by JON LEE ANDERSON
Nervous Iraqis remember earlier conflicts.
The New Yorker - Issue of 2003-03-24:
A turab, an ill wind that makes the air clammy-hot and full of dust, swept through Baghdad on the sixth of March, signalling the beginning of spring, with summer soon to follow. The sky turned a luminescent, murky brown, and plastic bags and other refuse blew about. My driver, Sabah, who is usually cheerful, became dour and languid and complained of a headache and fever. He wanted to go to the hammam, the Turkish baths, to relax, but it was women-only day, and Sabah cursed and popped some Panadol painkillers instead. That afternoon, my government minder, a listless young man named Khalid, said that he wanted to visit his family in Karbala, a couple of hours away. He would be back the next morning, he promised, muttering enigmatically about making arrangements before the war came. After Khalid left, Sabah said that he was unlikely to return, and he did not. Khalid had asked me when I thought the Americans would invade. He said he believed that they would do it on March 14th, a Shia day of mourning, commemorating the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson at the Battle of Karbala in the year 680. “I think they will do this on purpose, as an insult to Muslims,” he said. When I told Khalid that I thought the American war planners had other things to consider—the weather, military strategy, political and diplomatic negotiations—he seemed unconvinced.
Whether or not the turab had anything to do with it, March 6th was the day that many Iraqis concluded that war was, after all, inevitable. The Russians, with perhaps the most sizable remaining contingent of foreign diplomats, evacuated most of their embassy staff, and the Japanese announced that they were departing the next morning. Pretty much everyone else, except for about three hundred Western journalists, was already gone. Even some of the so-called human shields, a motley contingent of European, Australian, American, and Turkish antiwar and environmental activists who had pitched up a fortnight earlier, ready to sacrifice themselves, had succumbed to nerves and squabbling and begun to withdraw. Medical workers reported, sotto voce, that anti-aircraft guns were being installed on the roofs of hospitals. At the Triumph Leader Museum, which houses a collection of gifts given to Saddam Hussein over the years, curators had removed things from the display cases and squirrelled them away for safekeeping, although it was doubtful how safe anything would be anywhere in Baghdad once the bombs began to fall. I went to the museum to take another look at the gun that had been used in 1920 to assassinate Colonel Gerard Leachman, a British officer who spent the First World War in the deserts of what was then Mesopotamia, leading Bedouins in skirmishes against the Ottoman Turks. By 1920, after the League of Nations gave the British a “mandate” to govern what was now referred to as Iraq, Leachman was trying to subdue restive Arab tribesmen. He advocated “wholesale slaughter” as the only really effective method, and in present-day Iraq his assassin, Sheikh Dhari, is remembered as a hero and a patriot. The Sheikh’s descendants gave his gun to Saddam as a birthday present a few years ago.
The March 6th issue of the Iraq Daily, a badly translated English-language newspaper produced by the Ministry of Information, carried the usual stories giving the government’s spin on events, including an editorial with the headline “the u.s. army generals dream of the british vanished empire.” The editorialist referred to Britain’s calamitous twentieth-century military adventures in Iraq and suggested that the Americans would share a similar fate: “We have prepared for you a nice and comfortable grave next to your inferior Stanley Maude”—the British general who captured Baghdad from the Ottomans in 1917 and died there while attempting to impose some kind of order on Mesopotamia’s Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Jews, and various tribes and clans. The curator who was called to assist me at the Triumph Leader Museum seemed to share the editorialist’s point of view. She asked me where I was from, and when I told her she taunted me with a little rhyme: “Welcome, U.S.A., go away.” But another curator was more sympathetic. He said he would fetch the gun, and he went down some stairs and returned in a few minutes, along with several uniformed guards, carrying a long-barrelled bolt-action rifle. It was, the curator explained, a Brno rifle made under license in Persia, specially for long-distance precision marksmen. He pointed out some Farsi script on the barrel, and the numbered sight for calibrating distance. “This,” he said, smiling, “is the rifle that killed Colonel Leachman.” I admired it for a few minutes, and the gun was taken away again.
Colonel Leachman was a contemporary of T. E. Lawrence, and, like Lawrence, he became famous for his exploits in the desert, living among the Arabs and accomplishing great feats of endurance and daring. Lawrence was more celebrated than Leachman, largely because of Lowell Thomas’s razzmatazz presentation of his story, and because Lawrence lived to write his memoirs, but Leachman was a heroic figure, and news of his murder both inspired the Arab tribes to revolt and horrified the British public, which was already having second thoughts about the occupation of the Middle East. Leachman had come to Mesopotamia in 1907, after serving in the Boer War and then in India. He spent a short time in the cosmopolitan society of Westerners in the cities of Basra and Baghdad, but he made his reputation moving among the tribes of the Euphrates. He wore traditional Arab garments and rode horses and camels on long trips across desolate, unmapped landscapes, reporting back on the intrigues among tribal chieftains during the last days of the Ottoman Empire.
