Freedom unbound, and out of
By Paul Belden
BAGHDAD - The imam was on fire. "None of us want
an occupation of an Islamic country!" he seethed over
the (very loud) loudspeakers of the Abu Hanifah mosque
in the capital during Salat al-Juma prayers last Friday
"Not Shi'ites! Not Sunnis! The
soldiers of the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him,
will destroy any American or Israeli troops - just wait!
We will not let any government trick us! No one can be
the governor of Iraq if he is not a good Muslim and
applies sharia [Islamic law]!"
celebrated Sunni Doctor Ahmad al-Qubaisee got to the
obligatory part that goes "America is the enemy of God!
Israel is the enemy of God! Down with Israel! Down with
America!" - his voice rose to a shrill hectoring screech
that harmonized sweetly with the occasional staccato
pop-pop-pop sound of Kalashnikovs going off in
The imam was breathing fire, and
the crowd was catching. It was the sort of stump speech
that's designed to pack them in in this part of the
world, and liberated Baghdad proved no exception.
Thousands strong when the sermon began, the crowd had
been expanding by the minute, overflowing the mosque and
taking over every available speck of pavement on Omar
Abduaziz Street in the northwestern Adhamiya district.
By mid-afternoon, everything not able to walk, crawl or
roll out of reach of the crowd - including a surrounded
tanker truck complete with hapless driver trapped in the
cab - found itself blocked in by prayer rugs and unable
Adding fuel to the blaze, various
camera crews had climbed onto the very walls of the
mosque itself and were filming straight down into the
courtyard while trying to avoid kicking in the lovely
blue-tile squares bearing the 99 names of the Islamic
God adorning the wall's crest. The smell of smoke hung
acridly in the air from several buildings still burning
downtown. Chunks of the mosque were missing where
bullets and shells and hit during a battle the week
before. Nobody in this crowd other than one or two of
the better-off journalists had had a hot shower in
weeks. Many were holding signs that read "Shi'ite blood
and Sunni blood is the same!" and "Leave our country, we
want peace!" and "Iraqis didn't let you here" in both
English and Arabic. Emotions were running high.
And now - unaccountably, incredibly,
unbelievably - into this Cecil B DeMille epic nightmare
scene wandered a lightly armed foot patrol of about half
a dozen US Marines gawking about like farmboys come to
see New York. God knows what they were thinking.
The next day, I asked US Marine Staff Sergeant
John Jamison, the public information officer in charge
of the Adhamiya sector, that very question: "What the
hell were you guys thinking?" And he had no idea what I
was even talking about. His jaw dropped when I told him
what had happened.
Because it wasn't pretty.
Whatever that patrol had been expecting to find, it was
clear it was something else. The crowd surged in to
enclose them, and they immediately went into a sort of
mobile defensive crouch, keeping in a tight circular
formation with their gunbarrels out covering a
360-degree horizon, and backing slowly down the street,
looking tense and scared.
shouting things at them, mostly in Arabic, until
somebody who knew English asked them what they thought
they were doing here. The soldier in charge gave the
stock talking-points reply to this sort of question -
they'd come to deliver food and medicine to the Iraqi
people - and it was a miracle there wasn't a bloodbath.
Even then it was a near-run thing. Both sides
were angry and scared and trying not to show it, but
they didn't succeed. It showed in their eyes. Their
voices, too: At one point, the soldier in charge strode
toward one of his own men, smacked the man hard on the
shoulder and screamed: "You pay attention to me, you son
of a bitch!"
They crowd closed in, and the
soldier in charge ordered a middle-aged man in a white
dishdasha (gown) to back up. The guy shrugged and
lifted his chin: Yeah? And what if I don't?
"I have this weapon," the soldier informed the
"You're going to shoot me?" the
middle-aged man said, raising his voice. "You're going
to shoot me?" He wasn't moving an inch.
This was the moment of maximum danger. All it
would have taken would have been one of those
ever-present Kalashnikov bursts to have sounded
somewhere in the near distance right then, and I
seriously believe the death toll would have been in the
dozens. And that number would probably have included
every one of those soldiers.
"This thing is a
big mistake," said one man in the crowd, "It is possible
to be the beginning of a new battle in this place."
Another man said, "We want all the Marines to leave this
place now, and also all of the press cars, or we will
Later that day, I drove around to
see if I could tell how near the closest Marine backup
had been. I found a stationary armored checkpoint two
blocks away. Not close enough. The only backup that
arrived on the scene was a single forlorn-looking Iraqi
policeman sitting in a white patrol car, who came
rolling in slowly, with no lights flashing. I think he
was packing a sidearm, but I'm not sure. It wouldn't
So everybody got lucky.
Eventually, several cooler heads, all of them Iraqi -
and, in particular, an old man who said his name was
Fa'iz, who had the look of authority, with a white
turban and a long flowing white beard and handlebar
moustache - gently shooed away the gawking children,
quietly urged the angry Iraqis to back up, and lightly
persuaded the soldiers to consider their best interest
and not linger.
