Riding south on Highway 8 out of Baghdad, I scanned the sprawling collection of one-level, sand colored buildings and their corrugated steel fences that cobbled together along the two lane asphalt highway. In another moment, I could have been driving down the streets in my hometown where the trailer parks and junkyards provide a similar backdrop for the hardscrabble scenery. Unlike in Lumberton, Texas, though, in Iraq rusted cars lay beside goats and donkeys, while women walked to the market draped in black robes from head to toe. Here and there smoke rose from the houses. Gray tendrils from burning trash and pungent compost mingled with household aromas of baking bread and freshly washed laundry. Caught by the breeze, the jumbled odor carried through the open window of the Humvee. It was not as unpleasant as it was striking.
It was May 2004. I had been in Iraq for two months. Transplanted from my sterile, sanitized life in the United States, I was still overwhelmed by the raw reality of daily life in Baghdad. I had grown accustomed to measuring the severity of my day by the amount of time I spent in traffic or the tone of my boss’s latest e-mail. Somehow I had let those banal experiences desensitize me to the magnitude of man’s daily struggle, where under sweat-soaked brows he labored strenuously simply to exist. The rising smoke represented a day’s work-a small, successful step forward for all to see. I inhaled the sweet, earthy smell and savored the charcoaled hopes and burning desires that had stoked it into existence. I glanced sideways at a woman and child struggling to carry an oversized burlap bag of produce to their flimsy roadside market stand. I admired their pride and sense of purpose, traits that had historically made Iraqis resistant to foreign occupation. I needed to find a way to give them hope and patience with the American soldiers and the fledging Iraqi government. If I could not give them a better opportunity to wait for, their determination and willingness to sacrifice would find a willing outlet in the insurgency that was eager to exploit their impatience.
Further down the road, Iraqi children of all ages played soccer with shiny new balls that American soldiers had recently handed out during one of our patrols. Marked with professional teams’ logos from Europe and America, soccer balls were our most popular item. Hundreds of children would routinely besiege the soldiers and ask for balls to replace the makeshift rolls of tape, plastic and laundry with which they were currently playing. A cloud of dust enveloped the makeshift field as the nylon balls ricocheted erratically across the bare ground between the highway and an abandoned railroad track. The children had not adjusted to the new balls’ improved buoyancy. Occasionally the kids would pause long enough to allow the throngs of goats and their transient herders to pass by. The goats would scavenge over the trash caught along the rails and drink from the pools of raw sewage that stood along the roadside. A flurry of young hands flailed in the air alternatively waving at us and shooting imaginary guns at us. As we passed, the game stopped and the children took turns waving at us and giving us their middle finger, depending on whether or not they were screaming requests or insults. Between the insurgents and the soldiers, the children received so many conflicting messages, they did not know what to believe. At least they had soccer to provide a refuge. In those friendly games no one asked them at gunpoint who they were playing for or why they were playing. They could be kids without consequence, although like everything else, that would eventually change.
Within minutes our convoy of three Humvees passed beneath a huge pair of crossed swords, allegedly cast from a mold of Saddam’s own hands and enlarged to enormous size. The monument marked the southern city limit of Baghdad, and the row of Iraqi Police vehicles just beyond its shadow marked a police checkpoint. The tightly packed traffic, crowded with freshly imported luxury sedans, worn-out passenger cars, and rusted freight trucks, aggressively jostled for position as each hoped to avoid a random stop and search by the police.
A truck filled with watermelons trundled beside a bus full of pilgrims traveling to the holy city of Najaf that the police had motioned pull over into a search queue. Curious passengers pulled back the black curtains on the bus, eying our passing trucks with suspicion. Although the Shi’a had welcomed the invasion initially, there had been significant changes to the relationship. Disenchantment with the pace of American progress and political flip-flopping in post-invasion power structures had allowed a charismatic rogue Shi’a cleric named Muqtada Al-Sadr to amass an army of disgruntled followers. One month ago, a battle between his followers and American soldiers in Najaf had angered most of the devout Shi’a, who saw the fighting as a religious transgression. Regardless of their personal feelings about the cleric, they blamed the United States and the American soldiers for bringing violence to a holy city. Although the Coalition powers in the Green Zone had made numerous overtures to the Shi’a leadership, the icy stares and tightly clutched fists on the bus showed me that the Iraqis had not regained their confidence in Americans.
As the traffic came to a standstill, I directed our convoy to the shoulder of the road, and we bypassed the checkpoint with a quick wave to the police and to the pilgrims. So far none of the coalition overtures had restored the confidence of the Shi’a, but if my plan succeeded today, the Shi’a in my neighborhood would have a reason to believe in American promises.
We were traveling a few miles further south of the checkpoint, beyond the edges of the sprawl created by legions of impoverished Shi’a who had arrived in the last few months to look for opportunity in Baghdad. We were going to a junkyard created by the initial American invasion force, which was nothing more than a mountainous collection of Iraqi Army vehicles abandoned and piled together as scrap. Many were tanks and armored personnel carriers destroyed by American air strikes in the invasion. Scavengers had begun devouring these piles of metal, cutting them and piling them onto trucks for export to Turkey, Iran, and Jordan—as far away as China. Made of high-quality alloy, these vehicles represented a sizable return on investment for the looters who were daring enough to orchestrate the pillaging. Although there was technically no law against this activity, many members of the local community had expressed outrage that they were not receiving a percentage of the proceeds, nor were they given a chance to work on the dumping sites. Their dissatisfaction came not from the idea that a potentially illegal activity was taking place but rather from the fact that the profits were not being shared locally. After they made their case at a recent neighborhood council meeting, I had vowed to intervene on their behalf, if only to bolster my standing as the new governance officer for the area.
The council comprised secular and religious leaders and was chaired by a senior tribal sheik named Said Mallek. I met with it every week to listen to its members’ grievances and offer them solutions. At first, it seemed odd that I would be involved in a plan to extort money from a quasi-legal operation like this smuggling operation, but my credibility with the council lay in my ability to quickly and satisfactorily resolve its problems, not in my military authority. On the council’s behalf, I had agreed to investigate and, if possible, help the neighborhood derive some revenue from it. Said Mallek had previously tried to get a piece of the action but had been outgunned and out-muscled by the smugglers. He had appealed to me to restore the dignity of his tribe and authority of the council by returning to the councilmen a right to benefit from these “resources” located within their tribal boundary. At first, I had been skeptical of his true intentions. Said Mallek’s chiseled, gray-bearded, olive face never betrayed his true emotions. The man was a survivor. He had shown me his aged, tattered Communist Party membership card, but he had also told me that he was a Ba’ath Party believer. His shifting allegiances were those of an opportunist who might become an ally if I could prove him to be a worthy partner.
Father of Money: Buying Peace in Baghdad is published by Potomac Books, Inc. (available June 2011)