Omens and Incidents

Borzou Daragahi
Los Angeles Times

I know how religious the people in Iraq are, how traditional they are
with regard to gender relations and stuff like that. I would see
certain stuff and I would just cringe and want to say [to U.S.
soldiers], “You guys are really, really making a bad name for
yourself here by storming into this guy’s house with your shoes on.
This guy’s done nothing and yet you’re going to make an enemy out
of him because he’s gonna talk about you guys for the rest of his
life, and that day when they came storming into my house with their
shoes on – nobody walks into my house with their shoes on!”

One time I was really tempted to say something to U.S. soldiers when I
was in Najaf. And Najaf is a very American-friendly place in general.
And there were these soldiers and they were just sitting there, taking
pieces of bread and throwing them at each other. They were just kids
– like twenty-two years old – just playing around. There’s these
Iraqi police officers looking at this from out the window and they’re
just totally aghast. They’re totally shocked: Look at what they’re
doing to bread! You know, bread is considered holy in Islam. You know,
you’re just not supposed to do that. People pick up pieces of bread
and you’re not supposed to step on bread. You’re not supposed to
play with bread. And I felt tempted to say something and I didn’t. I
just didn’t feel it was my place.

Nir Rosen
Freelance Writer

I tried to interact with the Iraqis who were being ignored. And even by
then there was a great deal of literature being produced by various
religious organizations; they all had their own newspapers and journals
and magazines and CDs, and they were very clear about their position
and their grievances and their attitude towards the Americans. And I
think the Americans, for some reason, didn’t take religion that
seriously as a factor in Iraqi society, which is weird because we’re
like the most religious nation in the industrialized world. We have a
born-again Christian president and the religious right is so powerful,
but we didn’t think that religion was an important motivator for
Iraqis. So we just ignored that, except for the so-called moderate
clerics who we could try to use to our advantage. But that Iraqi anger
and hostility toward the American occupation, and fear of the
Americans, and fear that the Americans are going to corrupt their
values, steal their women, bring the Jews in to create a greater
Israel, bring the Jews in to divide the land – all these fears that
just sounded stupid to us were real for them.

Elizabeth Palmer CBS

I’ve been struck by how essentially humane a lot of the soliders are,
with a very strong sense of right and wrong, which I think comes with
growing up in America. And how ill-equipped they were to apply that to
a situation like Iraq, without enough historical or geographical or
cultural knowledge to actually – unless they were under the command
of a very gifted officer, and there are some who are extremely
well-equipped, but a lot of them are not – to apply that sort of
fairness to Iraqi society. I feel that a huge majority of them are good
men trapped in an impossible situation and have not really understood
where they are historically, as well as culturally and physically. I
think they’re hostages of a terrible situation as well; it’s given
me enormous sympathy for them, and certainly a new appreciation for how
ill-prepared they were for the mission, at least in the early days.

I remember early on in Baghdad – it must have been the end of 2003
– some American soldiers who were very keen to befriend a couple of
families – families who had been, who were essentially caretakers of
properties in Baghdad. They were very poor and these soldiers wanted to
befriend the children. They had this tremendous human instinct to try
and help them make life easier. It was just at the time when the
insurgency was really getting going, and Iraqis who were seen to have
relations with the American forces were in great danger, and the
soldiers found it very difficult to accept that this gesture of
friendship – their wanting to help look after these children and give
them gifts and so on – could, in fact, get the family killed.

Nir Rosen
Freelance Writer

The daily things the Iraqis endure – and those that I experienced
just because I looked Iraqi and then because I was a male, and a
so-called “male of fighting age.” My [new Iraqi] friends would ask
me, “Why do Americans say ‘fuck’ so much, what’s this word
‘fuck?'” I heard that a few times. “Why do Americans spit so
much?” They didn’t know about chewing dip – the tobacco thing. So
they see Americans spitting all the time; they’re going into a house
on a raid, and in order to stay awake they chew dip and they’re
spitting constantly, spitting all over people’s yards, things like
that. Having to deal with the barbed wire everywhere, the tanks and
Humvees blocking traffic in your roads, pointing their guns at you,
firing into the air, shouting at you. It was constant humiliation and
constant fear, because they control your life. They have these huge
guns and you can’t even communicate with them adequately. And that
summer [2003], it was just unbearably hot and American soldiers were
dressed in all that gear. Obviously they were not in a good mood.
Iraqis had no electricity. They were in a bad mood. It was always very
tense, they were always shouting at Iraqis and shouting at me
sometimes. I was walking down the street toward a checkpoint once, and
I heard one American soldier say to the other, “That’s the biggest
fucking Iraqi I ever saw.” And the other soldier said, “I don’t
care how big he is, if he don’t stop moving I’m gonna shoot him.”
And there were one or two other times I heard soldiers talking about
shooting me, and whether it was in jest I don’t know, but at least I
understood and could shout, “Don’t shoot, I’m an American!”
Most Iraqis couldn’t, and that’s a very scary thing.

Ali Fadhil
Translator, Reporter

[In Najaf, August 2004], me and Ivan Watson [of NPR] found ourselves at
the top of a tower. We found two American soldiers, very, very young
soldiers – they were snipers – at the top room of the tower, and
they invited us to eat the MREs [Meals Ready to Eat]. And we were very
happy because we didn’t eat anything, like only eggs and potatoes all
of these days, because there is no food in the city. And we ate with
them and started chatting with them, and myself personally, I had like
a friendship with them, and one of them called me to come and hold the
sniper machine and look through the sniper zoom and look to the [Imam
Ali] Shrine, because I wanted to look at it. And we were like joking
about the situation until the moment when suddenly we heard the voice
coming from the shrine for the prayers. At that time the two soldiers
were back in position. They were furious, and I said, “What’s
wrong?” They said, “The sound – it means something,” and I
said, “What?” They said, “It does mean that they’re calling
their soldiers to come kill us, isn’t that right?” I said, “No,
it’s not. It’s prayer calls.” It seems like these soldiers
didn’t know that these are prayer calls, because it’s long, long
prayer calls – it’s prayers they do for the martyrs. And they
thought that this was something like a call to start fighting.

Patrick Graham
Freelance Writer

Iraq wasn’t a country that was fact-checkable, right? It wasn’t a
country where there were a lot of facts. And it wasn’t a country that
anybody knew anything about, so your problem wasn’t selling the
story. It was convincing touchy magazines to run things. I had a story
on insurgents killed because the magazine couldn’t fact-check it [the
story eventually appeared in Harper’s, which had not commissioned
it]. American magazines have been beaten up very badly by various
scandals, and they just couldn’t take a risk. If you said this is a
group of insurgents that I’m with, they’re not a bunch of former
Baathists, they’re fighting for kind of tribal, nationalistic reasons
– that was the opposite of what was being written in the press in the
fall of 2003. The majority of the articles were that they were a group
of Baathists, they’re dead-enders, they’re criminals, they’re
disgruntled Sunnis who want to take over the country again. The
insurgency was over, the insurgency would soon be over. And I was
saying, “No, actually, this is an expression of a minority that’s
scared and doesn’t feel that it’s going to participate in the
future of the country. It’s very tribal; it has to do with the
cultural context.” And it’s very hard to prove that.

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