Baghdad Babylon: Hope and Despair in Divided Iraq

By in Iraq

When describing Iraq, the word "peace" is seldom used. Truth be told, the Americans have restored order to many parts of the county. But Iraq remains fractured, and where new schools are built today, bombs could explode tomorrow.

The "Hands of Victory" in Baghdad's Green Zone: The US military is more successful in Iraq than the world wants to believe.
DER SPIEGEL / Agentur Focus / Tina Hager

The "Hands of Victory" in Baghdad's Green Zone: The US military is more successful in Iraq than the world wants to believe.

The Iraq war came within a hair of returning to Ramadi in early July. The attackers had already gathered four kilometers (about 2.5 miles) south of the city, on the banks of the Nasr canal. Between 40 and 50 men dressed in light uniforms were armed like soldiers and prepared to commit a series of suicide bombings. They had already strapped explosive vests to their bodies and loaded thousands of kilograms of explosives, missiles and grenades onto two old Mercedes trucks. But their plan was foiled when Iraqis intent on preserving peace in Ramadi betrayed them to the Americans.

Army Units of the 1st Battalion of the 77th United States Armored Regiment -- nicknamed the "Steel Tigers" and sent from an American base in Schweinfurt, Germany -- approached from the north and south. But the enemy was strong and they quickly realized that in order to defeat it, they needed air support. Before long, Apache combat helicopters, F-18 Hornet and AV-8 Harrier jets approached, the explosions from their guns lighting up the night sky on June 30.

The "Battle of Donkey Island," named after the wild donkeys native to the region, lasted 23 hours. The Americans forced the enemy to engage in trench warfare in the rough brush, eventually trapping them in the vast riverside landscape. It wasn't until later, after the soldiers lost two of their own and killed 35 terrorists, that they realized the scope of the disaster they had foiled.

Three of the captured attackers, who claimed to be members of al-Qaida in Iraq, revealed their plan to plunge Ramadi into chaos once again by staging multiple attacks in broad daylight. By unleashing a devastating series of suicide attacks on the city, they hoped to destroy the delicate peace in Ramadi and bring the war back to its markets, squares, streets and residential neighborhoods.

Two weeks after the battle, Ian Lauer is walking through Ramadi's western Tameem neighborhood, the edges of which melt into the vast Syrian Desert. Lauer, a captain, is in charge of Charlie Company. He hasn't forgotten the Battle of Donkey Island. The members of his company have just emerged from four armor-plated Humvees and are now strolling toward a nearby mosque.

"A few months ago, you couldn't have taken a single step here without getting shot at,” says Lauer, a fair-skinned 30-year-old who still seems oddly pale under his suntan “We couldn't leave our fucking camp without being fucking shot at," he says. "Now it's peaceful and it's fucking great."

The Turning Point

In October, 90 "incidents" were reported in Tameem, an area no larger than a few city blocks in Berlin. Twenty of those incidents involved attacks on US troops by gangs of insurgents. Wherever the Americans went they were shot at from apartment buildings, three times with rockets and four times with rocket-propelled grenades. Sixteen remote-controlled bombs exploded along the neighborhood's streets, 14 homemade explosive devices were found and defused, snipers attacked the occupying troops twice and one hidden car bomb was found, ready for use. And so the story continued: throughout November, December, January and February.

Reporter Ullrich Fichtner (left), 42, and photographer Tina Hager, 43, spent three weeks in Iraq researching the current SPIEGEL cover story. For Fichtner, it was his fourth trip to Iraq since the war broke out in March 2003.
DER SPIEGEL / Agentur Focus

Reporter Ullrich Fichtner (left), 42, and photographer Tina Hager, 43, spent three weeks in Iraq researching the current SPIEGEL cover story. For Fichtner, it was his fourth trip to Iraq since the war broke out in March 2003.

By March, however, the number of incidents reported in Tameem had dropped to 43, including only four direct attacks with rifles and pistols and one rocket attack. There were no bombings, snipers, rocket-propelled grenades or car bombs. And the leaders of the region's 23 powerful clans were finally meeting with US commanders for "security conferences," while the imams from the city's mosques met with the military's chaplains.

The Iraqis in Ramadi, almost all Sunnis, had been worn down by chronic violence. Many had been victims of kidnappings or blackmail at the hands of mafia-like terrorist groups. They had finally come to the realization that, in the long run, the Americans were less of a threat and offered more hope than the fanatical holy warriors from Iraq and abroad.

Families began sending their sons to join the new Iraqi police force and military and fathers ran for municipal offices. They began cooperating with US military officials, turning in bombers and revealing their weapons caches, all while going about their daily lives, running their businesses, working as contractors, shipping agents and garbage collectors. Teachers returned to their classrooms, doctors began treating patients again and store owners restocked their shelves. Iraqis were now building the barbed wire barriers around the city, constructed to force travelers through checkpoints. Iraqis even manned the checkpoints as the Americans -- the Iraqis' former enemies -- retreated to the background, watching over as the city made a fresh start.