Leachman was a severe man, and by the time of the armistice, in 1918, he had survived many savage battles and many attempts on his life. After the war, he was ruthless in putting down Arab uprisings. The British used aerial bombardments as a cost-efficient method of controlling the resentful tribes, and Leachman was especially feared for his ideas about quelling disorder. In August, 1920, he drove west from Baghdad toward the town of Al Fallujah, about forty miles away, to meet with Sheikh Dhari, perhaps to negotiate the waiver of a loan to the Sheikh, who had thus far not participated in the Arab rebellion. Exactly what happened that day is unclear, but the British tended to believe that Leachman was shot in the back at a police post, and that he had been set up.
Sheikh Dhari’s descendants, the family who donated the rifle to Saddam, still live in the village of Khandhari, on the old road to Al Fallujah, which runs alongside the superhighway linking Baghdad and Amman. I was taken there by a new government minder, who replaced the truant Khalid. The village is about halfway to Al Fallujah, which is now the site of a complex of industrial facilities under intermittent scrutiny by U.N. weapons inspectors. Chemical weapons were produced at Al Fallujah during the nineteen-eighties and nineties and may or may not have been made inoperative or harmless. We stopped in front of the Khandhari mosque, a yellow brick building with an ornately tiled turquoise-yellow-and-green minaret. The mosque is almost directly across the road from the Abu Ghraib prison, and we could see a huge portrait of Saddam wearing black gangster garb next to the prison’s main gate. Officially, the prison has been empty since last October, but I had heard that it is up and running again. A dusty bazaar was nearby, with sidewalk venders and truckstop teahouses. It was not hard to imagine the place as an old caravanserai, or way station, in the days of camels and horse carts.
Sheikh Dhari’s family was at noon prayers in the mosque, and we waited for them for about an hour. Three old men in traditional robes and checked head scarves came out—the Sheikh’s grandsons—and the minder explained that I had come to hear their family’s story of the killing of Leachman. They invited me to their home, a couple of low buildings surrounded by date palms just off the main road, and led me into the diwaniya, a long rectangular meeting room lined with tea tables and cheaply tapestried sofas and chairs. The three elders—Sheikh Muther Khameez Al-Dhari, seventy-one; Sheikh Abdul Wahab Khameez Al-Dhari, seventy-two; and Sheikh Taher Khameez Al-Dhari, seventy-five—pulled up chairs next to me. Sheikh Muther, a hefty, mostly toothless man, spoke first. He belted out his version of the famous story in a truculent tone, and his brothers immediately indicated that they disagreed with him. The eldest, Sheikh Taher, a distinguished-looking man with a fine gold-embroidered robe and decorated walking stick, looked at his brother stonily and said nothing. Sheikh Abdul Wahab turned away from Taher and rolled his eyes. Muther stomped out angrily, but he returned a few moments later. Abdul Wahab then took the floor but was soon interrupted by Muther. This was all going on in Arabic, with my minder, Muslim, finding it quite beyond his abilities to translate, but I heard the name Leachman mentioned a lot. Muslim wrote down what they said, and occasionally asked them questions, but he seemed bewildered. “They are old men, and each has his story,” he said. The bickering continued. Finally, wordlessly and with a great display of dignity, Taher removed himself, walking away to sit with some other relatives in the room. A dozen or so sons and nephews and grandsons of the old sheikhs had gathered to listen, and, as their elders quarrelled, they smiled and shook their heads.
One of the younger relatives, who spoke English, sat down next to me. He said that his name was Abdul Razaq, and he asked me whether I was a Christian or a Jew. When I told him that I was of Christian origin, he smiled with relief. “I am glad,” he said. “I don’t like Jews.” Abdul Razaq pointed to an old black-and-white photograph on the wall near a portrait of Saddam Hussein. The photograph was of Sheikh Dhari, he said. The face had been crudely touched up to represent an angelic-looking man, rather like the old-fashioned renderings of Joseph in illustrated bible stories for children. His hands were folded pacifically on his knees. Like his grandsons, he was bearded and wore a robe and a head scarf.
During a lunch of rice, red beans, grilled chicken, and salad, served on a tablecloth laid out on the floor, Muslim gave me the gist of what the old men had said. They claimed that Leachman was thwarting efforts by several sheikhs in the Middle Euphrates, including Sheikh Dhari, to gain independence from British rule. Leachman had accused the sheikh of supporting a gang of bandits and had made a rendezvous with him at a police station near the sheikh’s home. Sheikh Dhari went to the meeting, but he brought several relatives with him. The two men quarrelled, and while they were standing at the doorway, the Sheikh signalled his relatives to shoot. Leachman was wounded in the leg, and Sheikh Dhari stabbed him with his sword and killed him. Sheikh Dhari fled to Turkey, and the Arab tribes revolted. A price was put on the sheikh’s head. He was captured a few years later by a British spy and brought back to Baghdad, where he died in a hospital after being injected with poison.
This version of events is remarkably similar to the way the story was told in “Clash of Loyalties,” a film made by British and Iraqi producers in 1983. Leachman, played by Oliver Reed, is a drunken, cold-hearted cynic who says things like “Killing and intimidation are my job, and I do it well.” Sheikh Dhari is a tragic hero. He gallops off into exile after his daring feat, but years later, when he is old and sick, he is lured back to Iraq, betrayed, and murdered. In the final scene, the sheikh’s casket is followed by thousands of angry mourners who pass by the British Legation, where diplomats look on smugly. The image right before the credits shows spouting oil wells and flames.
