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From: Marcela Gaviria · Re: Falluja · Date: Nov. 27, 2003

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Iraq's Peoples and Politics
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Introduction: A Long Road

In Falluja, it's hard to tell who is the cat and who is the mouse.

The morning has been shot trying to find someone who can translate for us. I've interviewed several candidates from our makeshift office in Room 110 at the roof of the Al Ebba Palace in Baghdad. I'm worried. It's not looking good -- and today of all days. We are heading for Falluja, which has the reputation of being the most dangerous town in Iraq, the center of armed resistance against the coalition.

At 8 a.m. I am pleading with [translator #1] to call in sick at his job with The New York Times. At 9 a.m. I beg our hotel mates from NPR to loan me one of their two translators. By 10 a.m. I've got one bad option, [translator #2], who acquired his rudimentary English after taking a few flying lessons in Scotland. By 11 a.m., I'm scrambling to find another alternative. [Translator #3], a young student of English literature at Baghdad University, can spend the day with us. But he is scared.

Hedging our bets, we leave for Falluja with both [translator #2] and [translator #3]. It's close to midday. Falluja is not far from Baghdad, just under an hour to the west, but it's a dangerous stretch. The highway leading to Falluja is well known for its "Ali Baba," or highway robbers, and the frequent ambushes against U.S. troops.

It doesn't take long to see why this thoroughfare has such a bad reputation. Just 30 minutes into our trip, as we drive past the eerie walls of Abu Ghraib prison, we bump into two huge military supply trucks that were attacked a few hours earlier. The semis are now shriveled, burnt carcasses. Nervous soldiers in Humvees and tanks surround the scene of the crime. Scott, our cameraman, doesn't want to get out of the car to shoot. We move past the wreckage quickly, picking up speed as we move forward.

Twenty minutes later we arrive at what looks like any old truck stop along the highway. "Where are we?" I ask [translator #2]. He turns to [our driver], who I've hired to ferry all the additional translators, and I'm told we are in Falluja.

It feels like every other place I've been in Iraq: flat, dirty, trash-ridden, dilapidated, tired, depressing. But it doesn't feel particularly tense. The town is bustling. Men are selling tomatoes, cucumbers, and parsley. Women are scurrying along the markets with their abayas. Traffic is heavy.

It doesn't feel particularly anti-American, either. People in other cars stare at us, but smile. A young kid selling bananas at the street light asks, "Amerique?" We nod.

We've asked both [translator #2] and [translator #3] to translate the graffiti scribbled on every other wall. [Translator #2] comes up dry, but [translator #3] seems to relish the assignment.

"Over there, in black, it says, 'It is lawful to steal from the Americans in any way possible, even if you have to kill them,'' [translator #3] tells us. "Next to that, in the red, it says, 'Falluja will remain a symbol for the resistance,' and 'Long live Saddam.'"

Across the street the graffiti reads, "Whoever offers services to America is a traitor or an agent." A bit further, "In Iraq Americans are the terrorists." And on and on.

I ask [translator #3] if he can tell by the handwriting or the grammar what kind of an education the graffiti artists had. He pauses, looks at the handwriting and says, "I'd say ... definitely well-educated."

After filming a few anti-American slogans we head to the mayor's office. We've got a long list -- with names like Sheikh Farhan Jumeilly, Sheikh Aref al-Essawi, Sheikh Makki Hussain al-Qubaysi -- and are hoping the mayor will tell us how to find them.

We are escorted to a waiting room in the back of a bunkered complex. The hallway is full of flies. Soon enough we're allowed into a smoky room, where the newly elected mayor of Falluja, Raad Hussein Abed, is being interviewed by a squad of French reporters. The Frenchmen slump in their seats and try their best to make the mayor admit that he supports the resistance. We listen to the prosecution from the other end of the room.

The French journalists give up after a while and leave us alone with the mayor. He is an affable man, who seems thrilled with the attention he is getting just three days into office. Martin asks a lot of questions. The mayor chain smokes, shifts in his seat, and answers every question as if he were on a winning streak.

"Everyone likes me in this town. Everyone," he brags.

Martin asks him about the difficulty of straddling the line between the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne, stationed a few miles from his office, and pleasing the powerful sheikhs of Falluja, who reportedly support the resistance and who also elected him to represent them. The mayor doesn't quite answer the question. He is careful to sound evenhanded.

"The Americans, they make mistakes. The Iraqis, they make mistakes." He drags long and hard on his cigarette. "But in the end, it's like putting a cat and a mouse in the same room."

In Falluja, it's hard to tell who is the cat and who is the mouse. Judging from the number of attacks on the 82nd Airborne, it strikes me that, at least in Falluja, the mouse has the upper hand. An officer from the 82nd tells us that they get attacked four or five times a day on average. "Sometimes it's just a few gunshots," he says. "But they also throw grenades over the wall or throw IEDs at our Humvees."

The paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne, for the most part, remain bunkered behind sacks of sand at the mayor's office or holed-up deep in a military complex, unsuitably called "Dreamland." A tawdry resort village built by Saddam to attract tourists, it was taken over by his eldest son, Uday.

We tell the officer that we are on our way to find Sheikh Gazi al-Essawi, the second-most important tribal leader in Falluja, who commands the Bu Essa tribe.

"That guy is pretty powerful. But I don't like him," the officer tells us. Martin asks the officer why he dislikes the sheikh. "He's trying to kill me, that's all."

Sheikh Gazi, it turns out, looks more like a used-car salesman from Long Island than a sheikh. One of the richest sheikhs in all of Iraq, Gazi shows us around his enormous network of warehouses, which store air conditioners, frozen chickens, and sacks of rice. He tells us that the whole place was raided a week ago by paratroopers from Dreamland. The place is visibly vandalized. Doors are ripped from hinges, sofa covers are gashed, windows are broken.

Sheikh Gazi points to his assistant's door. It has graffiti, this time in English, carved into the paint. It reads, "Fuck You."

Sheikh Gazi explains to us the problem. "Under tribal law and custom, it is my duty to seek justice for what has been done. If someone breaks into my home, or my office, and humiliates me, then I must right the wrong."

Martin prods, "Like Hammurabi's Code. Eye for an eye?"

"Yes, exactly. The Americans must understand that I have no choice but to defend my honor."

We spend several days reporting in Falluja and visit Dreamland to talk to the local commander of the 82nd Airborne, Lt. Col. Brian Drinkwine. Martin and Col. Drinkwine sit in canvas foldup chairs yards away from one of Dreamland's man-made lakes, which reputedly contain several of Uday's victims at the bottom. Martin asks Drinkwine about the attacks on his men, about the town's anti-Americanism, about the lack of visible reconstruction projects, and about Sheikh Gazi and the graffiti on the door.

But Drinkwine doesn't like to talk about problems, just challenges. Their conversation focuses on the difficulty of enforcing justice in a tribal society. "That is a difficult challenge," Drinkwine admits, swatting flies off his face. "I'll give you an example. The other day the head of the Iraqi police force was attacked. One of his men killed the attacker. Now, under tribal law, five generations of relatives must avenge the death of that man."

[Editor's Note: The names of the Iraqi translators and driver have been changed in this dispatch for security purposes.]


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posted february 12, 2004

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