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FIRST PERSON

The Iraqi insurgency hits home

February 14, 2007|Said Rifai | Times Staff Writer

Baghdad — I'M dialing my family home in west Baghdad.

The phone rings, but no one picks up.

I know that someone is living in our house.

But it's not my family.

Last summer, my mother went to Jordan to escape the violence in Iraq. In September, my father followed. I stayed behind. Although I am educated as an architect, I work as an interpreter for The Times.

I don't live in my childhood home, but with my parents gone, I keep an eye on the modest stucco house that was designed by a pioneer of Iraqi postmodernism, Mehdi Hassani.

In early January, I went on an assignment outside Baghdad. When I got back two weeks later, my mother sent me a text message from Jordan, telling me to check on our house. When I called our neighbor, Abu Adil, he told me armed men had come through the neighborhood telling everyone to leave or be "slaughtered."

"Can you ask the Americans to intervene?" he begged.

I could not. The gunmen took over our house, Abu Adil's and others in the neighborhood. A few days later, Abu Adil's 22-year-old son went to his family's house. He argued with the insurgents. They killed him, dumping his body in the street.

When I told my mother what happened, it took awhile for it to sink in. So much blood has been spilled, and we are becoming numb. I asked her not to tell my father, who is bedridden, ill from diabetes. I feared the news might weaken him. I talked to my sister, trying to calm her.

I care less for the house than its contents: my mother's crystal, china and silver cutlery, her $5,000 mink coat -- worn only twice. And there are objects with more sentimental value: boxes stuffed with family pictures and 8-millimeter footage of my parents' wedding, 50 years of family history. There are my school yearbooks, academic certificates and awards, swimming and basketball trophies -- all would-be kindling for a fire to warm the squatters during these cold winter months.

Where I live now, the landlady was visibly shocked when she heard that our home had been "house-jacked."

"What are you going to do?" she asked.

I contemplated my choices. Should I contact U.S. forces through friends who work for them? The neighborhood is controlled by a notorious Sunni Arab politician who may have sanctioned the takeover. I decided contacting the Americans would be too risky. I didn't want to draw unwanted attention to myself: My father is Sunni but my mother is Shiite. Besides, I fear U.S. troops wouldn't do anything.

I quickly dismissed the idea of alerting Iraqi police. A year and a half ago, attackers invaded our home. They used electricity to torture my parents and youngest brother and stole many valuables. The police didn't do anything then, and it's unlikely they would do anything now.

I decided to contact local Sunni politicians and ask for help. I found a number for someone affiliated with their office. A man told me to call back later but was suddenly unreachable, his phone switched off.

After a few days, a friend reached our Sunni contact. He said I should check on the house, but provided no more information.

The thought of visiting the house is disconcerting.

For years, I've had a premonition that one day I would go to my house, searching for the AK-47 I kept hidden near the entrance. In the hallway, I would see someone pointing my weapon at me.

I shook off the thought. But premonitions aside, getting to the house is easier said than done.

In the old days, a driver could traverse Baghdad east to west in 20 minutes. Now the roads are perilous, filled with Iraqi security forces and gunmen of unknown loyalties -- all potential killers. No taxi driver wants to travel to my old neighborhood, which is now known as a hot spot for trouble.

My cars are in the shop. Friends offer to let me use their cars, but I fear being pulled over by police in a vehicle that doesn't belong to me.

So I'm stuck with the phone, imagining the gunmen lounging on our couches, using our bathrooms and going through our stuff. I see them sitting in the kitchen, where we used to gather with friends and family.

A few days ago, my landlady's father was kidnapped by Shiite militias. While I was working on arrangements for his ransom and eventual release, Abu Adil called to say that U.S. forces had raided my house. They arrested the gunmen and discovered a car bomb in the garage.

The raid was good news, but the problem was now more complex. I worry that U.S. troops will think my family harbored insurgents. After all, we owned the house.

I fear that the Americans will share their information with Iraqi Interior Ministry officials, who have connections to death squads.

I think the house is empty now.

But who knows?

I dialed the house again yesterday.

The phone rang, but no one picked up.

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