So this is what freedom looks
like to Iraqis - the freedom to preach about kicking out
the infidel invaders and running their own country. From
an American point of view, it certainly wasn't pretty.
And especially galling must have been the fact that,
exactly a week and a day earlier, this very mosque had
been the site of a battle that had provided the good
Doctor al-Qubaisee the freedom to preach politics from
One would have expected the thankful
Iraqis to have erected a monument to their liberation at
this site - not to have organized a million-man march
against their liberators. But that's the way of freedom
- once you unleash it, it can be hard to control, and
dangerous to try.
It's not as if the people
didn't know about that earlier battle. The evidence was
everywhere at hand. Smashed, burned cars, including one
that had been flattened by a tank. A series of
concentric seismic cracks in the grassless earth of a
riverside playground surrounding a hole in the ground
where a (presumably still unexploded) missile had
penetrated. Burned-out buildings in every direction.
Palm trees that had been shot in half.
rumor went, was where Saddam Hussein and his most loyal
men had made their stand the day after American forces
had helped pull down Saddam's statue in Paradise Park.
There's a bridge to the north of the area, the
al-Aaemmah Bridge, and it is this bridge over which the
people of Adhamiya presume that Saddam escaped north, to
his hometown of Tikrit.
Even as the statue had
been coming down, Abu Dhabi TV reportedly was shooting
live video images of a smiling Saddam dressed in his
trademark olive-green military uniform and beret while
stepping out of an official car and wading into an
ecstatic crowd in front of this very mosque. Amazingly,
the Iraqi leader had been accompanied by his smiling,
sharply dressed favorite son Qusay. One striking image
was the crowd, most of them armed, and jubilantly
proclaiming their loyalty to Saddam, some of them
embracing him and kissing him on both cheeks in their
The next day, the American hammer
came down. "The tanks came from three directions," said
Khalid Adnan, who lives in the narrow alley behind the
mosque. "There were soldiers on foot with them, and they
all met in the traffic circle on al-Imam Alaatham Street
[in front of the mosque]. Then they began spreading out
into the side streets. There were Fedayeen hiding in the
neighborhood, and the shooting was intense. The American
tanks stayed in the area for six to eight hours, and
then they left."
Another group of loiterers - an
old man named Jabbar, and three younger men named
Bashar, Mouthanna and Nazar - told a similar tale, of a
battle that had matched a mixture of poorly armed Iraqi
soldiers and Arab Fedayeen with tanks and A-10 Warthog
ground attack aircraft. It must have been deafening and
terrifying, and those who live here still viewed the
memory of the battle in apocalyptic terms. Fa'iz, the
53-year-old manager of the mosque's northern gate, said
flatly, "This was the battle that is one of the marks of
the end of the life. You understand?" Another resident,
Amir Shakir, a veterinarian, said he was certain that
the Americans had used "prohibited weapons" in the
battle because "the earth, it was shaking".
Whatever the cause and intent, the battle had
not captured Saddam, nor had it cleansed the residents
of their fear and awe of the missing tyrant. Said Abdel
Razzaq, a man in the crowd, "I am sad for this
situation, and only Saddam can be the leader of Iraq.
But we can only hope that this situation will be better
day by day, and that the Americans will leave Iraq very
Whether it was designed to or not, the
battle also failed to cow the people into submission.
Adhamiya may be shot to pieces, but it is one defiant
After the sermon, which the doctor
concluded with a call to "walk over the streets saying,
'Allahu Akhbar, we trust in God'!," the people boiled
out of the mosque and headed en masse down Omar Abduaziz
Street chanting and carrying signs that read, "Same
Iraq, Same people" and "We reject the occupation" and
"All Muslims are brothers". They took over every vehicle
at hand, and even pressed the surrounded tanker truck
into service, forcing the driver to roll slowly along
through the horde with men packed onto the top of the
tank and clinging to every available handhold.
They were chanting, La Sin'iya, La Shi'iya,
Wahda wahda Islamiya (No Sunni, No Shi'ite, Unity
for all Islam.) And also, La ilaha ila Allah, America
Aduallah (There is no God but Allah, and America is
His enemy.) And also, La America, La Saddam, Wahda
wahda Al-Islam. (No America, No Saddam, Only Islam.)
So two battles took place in the Abu Hanifah
mosque. The first - a pure clash of weaponry - was a
lopsided victory for American armed might; the second -
a more ambiguous affair that matched guns against the
more indistinct arsenal of argument, ideal and freedom -
was as lopsided a defeat.
Both results should
rightly be cheered, by both Americans and Iraqis alike,
because in both cases, freedom won. But as was shown in
Adhamiya on Friday, freedom can be a dangerous thing -
and now that it has been unleashed in Iraq, nobody can
know where it will take the country, or the region.
Earlier articles in this series:
according to the notebook Apr 19
a war without a border Apr 18
lady with real attitude Apr 18
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