the iraqi psyche

A story from the first months of the occupation of Iraq

Occupation's Ordeals Ravage Iraqi Psyche


BAGHDAD -- Iraqis think of it as the social security office. And as the court of civil complaints and the central police station. It also goes by the generic name "the Authority." A single American soldier was on duty at its side gate, sitting on a chair behind spools of barbed wire.


Ikbal Abbas Muhsen, a onetime employee of the Youth Ministry, called out to the soldier. "I need to talk to the general!" she said in Arabic. She had come to ask for her job back from the people now ruling Iraq: the U.S. officials installed at Saddam Hussein's old Republican Palace.


Muhsen had dressed in a black jacket for the occasion. The soldier, sitting a dozen feet away, seemed unaware of her presence.


"How am I supposed to live without work?" she shouted. "I am taking Valium! Five pills a day to be able to sleep!"


Mascara-tinged tears ran down her cheeks. "You Americans gave opportunity only to the looters. We, the educated, are destroyed. Why don't the men in charge come to meet us?"


Nearly three months ago, the Americans arrived in this capital with promises of a new and better Iraq. Today, there is still no Iraqi government. Basic services work only falteringly. For many Iraqis, each new day of occupation ratchets up feelings of powerlessness, anxiety and humiliation.


A fiercely proud people, Iraqis feel that they are losing face in the Arab world. The Arabic word used to describe their circumstances -- ihtilal, or occupation -- has for decades been associated in the region's media with the stateless Palestinians.


Unable to communicate with English speakers, most Iraqis worry about the foreigners' intentions. And even some who have long-standing friendships with Americans speak darkly about what will happen if the occupation drags on.


"Even if I joined the resistance, I don't think I could kill an American soldier," said Wamidh Nadhmi, who for years entertained U.S. reporters in his Baghdad home with quiet, cautious criticism of Hussein's regime. "I'm an old man, a political scientist. I don't think I could pull the trigger."


But the thought has crossed his mind, he said. It is an irrational response to an irrational situation.


"There are three primary causes of stress: loss, change and threat," said Buthanina Hilo, dean of the psychology department at Baghdad University. The fall of Hussein and the arrival of the Americans have brought all three, she said.


Untold numbers of Iraqis have been thrown out of work by the war and its aftermath, losing their incomes and sense of purpose. The totalitarian discipline of Hussein's regime has been replaced by widespread crime and the uncertainty of American rule. Amid the dislocations of war, American bombs and bullets have been responsible for civilian as well as military casualties, and the lethal skirmishes show little sign of abating.


A particularly bitter pill to swallow is that heavily armed, non-Muslim soldiers occupy hundreds of checkpoints and roadside posts. Made tense by repeated ambushes, the Americans are a menacing presence to many ordinary Iraqis.


"The majority of people are trying to accept the fact that the Americans came here to rid us of Saddam Hussein," Hilo said. "But all of this change, so quickly, keeps people in a state of high anxiety. They worry how long the Americans will stay. They feel frustrated."


In Iraq's diverse society, not everyone is losing patience with the Americans. Those who were most victimized by the regime -- the Kurds in the north, many Shiite Muslims of the south -- seem to be willing to cut the occupation authorities more slack.


"The Americans did a very good thing when they crushed Saddam for the Iraqis," said Khither Jaafar, a member of the political bureau of the Al Dawa Party.


That Shiite party was outlawed during Hussein's time, and the walls of its Baghdad headquarters are lined with the pictures and names of its militants who were killed by the regime. Jaafar said his group is willing to wait for an Iraqi government.


But he too sounded a note of caution.


"The Iraqis expect the Americans to fulfill their promises," he said. "The Americans can be good friends with the Iraqi people. Or they can be enemies. It will be they who decide."


Under Siege Again


The copy of the Koran written in Hussein's blood is gone now from a mosque in western Baghdad, taken away by members of the regime as U.S. troops approached the city.


The imam, Ihsarim Hassan, wants it made clear that his mosque no longer has the name Hussein gave it in honor of the 1991 Persian Gulf War: the Mother of All Battles Mosque. "It is now the Mother of Villages Mosque," Hassan said. Here, as elsewhere, people want to break with the past.


