Sunday, June 15, 2003

Thousands of Tragedies 

If there is anyone who doubts that our integrity has been stripped by the horrors of this war, read this, from the Washington Post. The last shreds of our humanitarian beliefs and intentions in Iraq are being destroyed and reduced to the wailings of the relatives of the dead:

THULUYA, Iraq -- Along orange groves and orchards of figs and pears watered by the timeless churn of the Tigris River, Hashim Mohammed Aani often sat before a bird cage he built of scrap wood and a loose lattice of chicken coop wire.

A chubby 15-year-old with a mop of curly black hair and a face still rounded by adolescence, he was quiet, painfully shy. Awkward might be the better word, his family said. For hours every day, outside a house perched near the riverbank, the youngest of six children languidly watched his four canaries and nightingale. Even in silence, they said, the birds were his closest companions.

On Monday morning, after a harrowing raid into this town by U.S. troops that deployed gunships, armored vehicles and soldiers edgy with anticipation, the family found Aani's body, two gunshots to his stomach, next to a bale of hay and a rusted can of vegetable oil. With soldiers occupying a house nearby, his corpse lay undisturbed for hours under a searing sun.

Lt. Arthur Jimenez, who commanded a platoon of the 4th Infantry Division near the house, said he did not know the details of Hashim's death. But he feared the boy was unlucky. "That person," he said, "was probably in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Are we winning over the Iraqi people? In my view, anyone still asking this question, and expecting an affirmative, is simply not in touch with their own basic humanity. From the same article:

By this weekend, the largest military operation since the war's end -- one involving 4,000 troops -- had wound down in this prosperous village 40 miles northwest of Baghdad, with no U.S. soldiers killed and little resistance. But in the aftermath, Thuluya has become a town transformed.

With grief over the death of Hashim and two others, the Sunni Muslim population here speaks of revenge. Those sentiments are mixed with confusion. A vast majority belonged to the Baath Party and now worry about how far the United States will cast a net to root out its former members. Bound together by clan and tribe, many have been uneasy since the U.S. forces tapped informers from Thuluya. One of them wore a burlap bag over his head as he fingered residents for the troops to question, igniting vows of bloody vendettas.

"I think the future's going to be very dark," said Rahim Hamid Hammoud, 56, a soft-spoken judge, as he joined a long line in paying his respects to Hashim this week. "We're seeing each day become worse than the last."

The echoes of Apache helicopters and F-16, A-10 and AC-130 warplanes soon after midnight Monday woke the four families of Hashim's relatives and signaled the start of the military thrust, dubbed Operation Peninsula Strike. The goal was to find elements of resistance fighters who have been ambushing U.S. troops, the military said. Within minutes, armored vehicles plowed down the dirt road to the families' compound. Humvees and troop transports followed.

From the other direction, on the banks of the Tigris near a reed-shrouded island, soldiers hurried from camouflage boats. They ran up a hill, near a small garden of okra and green beans and past a patch of purple flowers known as "prophet's carpet."

"We came here ready to fight," Jimenez recalled.

At the sound of their arrival, Hashim's cousin, Asad Abdel-Karim Ibrahim, said he went outside the gate with his parents, brother and two sisters. In his arms was his 7-month-old niece, Amal. They raised a white head scarf, but soldiers apparently did not see it. Ibrahim was shot in the upper right arm. He dropped the baby, who started screaming. Days later, Ibrahim was still wearing a piece of soiled tape placed on his back by the soldiers that read: "15-year-old male, GSW [gunshot wound] @ arm."

"The Americans were shouting in English, and we didn't know what they were saying," he said.

Around the corner, residents said soldiers searched the house of Fadhil Midhas, 19. Mentally retarded, he started shouting when soldiers put tape over his mouth, fearful that he would suffocate. Women there tried to explain -- more with hand gestures than words -- and residents said soldiers finally splashed water over Midhas's face in an attempt to quiet him.

In the commotion, Hashim ran away, headed toward the thick groves behind his house. Relatives said he was unarmed.

"He was trying to hide," said his brother, Riyadh, who was detained for four days. "He didn't know what to do."

U.S. troops and residents say about 400 residents were arrested in the sweep. By week's end, residents said, all but 50 were released from a makeshift detention center at an abandoned air base known as Abu Hleij, seven miles to the north. At the entrance, guarded by two soldiers who said no one was available to comment, graffiti painted in English read, "Welcome to Camp Black Knight."

U.S. officials described Operation Peninsula Strike as the centerpiece of a newly aggressive military campaign in a region of northwestern Iraq dominated by Sunni Muslims, who have long played a leadership role in Iraq and were the backbone of ousted president Saddam Hussein's three-decade rule. Since the beginning of May, 11 U.S. soldiers in Iraq have been killed in action, many of them in sniper shootings, hit-and-run attacks and ambushes along the Sunni crescent, which stretches west along the Euphrates and north along the Tigris.

"We understand animosity can be a result, but as we get bad actors and the quality of life improves, people will understand what we're trying to do," a U.S. military spokesman said today.

In Thuluya, many residents complained that the entire town felt punished by the operation. In their conversations about the wadhaa, or situation, there was a hint of anxiety over their future. While Iraq's Shiite majority often looks to its clergy, and the Kurds in the north are represented by two parties with warm relations with the United States, Sunnis are, to a degree, disenfranchised, many falling back on tribes whose authority has risen over the past decade.

"They carried out the raid here because we're Sunni and because Saddam was Sunni," said Ibrahim Ali Hussein, 60, a farmer with a white scarf tied loosely over his head. "After this operation, we think 100 Saddams is better than the Americans."

"We're not criminals," added Hussein Hamoud Mohammed, 54, a veterinarian and Baath Party member. "If they don't come in peace, then we'll attack them with our fists and feet. We'll even bite them."