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Story Publication logo February 2, 2003

On Watch for War; Neighbors are Resigned to Fate, but Life Goes On



The following article ran as part of a thirteen-part series by Jon Sawyer, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch January 23-February 15, 2003.

As the Middle East teeters on the edge of war, Post- Dispatch Washington Bureau Chief Jon Sawyer and photographer Gabriel B. Tait are visiting the region to report on the prospects for war and what it might mean to people in Iraq and its neighboring countries.

On a sunny winter day in the heart of old Baghdad, in a melting-pot neighborhood where everyone knows everyone and the routines of daily life are prized, the prospect of war can seem distant indeed.

Early in the morning, Ahmed Abrahim, a wiry young man, is already pouring short glasses of sweetly scented lemon tea in his shop just off Sadoun, a major commercial strip. Men are lounging on the straight-backed benches that line the shop, puffing tobacco on the water pipes known here as nargilas.

The shop is called al Barekei, or "help of God." For the neighborhood men who pop in and out through the day and evening, it seems just that, a refuge from tough times and talk of worse to come. Fahd Khalil, one of the regulars, recalls what it was like in 1991, during the Gulf War, when U.S. cruise missiles destroyed a major bridge four blocks away. The neighborhood lost electricity for several months, but no buildings on his street were directly hit.

If war comes again, Khalil said, people here are hoping that American precision bombs will be as "smart" as advertised.

"Most of us think this time will not be as bad," he said. "Maybe because we've lived through it once already, and it seems that the Americans aim at the bridges and specific buildings, not the civilian population.

"What we really have to fear is mistakes."

Getting a read on what Iraqis really think, in these nervous prewar days, is one of the most difficult tasks in Baghdad.

Journalists are required to register with the Ministry of Information, which then assigns them "minders" to help with translation and setting up interviews but also, not incidentally, to control their every move.

Two Post-Dispatch journalists visiting Baghdad last week chose to forgo the government minders, relying instead on local residents who spoke some English and hoping to get an unvarnished glimpse of what it's like to live in Iraq -- a country ruled by one of the world's most infamous dictators, a country targeted by the mightiest nation in history.

What they found, in the neighborhood that residents call Little Abu Newas, was a tightly knit community, resigned to fate and determined to make the best of every day.

Making do

The al Barekei tea shop is a two-room establishment, decorated with depictions of action figures with whom Iraqis are most familiar: Sylvester Stallone, peering menacingly from a poster at the rear of the shop; John Wayne, in full cowboy regalia, on a tapestry that occupies a central wall; and Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, who gets prominent display as in every public -- and most private -- Baghdad spaces.

Around the corner on Sadoun Street, shops sell wristwatches with Saddam faces. A steady stream of patients move in and out of the doctors' offices that fill this part of town. Across the side street from al Barekei, a seedy-looking hotel boasts a second-story casino, complete with blackjack and craps. "It's just like Las Vegas," the manager says -- minus, of course, the glitz and whiskey and women.

A couple of side streets away, men young and old gather in the evenings at corner shops for tea and tobacco and boisterous games of dominos. Half a dozen men slap the tiles about for an hour or more, teasing each other and laughing at a solitary drunk, an unusual sight in this country where liquor is sold at retail stores but not at restaurants. The drunk weaves down the street, waving his arms and swearing vengeance -- on what or whom, no one knows. The young men watching simply laugh. "Rambo!" one says.

The men at the table are all between 20 and 24 years old -- prime age for military service in a country where 18 months of duty is compulsory for all men and where Saddam has already warned that war will bring a mass call-up of every man 40 and under. Yet these young men enjoying the evening appear oblivious to what looms.

They call this warren of streets Little Abu Newas, the narrow strip two blocks wide just behind the boulevard of Abu Newas as it runs along the eastern bank of the Tigris River.

The two- and three-story houses here are nearly 100 years old, with open courtyards and intricate vaulted brick ceilings. Decades ago, this was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood; today the Jews are gone, replaced by a mixture of Muslims and Christians.

Al Jumariya Bridge is just to the north and the 14th of July Bridge less than a mile downstream. The postal telecommunications center is just a few blocks away. All three were blown up during the Gulf War and would be prime targets in a second U.S. assault.

Annan Armes says that when the bombs fell in 1991, she and her family stood on the roof and watched. The explosions were so close by, she said, that "our houses just shook and shook."

Annan's father, Joseph, worked as a driver for 27 years for a succession of Western embassies. In the early years of Saddam's reign, back in the 1970s when Iraq was closely allied to the United States and times were good, the family operated a restaurant, owned cars and traveled abroad.

Now the extended family lives on the top floor of a crumbling house, making do with four rooms for a family of 12. High-spirited children raced about, and Annan and her sister Jenan flitted to the balcony every few minutes to keep track of the street scene below.

Downstairs there are four more rooms, four more families, around an open courtyard. A soldier, home on leave from service in northern Iraq, lives in one of the rooms. He says conditions for the Iraqi soldiers are very difficult. They have little equipment, inadequate clothes and no information as to how Iraq intends to defend against a superpower invasion.

"We know nothing," he says. "They tell us nothing at all."

"Every man will fight" -- or not

Baghdad residents willing to talk about the war scoff at the notion of Iraq mounting a serious organized defense. The army is too small, too poorly trained, too poorly equipped. "They will not last more than three or four days," says one man with two sons in army service.