Since June, Ramadi residents have only known the war from televison. Indeed, US military officials at the Baghdad headquarters of Operation Iraqi Freedom often have trouble believing their eyes when they read the reports coming in from their units in Ramadi these days. Exploded car bombs: zero. Detonated roadside bombs: zero. Rocket fire: zero. Grenade fire: zero. Shots from rifles and pistols: zero. Weapons caches discovered: dozens. Terrorists arrested: many.

An Irritating Contraction

Ramadi is an irritating contradiction of almost everything the world thinks it knows about Iraq -- it is proof that the US military is more successful than the world wants to believe. Ramadi demonstrates that large parts of Iraq -- not just Anbar Province, but also many other rural areas along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers -- are essentially pacified today. This is news the world doesn't hear: Ramadi, long a hotbed of unrest, a city that once formed the southwestern tip of the notorious "Sunni Triangle," is now telling a different story, a story of Americans who came here as liberators, became hated occupiers and are now the protectors of Iraqi reconstruction.

It's Friday, the Muslim day of rest. The city is practically asleep, the air filled a powder-fine sand the soldiers like to call "moon dust." Though still morning, it's 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 degrees Celsius) outside. In the afternoon, the Iraqi national soccer team will play against Australia in the Asian Cup and win the match, 3:1. Sporting victories, of course, are something Iraqis haven't had much time to think about in the past four years. Shots will be heard in the city after the final whistle, bullets of joy fired off into the blue sky, salutes to a new Iraq.

The square in front of the mosque, a trash-covered wasteland between ruined rows of houses, fills up with people at the end of Friday prayers. Children hang on the American soldiers like grapes on a vine, plucking at their trousers, vying for their attention, for a glance, a piece of candy, a dollar, gazing up at the big foreigners as if they were gods.

The Americans run into acquaintances in the crowd. After being stationed in the city for 10 months, they have become a familiar sight. Bearded men greet the soldiers with hugs and kisses, and passersby hand them cold cans of lemonade. "Thank you, Mister," "Hello, Mister," "How are you, Mister?" they say. They talk about paint for schools and soccer jerseys, and they invite the Americans over for lunch. The Iraqis pose for photos with them, making “V's” for “victory” with their fingers.

Lauer's unit arrives at the home of Ali Chudeir, a charming 30-year-old construction company manager in need of a good dentist. His English is good, but only, he says, because his father practically pounded five new vocabulary words into his head each day as a kid. Bodyguards armed with Kalashnikov rifles lurk around his front door. Chudeir still doesn't fully trust the newfound peace that has come to town. The terrorists, he warns, could return. They are still lurking outside the city, randomly attacking people, he says. “This will continue for a long time. That's why the Americans should stay here longer.”

It’s clear that Lauer and Chudeir have become friends. They have a lot in common: Both are 30 and have children, Lauer three and Chudeir four. When the Iraqi heard that his American friend was shot in the back at the Battle of Donkey Island, he says, "My family and I wept and prayed for him." The bullet that had hit Lauer stopped just in time to spare his life. It ripped a hole in his T-shirt, but produced nothing more serious than a large bruise thanks to the Kevlar vest he was wearing. But Lauer doesn't like to talk about it, saying only, "I'm a lucky bastard."

Five American officers sit on sofas in front of Chudeir's desk, behaving as if they were on leave, their guns leaning carelessly against a wall, their bulletproof vests removed as they watch Arab MTV on television. Anyone who has satellite TV in Iraq can receive up to 200 stations, including Egyptian Koran channels and Saudi Arabian religious broadcasts, "Pulp Fiction" and "Star Wars" on movie channels, Japanese game shows and English animal series. Five or six news stations are on the air 24 hours a day, while others broadcast European football matches, shows about makeup, cooking, Bollywood movies and luxury car commercials -- mirages of a more carefree life beyond Iraq.

Dinner arrives and it's a true feast, with a spread of kebabs and large pieces of roast chicken, salad and rice with coriander leaves. Chudeir serves sumptuous meals whenever the Americans come to visit, not only because he is a good host, but also because he is grateful to his American friends. Thanks to the American engineers, he says, the city has up to 10 hours of electricity a day now. "We have never had this in all of Ramadi's history. In the end, we will live like civilized people."

As his friends leave, Chudeir waves goodbye with both arms while other neighbors to the left and right do the same. Once again, passersby make the “V” for “victory” sign, greeting the soldiers, "Hello, Mister. How are you?" They're like scenes from another country, another city, a different movie.

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