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Surviving in Baquba…

In the desert that extends between Baquba and Baghdad, the Chief of Police for the little village of Nahrwan breathes in the fragrance of corpses. Judging by the odor, the Iraqi officer thinks the deaths occurred over a week ago. There's the metallic effluvium of just-shed blood. The more heady perfume of barely cold bodies. Finally there's the putrid smell of decomposing flesh that makes the heart heave and the head turn away. The odor that imprints itself inside you and comes back to haunt your nightmares. The smell of today's Iraq. A young American Sergeant present hugs one of his comrades, a little human warmth to conjure death away. "If that's not the odor of hell, then I don't know what is," he sighs.

The twenty exhumed corpses in this mass grave were all sent to Baghdad for identification. Only the horrible smell remains, imprisoned in the earth reddened by blood, in the shreds of viscera that straggle on the ground, ingrained in the blankets that had carried the dead. People stumble over bits of skull and jaw that Iraqi policemen set themselves to collecting in little plastic bags. Colonel Oscar Hall, the American military official in charge of this part of Diyala province, wanted to go to the scene personally to find clues: "It's a little like an Easter egg hunt, you never know what you'll find." The police chief explains to him that the people who were executed with a bullet in the forehead are not from the province.

Colonel Hall suggests to the Iraqi that just because he doesn't know them doesn't prove that they're not from here: "Iraqis lack rigor in their reasoning," he explains. "I spend hours peeling the onion skins of their logic." But the clues are contradictory. On the ground, plastic handcuffs were found, like only American military and bad guys use. "And yet, terrorists exhibit the bodies of the people they execute; they don't try to hide them in the desert," analyzes the officer, who finally leans toward "a settling of scores between Sunni and Shiia."

Religious War In the region of Baquba, a city close to the Iranian border, half Shiite and half Sunni, that's the obsession, the fantasy, and sometimes the harrowing reality. Even a few months ago in Iraq, the question of religious confession was taboo. Journalists who tried to learn the religious affiliation of their interlocutors received aggressive responses that the persons were Iraqi above all. The times of that patriotic reserve are now over. As, even if Americans have understood that the Sunni were not all terrorists nostalgic for Saddam's former regime, it is much simpler for them and for the new Iraqi leaders to exclude them from police and armed forces recruitment. To avoid spies who contaminate these high risk professions. The result: the Diyala province's forces of order are, for the vast majority, composed of Shiites and Kurds.

On patrol, when they search suspects' houses, the question has become a ritual. "Are you Shia or Sunni?" shouts Abraham - a Christian from Baghdad who serves as a translator for the American army - at a man who has hidden two Kalashnikovs in his closet. "He's a Sunni; I don't trust him; we have to test to see whether he has traces of explosives on his hands!" Among those left out in the rain of the new Iraq, suspicion is omnipresent. And the muscular methods of the Iraqi Army and Police aggravate confessional resentments still further. After a mortar attack on the town of Kanaan, seven suspects, all Sunni, were arrested and taken to Iraqi Police Headquarters to be interrogated. Abraham moves into the tiny cell where the prisoners are held: "We try to interrogate them before the Iraqis. When they hand suspects over to us, they've cooked them so well, they don't talk any more, they sing," he explains.

Certain attacks are, in fact, tribal reprisals for the muscular methods of the Iraqi Army against one of their members. An advocate of these brutal methods, Iraqi General Ishmael is a Kurd - whom the Americans have nicknamed "Smiley" - who heartily recommends setting fire to all villages that have originated attacks, under the worried gaze of American soldiers. As one soldier explains: "Smiley's great. He's not afraid of anything. If this shit hole has been cleaned out, it's partly thanks to him ..."