U.S. troops made that possible. But those same troops entered the mosque in the days after the regime fell, searching for weapons. "They did not respect God's house," the imam said. "They entered our mosque with weapons."


The Americans took several of the mosque's guards as prisoners, he said, then pointed a gun at the imam's chest when he came to the soldiers' base to plead for the guards' freedom.


"They called me an Ali Baba," a thief, Hassan said. Telling this story, he felt compelled to add, "I have a PhD in Islamic theology."


The sense of grievance against the Americans is perhaps strongest among Sunni Muslims such as Hassan. They are a minority but had dominated Hussein's government.


"When we see [the American troops] in the streets, we feel sad, our hearts ache," the imam said. "Not because we see the Americans as bad people, but because they came here as invaders and occupiers."


As he spoke, a burly aide sitting at his side began to weep.


"God says, 'Do not feel intimidated, do not feel sad,' " the imam continued. "You will triumph if you believe....' I am very sure that this situation will not last long, because Iraqis are characterized by their honor and bravery. They will not tolerate it very long."


Thalib Mahedi, dean of the sociology department at Baghdad University, said the occupation has provoked a range of emotions and suspicions among a people conditioned to feel they are under siege.


Iraqi history is marked by long periods of occupation. "Here we say Iraqis are people of two minds, because we are always caught between the Persians and the Turks," Mahedi said. Now there are soldiers from the United States and Britain.


"Some Iraqis consider it a humiliation, especially the religious people," he said. "The people who worked for the government and in politics feel the Americans have come to take their own positions."


The sense of distrust is fueled by the language barrier, he said.


"Of course I feel afraid of the American soldier. He is armed with dangerous weapons. He might take me for an enemy. If I make a gesture to salute him," Mahedi said, raising his arm in a half-wave, "he might take it as an insult."


Future Shock


Iraqis, Mahedi said, are also experiencing what the writer Alvin Toffler called future shock, the mass disorientation that comes from the too-quick appearance of the new and incomprehensible.


Suddenly they are surrounded by representatives of a country that is not only technologically more advanced than their own, but has more relaxed, modern notions about relations between the sexes.


At the Muhsin Mosque in the impoverished Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, home to Shiites who suffered greatly under Hussein's regime, the presence of so many American men in the community is seen as a threat to tradition.


"Women should not go out to the market among men during these hard times," an imam told his followers during prayers recently. "It is sad enough that the coalition forces have to be there to maintain order. And because of this, we have our women mingling with non-Muslims, with Americans. This is wrong. This is dishonorable to us."


All government authority in Iraq now emanates from the U.S. military. American officials are working to create local advisory councils elected by neighborhood groups. But, as their name suggests, the councils' only power will be to make recommendations to the Americans.


Until an Iraqi government is created, Iraqis will probably continue to gather outside the headquarters of what is officially known as the Coalition Provisional Authority.


Hamed Jawad, standing at the gate one recent afternoon, said his brother was arrested by soldiers eight days earlier after threatening a doctor at a Baghdad hospital. His family had not heard from him since.


Aided by an English-speaking reporter, Jawad, former Youth Ministry worker Muhsen and the others gathered at the gate finally got the attention of the American soldier. He disappeared and returned with an Arabic interpreter.


"We are closed now," the interpreter said. "Come back in the morning."


"We already came in the morning!" Jawad shouted back. "It's all lies."


Similar frustrations boil over across Iraq in countless encounters and confrontations. New graffiti in Baghdad -- in Arabic and English -- calls for an end to the occupation.


One recent Friday evening, two American Humvees rolled slowly past a market in the Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiya. A well-dressed Iraqi who had just driven up in a Volvo stood in front of the market and looked at the troops with anger.


"Come on! Let's take them out!" he told a group of men nearby. "I have a rifle. You have one. Look at them," he said in Arabic, gesturing at the soldiers. "They're just a bunch of kids."


The moment passed. None of the Iraqis did anything more than stare at the Americans. The Humvees drove safely away.



When I travelled to Baghdad in June and July of 2003, it was still a hopeful time there. We journalists could still roam the country freely.

This story hints and the conflict that was already beginning to brew, just weeks after U.S. troops first rolled into the city.