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COLUMN ONE

Layers of truth and life in Iraq

Out of the war zone after 41/2 years, a Times reporter looks back on the disguises of reality it took to get to the story and survive.

April 10, 2007|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

Even then we caught glimpses of the demons now ravaging Iraq. Kurdistan's democratic trappings masked corrupt, thuggish single-party fiefdoms run by former warlords. Their minions rolled through towns in pickup trucks with mounted machine guns.

Political parties had their private militias. Iranian-backed Shiite gunmen opposed to Saddam Hussein fought against Baghdad-backed militants opposed to Tehran. Muslim radicals bombed Kurdish nationalists in the dead of night. Western intelligence agencies camped out on mountaintops spotting bombing sites in Kirkuk.

The tensions came to a head when Kurdish peshmerga opened fire in a gangland-style execution of five suspected Muslim radicals at a checkpoint. Kurdish security officials assured reporters that the killings were justified as part of their fight against terrorism. It soon emerged that the victims were members of a group allied with the Kurdish government, killed in a still-murky case of mistaken identity.

As the war to oust Hussein began in March 2003, many feared chemical weapon attacks, refugee crises and a drawn-out conflict. But of all the violence and political chicanery that unfolded in northern Iraq during those months before the war, the checkpoint killing most foretold the dirty war that was to come.

*

WITHIN weeks of the checkpoint incident, Delphine and I joined convoys of peshmerga and U.S. Special Forces storming Khanaqin and Kirkuk, and basked in the adulation of the liberated Kurds. They showered us with candy, flowers and hugs. Hussein's rule was wiped away.

But the country's unraveling began quickly. By day, looters swarmed Iraqi military bases, hauling off rocket-propelled-grenade launchers and mortar rounds. At night, explosions boomed throughout the land and fires raged into the sky.

Outside the friendly, pro-American Kurdish areas, political troubles started early. We entered Hussein's hometown, Tikrit, a few hours before the Marines did. We were greeted with smiles at a gas station. But a friendly man warned us to get out quickly. Among the welcoming faces, he said, were Hussein loyalists who would harm us. We sped away, returning the next day to see Marines arresting middle-aged Sunni Arab men, putting them in plastic handcuffs and seating them on the pavement.

The detainees smiled at the troops.

In retrospect, anyone could have seen what was coming next, but much like the U.S. officials, we were oblivious. We listened to the complaints and warnings from ordinary Iraqis: no electricity, no security, unfair detentions. "Where is the freedom?" they said. "Where is the democracy? Soon we will take up arms."

We also gave credence to the narrative described by American officials in the Green Zone, Iraq's U.S.-protected administrative headquarters in central Baghdad.

"We measure our success on whether Iraq is on a path toward a sovereign democratic future with a government whose policies are dedicated to being at peace with its own citizens, peace with its neighbors, peace with the international community and certainly peace with the United States," a spokesman for the U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority, Dan Senor, said in June 2004. "That is the path we are on."

We found ourselves charmed by Baghdad. Life was hard during the first year or two after the invasion: The generators roared all night and the heat was unbearable. The stench of raw sewage rose from the nearby Tigris River. But we were intrigued by the new Iraq.

It was a land where Sufi musicians in the city of Fallouja crafted songs about jihad and artists turned from painting portraits of Hussein to those of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. New television stations broadcast funny soap operas chronicling the lives of Iraqis.

We lunched with Iraqi friends at fancy restaurants named Latakkia and the White Palace. We shopped for clothes and shoes in the upscale Mansour district. Karaoke night with other journalists at the Chinese restaurant was a treat.

I had drinks with my driver, Abbas, at his little plot of land. He nicknamed it Camp David. Once, Abbas, a Shiite, invited me over along with some Sunni Muslim pals from Fallouja. The talk turned to the aggressive tactics of anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr's Shiite militia, the Jaish al-Mahdi, or Al Mahdi army.

There was a moment of tense silence.

"Here's to the Jaish al-Whiskey!" Abbas said suddenly, holding his drink aloft. We roared with laughter. Sunnis and Shiites, Iranians and Americans, all were welcome in the Jaish al-Whiskey.

Delphine and I priced houses to rent and thought gingerly about the prospect of moving to Iraq to cover the reconstruction. After all, L. Paul Bremer III, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority until it was dissolved in June 2004, was talking about a Marshall Plan for Iraq.

In Samarra, I coaxed Delphine up the famous minaret. Afraid of heights, she cursed me as I nearly dragged her up.

"Trust me," I said. "You'll be happy when we get to the top."

"I hate you!" was her reply.

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