A few hours after the visit to the Nahrwan, an attack erupts at the check-point called Mohammed Sacran. When we get there, what is most surprising at first is the silence. A carpet of bullets blankets the ground. There's blood everywhere. Nine corpses, including that of a child. The bodies of policemen, a majority Shiites and Kurds, are hastily loaded into a van. An arm sticks out. Bodies piled on top of one another. there are so many deaths in this area that there's no time even to treat the remains with respect. Everything has to be cleaned up quickly so as not to undermine the Iraqis' morale still further. Policemen sob, overwhelmed, tired of this violence. Others throw up in a corner, repulsed by the scene. Yet these are the very same men one will find a few hours or a few days later in the same place without their helmets or their bullet-proof vests. Because the heat is unbearable. Because they believe their own hour is not yet come. Colonel Hall picks up one of the bullets lying at his feet and brandishes it threateningly under the nose of the new policemen in charge of the check-point. "What's better," asks the riled-up colonel: "to be hot or to be dead? If your men don't wear these fucking vests, you're going to attend their funerals!"

The next day, Colonel Hall visits the City Hall of Khan Bani Sad. The mayor of the little town - Naief al-Zaidai, one of the very few Sunni mayors in Diyala province - had asked to see him, urgently. And we were allowed to be present for the interview, all the way at the other end of the mayor's office. At first, the two men and their translators whispered, and we had to strain our ears to hear the conversation. Then the volume went up and the exchange got heated along with the tone. Edifying, their dialogue said much about what is taking place right now in Iraq.

"I asked to see you," the mayor explains, "because the situation is serious. Many people complain about the violence Iraqi police and soldiers carry out against detainees. That violence leads to reactions that snowball ... The coalition must help us."

"Why should we worry," Colonel Hall replies, "when the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior arrests bad guys? That's Iraqis' business; it doesn't concern the coalition."

"The Iraqi government is in the process of escalating the tension between Shia and Sunni tribes. At the Ministry of the Interior, they're all Shiites and the Badr Army is raiding Sunni houses, whether those of former friends of Saddam or not. And that's happening all over Iraq." "Is that a fact or an impression? Don't trust rumors. Remember when people were saying that garbage was being imported from Iran to be burned in the Baquba incinerator?"

"That's irrelevant to this. I'm talking about facts; go check out the list of houses that have been searched, the lists of people arrested. A poor schoolteacher. An imam. The coalition had interrogated them; the Ministry arrests them again. It's serious."

"I can't do anything about it. An Iraqi judge must determine their guilt. If they're innocent, they'll be set free. Don't worry."

"Aren't you going to do anything to stop the civil war in Iraq, sir?"

"If the Chief of Police wanted to start a civil war, Mr. Mayor, he would arrest all the Sunni, including you. I don't understand your logic. Why don't you talk about the Shiites who died at the Mohammed Sacran check-point?" "Exactly. Today the population thinks that Mohammed Sacran was Sunni revenge against the Shia ... This mechanism has to be dismantled. Today, my country is governed by Shiites only. They believe that Saddam favored the Sunni. That's not true. If his own finger raised itself against him, Saddam would have it cut off. Saddam made no distinction between Shia and Sunni. I know the Shiites say bad things about me. That I'm a terrorist. A Baathist. At the Ministry of the Interior, they have a fat file against me."

"You've never handed a guilty person over to me. The bad guys, to hear you talk, are always somewhere else, never here. While you know that the boy responsible for yesterday's attack lived right across the street. So don't tell me anything, guy. The people lined up at your door are Sunni, not Shiites!"

"They arrested 35 Sunni in a little village. If they had searched all the houses, that wouldn't be a problem. I don't want to make you angry; I want you to help us maintain stability."

"I'm going to ask you to be patient and to wait for Iraqi justice to do its work. Don't feed the rumor of civil war. If you throw fuel on the fire, it will burn you!"

Translation: truthout French language correspondent Leslie Thatcher.

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About Sara Daniel

Portrait of Sara Daniel
Sara Daniel, a French journalist, war correspondent, expert on the Middle East.
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