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"Violence in Iraq Was Never Senseless"
Nir Rosen's Reflections on the State of Iraq as 2007 Draws to Close: Part 1 of 3
By NIR ROSEN 12/05/2007 10:31 AM ET
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - NOVEMBER 17: A member of the Iraqi Security Volunteers (ISV) stands on a street corner near children and US soldiers November 17, 2007 in the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq.
Chris Hondros/Getty
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - NOVEMBER 17: A member of the Iraqi Security Volunteers (ISV) stands on a street corner near children and US soldiers November 17, 2007 in the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq.

In April 2003 I moved into Baghdad’s upscale Mansur district, living with other journalists in a house with a small swimming pool, where I sat every night and watched bats swoop down from palm trees to sip the water or catch insects. In the distance, the persistent chatter of automatic weapons rang through the streets, as the anarchy that began with the American occupation turned violent. The house had one somnolent guard at night, armed with a Kalashnikov, to protect against robbery.

Walking home from the main street, which by May of that year already bustled with new businesses and restaurants, I could have purchased a rocket propelled grenade launcher or machine gun for around fifty dollars at impromptu gun markets on street corners not far from my house. As the occupation persisted, I stayed in less luxurious accommodations, but often visited the area. In April of 2006 as I was driving through Mansur’s main shopping drag, I passed two murdered corpses in the middle of the road.

In October of 2007 I once again lived in Mansur, this time in an ostentatious mansion obscenely decorated with every style imaginable--from Baroque to Arabic--with kitsch being the only unifying factor. It had belonged to a Baathist before Westerners rented it.

In the first three years of the occupation, Mansur was teeming with middle and upper class shoppers sampling from the expensive clothes and shoes, appliance stores, fresh juice shops and buying ice cream at the famous Al Rawad. Thursday evenings were the busiest. Now the shops that lined the long streets were shuttered closed all day and night. Equally unpredictable bony stray dogs and Iraqi security forces patrolled the wide boulevards. As in other cities that had gone through civil wars, such as Beirut and Mogadishu, the posh central areas get devastated and new centers get built in the periphery, in this case in the Sunni and Shiite areas. While I was there this Fall, several controversies distracted the media. Blackwater had again massacred Iraqi civilians while guarding American diplomats, making private security companies the latest scapegoat for the American failure in Iraq, accused of brutality, lawlessness and of subverting the US mission. Conveniently forgotten were the numerous civilian casualties caused by Coalition forces since the invasion. The Iraqi government attempted to ban Blackwater from Iraq but was either overridden or simply ignored by the American overlords. Turkey meanwhile had grown enraged that the PKK had a fortified base in the mountains of northern Iraq and that PKK fighters were crossing the border into Iraqi Kurdistan to rest, and go to the Makhmur refugee camp where they recruited or visited relatives.

As Turkey threatened to invade Iraq, the Americans who had invaded Iraq warned that a Turkish invasion would provoke instability. Instead, Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki and his government promised the Turks that they would put an end to the PKK. But the Iraqi government has no authority in Kurdistan.

Erbil, Suleimaniya and other Kurdish cities show no sign of the Iraqi state--no flag of Iraq, and no Arabic language. The border between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq is treated by the Kurds with the same vigilance as an international border. Many Iraqi Kurdish militiamen from Masud Barzani’s Democratic Party of Kurdistan also fought with the PKK. Even if they wanted to, it is unlikely that Iraq’s Kurds could easily dislodge the PKK, who have expected the Americans to evict them since 2003. While the American military has touted the success of the surge and the American media dutifully parroted this, if violence has declined in Baghdad, it was not a sign of success for the surge. The violence in Iraq was never senseless. It was logical and teleological and, like war, it was about politics through other means.

In Baghdad and other cities, Sunnis were removing Shiites and Shiites were removing Sunnis. Christians and Kurds were also victimized in some places. To the extent that violence between Iraqis has gone down, it has been because there are less people to kill. The division of Iraq into ethnic or sectarian homogenous zones has nearly been completed. Militias have consolidated control over neighborhoods, and have succeeded in killing or expelling all unwanted groups. As a result, more than one-and-a-half million Iraqi refugees now live in Syria, around 750,000 in Jordan, plus the more than two million internally displaced inside Iraq. In October 2007 there were still some Sunnis living in Rusafa, or east Baghdad, in the neighborhoods of Fadil, Zayuna, Baghdad Jadida, Sinaa, Karada, Waziriya, Adhamiya, Shaab, Kahera, Hai Tijar, Jisr Diyala, Nahrawan and Sleikh while west Baghdad, or Karkh, still had Shiites remaining in Alawi Hilla, Rahmania, Shawakeh, Karaimat, il Fahameh, il Aitaifiya, Kadhimiya, Shalchiyeh, Tochi, Iskan, Washash, Harthiya and Mansur.

Though Karkh had traditionally been dominated by Sunnis, Shiite militias now controlled most of it, and the only true Sunni strongholds remaining were Amriya, Hai Jamia, Khadhra, Mansur, Nafaq al Shurta and Ghazaliya. Shiites are still being expelled from Abu Ghraib in western Baghdad as well as Ghazaliya, Mansur, Dora, Sahat al Talaya, Sheikh Ali and Mushahada. Sunnis were still being expelled from Shuula, Dora, al Iskan, Washash, Tobchi and Palestine Street At the end of August, Muqtada al Sadr officially imposed a ceasefire on his militia, the Mahdi Army, but only to disassociate himself publicly from what he, along with the other main Shiite Islamist sectarian political parties that dominate the Iraqi government, privately support: the removal of Sunnis from Baghdad.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2: "Reigns of Terror, Both Shiite and Sunni"

Nir Rosen is a freelance journalist currently based in Beirut, Lebanon. He has spent years reporting from Iraq, writing for a number of publications, including the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and the New York Times Magazine, and authored a book on the Iraqi insurgency, Inside the Belly of the Green Bird.


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