the old regime.
Like most of the Iraqi civilians who support the U.S. and Coalition forces, my coworkers were constantly under threat from the insurgency and terrorist organizations for working with the Americans. They, as well as their family members, were often kidnapped, tortured and murdered for cooperating with the U.S. led invasion. In early 2005, an even more perilous threat against my coworkers and new friends emerged and quickly gained momentum and power. An arm of the very government and organization they were supporting and helping to build reached out and began attacking them.
Due to the Shi’ite domination – with its significant Iranian backing – of the new Iraqi government, massive anti-Sunni sentiments spread like wildfire. The Interior Ministry’s personal security brigade, known as Badr Forces, evolved into a full-scale death squad rounding up and executing numerous Sunni Muslims who held positions in the former government. Badr Forces specifically targeted former intelligence operatives like Hajji Haitham and many of my other fellow coworkers because of their involvement in the 1980’s war between Iraq and Iran. Many members of the new government felt it was payback time for the abuses the Sunnis assisted Saddam in dishing out to the Iranian and Shi’ite people. To draw a comparison, it is similar to the maltreatment innocent southern Confederates received following the end of the Civil War when the Carpetbaggers and Union Army rolled into their cities and towns.
For several months, at least one of our Iraqi employees was kidnapped every 72 hours. Their tortured corpses were usually discovered dumped in alleys 2-3 weeks after their disappearance. The employees begged my bosses for help and protection against the secretarian crimes. “Why you no help us? Why you not confront the new government and go after Badr Forces for these horrible things they are doing?” But these pleas were usually met with a shrug and a response of, “I’m sorry but it is not our business or in our control to interfere with such occurrences.”
I felt helpless and ashamed that we, the American liberators, were doing nothing to protect the people who were risking everything -their homes, their lives and the lives of their families – to work with us and support our cause. I often asked myself, “How can we expect these people to continue backing the American agenda when we leave them fully exposed and vulnerable to the enemy?” It was a textbook case of red-tape bureaucratic politics that adversely affected both parties and thwarted our overall mission.
For most of my time in country I remained relatively disconnected from the violence and dangers of Baghdad life outside the quiet Green-Zone checkpoints. In the beginning of my deployment, I rarely left the secured areas and did not personally know any U.S. casualties nor any Iraqi victims of the Badr Forces war party. Unfortunately, this impervious existence did not last forever. One morning my Iraqi translator informed me that Hajji Haitham had been kidnapped and no one had heard anything regarding his whereabouts. I immediately glanced down at the ring he had given me a few weeks prior to his disappearance and was slapped in the face by the cruel realities of a war torn world. I felt that there had to be some kind of mistake – people I personally know and share friendships with do not get kidnapped and murdered. These things happen to other people, not me.
Exhausting every connection Laith had with the Americans and within the new government, he finally managed to track down his brother. He learned that Hajji Haitham had indeed been ‘arrested” by members of Badr Forces and was being held in an Interior Ministry prison. I was relieved to know that he was still alive and not in the hands of the insurgency (meaning I probably wouldn’t have to see his decapitated corpse on any internet video) but this was still little consolation; I still knew Badr Forces was just as likely to murder him as any terrorist organization. I struggled to grasp how such a situation was even possible. The Interior Ministry was an official department in the new government that was implemented and supported by the American forces; Hajji Haitham worked for a separate department within the new government equally supported and even controlled by the American government, meaning everyone is “supposedly” on the same team, yet Hajji Haitham’s life was in grave danger and our hands were tied.
The prison in which Hajji Haitham was held was the same illegal Interior Ministry prison an American special forces unit liberated several weeks after Hajji Haitham’s capture. Unfortunately they were too late for my friend. Hajji Haitham’s tortured body was dumped in a garbage field in a small village called Badrah Wo Gasan near the Iranian border. He had 30 holes in various areas of his body, most likely the result of a power drill, and a single gunshot wound to the back of the head.
I grew up in the blink of an eye that summer. I learned about many vicious and dark aspects of reality that my 22 years of sheltered American childhood and adolescence had shielded me from. I was cruelly introduced to and taught the underlying meaning of a common word whose roots below the surface are entangled with a conveyer of true evil – CORRUPTION. It is a daunting experience when you finally open your eyes and realize the world is a vulnerable sphere of shameless imbalance and immoral malfeasance.