What about street fighting?

Some of the residents of Little Abu Newas insist that they will fight themselves. There is bold talk of weapons training, of supplying every family with machine guns, of fighting to the death in defense of family, country and home.

But the only one who actually shows a gun is Issam Kazim Nouri, who wears a pistol on his hip. He lives just up the street from the tea shop, with his wife and daughter. He works as a union representative with Iraq's labor ministry.

"Every man in this neighborhood has a gun," Nouri says, "and every man will fight."

Nouri claims that the neighborhood has been practicing already, not just weapons use but also emergency medical care. The militia training that Nouri said was scheduled for Wednesday evening turns out to be a bust, however; the streets are full of shoppers and domino players but not a gun in sight. Nouri himself is nowhere to be found.

War injuries

It's evening at the al Barekei tea shop and Fahd Khalil, one of the regulars, is talking about war -- specifically, the shot from a Kalashnikov automatic rifle that cost him the bottom half of his right leg.

Khalil is a big-boned man with a salt-and-pepper beard and gentle eyes. He lives just up the street, in a two-story house stripped bare of furniture. He's sold most of his belongings over the past two years, trying to make ends meet since his 1981 Volkswagen broke down and cost him his livelihood as a taxi driver.

This year, his wife left him, taking their two younger children to live with her parents a few miles away. The girls, on winter break from school, have been visiting this past week. When Lileana, his 6-year-old, grabs him by the neck, one only has to see his face to know how wrenching the separation has been for him.

Khalil is stoic about his war injury, and with reason. He lost his leg 22 years ago, during his service as a radio telephone operator at the start of the Iran-Iraq war. The conflict, one of the more pointless of modern times, dragged on eight years and cost the two nations some 1 million lives.

"It happens in war," says Khalil, tapping his leg just above where it was severed. "Many were killed. Many had wounds that were worse."

The Khalil and Armes families are Christians, like nearly a million Iraqis. Most of them worship at the Chaldean church, with roots in Syria. In Little Abu Newas, the worship center is the Holy Family Church, just a few blocks south.

Analysts of war with Iraq have raised the specter of a clash of civilizations, of the Western war on terrorism becoming a war between Christians and Muslims. Iraq, the current prime target, is one of the Arab countries that have been most open to people of other faiths.

In Abu Newas, Muslims and Christians are mixed almost house by house.

The Holy Family Church is a whitewashed building with a large cupola on the street side and a smaller one to the rear. The sanctuary is big enough for several hundred worshippers, with brown pews made of metal and wood, and depictions of the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph above the altar.

At morning Mass on Friday, there were only a handful of worshippers, a deacon and three other men in the front pew who took turns chanting the gospel, and three women, their heads covered in shawls. A few others wander in during the course of the 45-minute service.

When it's over, the children start to trickle in, walking toward the church in groups of four and six, down streets still quiet in a nation that takes its weekends on Fridays and Saturdays. Within half an hour more than 100 have gathered, here for weekly catechism lessons.

The Rev. Noer Hanona, the priest at Holy Family, says that because of Iraq's long troubles, his church is becoming a place mostly of children, women and old men. In the last two years alone he claims to have lost 300 parishioners from Holy Family -- young men who have escaped Iraq in search of economic opportunities abroad.

"In 10 years, if this goes on, you won't find a single Christian in Baghdad," Hanona says.

Nehad Muhyaldin

One morning last week the clientele at the al Barekei tea shop included a man with an impeccable British accent. He was nattily decked out in a double-breasted blue blazer, flannel slacks and soft black loafers. On the street outside he had parked his two-tone 1988 Ford Thunderbird.

In between puffs on the nargila, Nehad Muhyaldin explains that he likes to come to this part of Baghdad because of its many camera shops and because he enjoys the neighborhood. He lives on the outskirts of the city in a subdivision of upscale houses that was built for military officers in pre- Saddam times and that is now occupied mostly by merchants and traders.

Muhyaldin himself was a pilot before the 1991 war, captain of a Boeing 747 "palace in the sky" for Kuwait Air Lines. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait cost him his job and his pension, Muhyaldin said, and took him out of the cockpit. Most of the Iraq Air Lines fleet has been stranded in Iran since the war, and there's little demand for jumbo-jet captains in a company hammered by international sanctions and technically barred from flying in two-thirds of the country's own air space.

Muhyaldin, cushioned by savings from before 1991, is better off than the residents of Abu Newas but not immune from the rigors of life in a pariah state. He had no electricity for 40 days during the 1991 war. U.S. bombing runs on the airbase nearby shattered the windows of his house in 1991 and again in 1998, when the United States and the United Kingdom struck.

"My wife and I have talked of remodeling for years but what's the point?" he says.

Muhyaldin has spent more time in the United States than most Iraqis, including three one-month training stints with Boeing in Seattle. He recalls fondly the friends he's made and places he's seen. What he regrets most about the U.S. approach to the war on terrorism, including the focus on Iraq, is that it is turning so many people against the United States, a nation he admires.

He notes the travel warnings to Americans prompted by the unfriendliness to America in some parts of the world.

"It seems that every week now we hear President Bush giving a new warning to the American people: 'Watch out for Afghanistan. Don't go to Pakistan. Be careful in Singapore.'

"I ask Mr. Bush ... Why does he want the world to hate America?"

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