Back in the diwaniya, over tea, Sheikh Muther became agitated. “Leachman was trying to make war between the people in Iraq in order to get what he wanted,” he yelled. “Tell America not to attack! I am a warrior just like Sheikh Dhari, and I will defend my country bravely.” He chuckled and grinned and grabbed me in an affectionate-seeming embrace. Once our clinch was broken, I asked Muther what lessons the Americans should draw from the British experience, and Abdul Razaq spoke up. “We learned many lessons about how to defend ourselves from any kind of occupation. The Americans and British cannot occupy Iraq. Nobody can occupy Iraq.”
Abdul Razaq invited me to go with him to where Leachman was killed, in an old yellow brick building with arched windows and a single doorway, set back from the road amid eucalyptus trees and a warren of mud hovels. It had been the Turkish police station, he said, and during Leachman’s time it was requisitioned by the British. A family was living there now, and I saw a young man and a few small children inside. A central passageway led past dark, vaulted chambers to a courtyard paved with stones. Beyond several arches lay a kind of open stable block, where a large white goose wandered around. Before we left the house, Abdul Razaq stopped me, just inside the great front door. “This is the spot where Leachman was killed—right here,” he said. Abdul Razaq pointed to an old tree that stood about a hundred feet away and said that was where the relatives with guns waited. I told him I was very impressed that Leachman could have been shot from such a distance, standing inside a darkened doorway, with Sheikh Dhari right next to him. Abdul Razaq smiled. “Remember,” he said, “Iraqis are very good warriors.”
A government official in Baghdad whom I had met on previous trips to the city, a man I will call Harun, invited me to his home for dinner one evening. He seemed to have been drinking before I arrived, and greeted me effusively, with kisses on both cheeks. Harun had organized the gathering with a firmly Iraqi theme. There were about a dozen guests, including a Palestinian man and four people employed by a Scandinavian N.G.O. Harun played a lute, a beautifully crafted instrument that he said was made by the most celebrated lutemaker in Basra, and he sang two songs, a sad one about love, made famous by the late Egyptian singer Um Kalthum, and a composition of his own, which sounded like a poem. The words were in Arabic, and he explained to me that it was about lost love and a deceitful woman. Another guest, the Palestinian, said to me afterward that Harun’s lute playing, which I had thought quite lovely, was “terrible,” although he sang well.
We drank arrack, the Iraqi national liquor, a kind of anisette. Harun had prepared the dinner himself, in a barbecue pit in his garden. The main course was masgouf, Tigris river fish split open and grilled on hot coals. Throughout the evening, with a passion that seemed increasingly desperate, Harun insisted that we join him in toasts to art, music, love, peace, and friendship. The living room was filled with good-quality Iraqi modern art, along with several framed photographs of Harun with Saddam Hussein. Pointing to his sizable girth, he quipped that Saddam had advised him to lose twenty-eight kilos. He raised his glass and drank a toast to this: “To dieting!” At one point, he asked some of the guests to follow him into the garden to see his new well, dug, like many others in Baghdad recently, in preparation for the war. He showed us a pile of dried date-palm fronds he had begun storing for fuel, and jerricans of gas, for his generator in the garden. “I have everything ready, you see?” Looking up at the night sky—it was one of the moonless nights of early March—he said, “And I will be able to stand here and watch the cruise missiles going by, on their way to their targets, just like I did in 1991.” He laughed again, manically, and darted off to see to his other guests.
At around midnight, Harun announced that he would, with regret, have to bring the party to an end. He was leaving the very next evening on a trip to Europe. It was a business trip; he had been invited as part of his government duties. Before he left, he added, he had to see off his wife—a beautiful, weary-looking woman—and their young daughter. They were getting on a plane to Syria. He didn’t explain why, but as we left his house one of my companions told me that Harun’s wife’s family had recently rented a house in Damascus, and were awaiting her arrival. Like a lot of other high-ranking Baathist government officials, Harun was evacuating his family before the war started. “I don’t think he’ll be coming back, either,” my companion said. As we drove off, Harun was standing at the gate of his driveway, calling out, “Light a candle for us. Light a candle for peace, and for the children of Iraq.”
In late November, 1914, shortly after Britain declared war on the Ottoman Empire, a British expeditionary force seized Basra, and a few months later the British began moving north, toward Baghdad. They got within twenty-five miles of the city but then had to retreat to Kut, a village on the Tigris River. There, on December 3, 1915, they hunkered down, under siege from the Turks and their Arab allies. A few days later, Colonel Leachman, who had been covering the flanks of the retreating troops and was outside Kut, broke through Turkish lines to rescue some of his servants who were trapped in the village, including a young Indian boy who had become his constant companion. Leachman led a breakout with a few thousand cavalry troops. The rest of the army was not so lucky. Ten thousand British and Indian soldiers died between the start of the march on Baghdad and the surrender in Kut in April, 1916. Twenty-three thousand more troops died trying to rescue the trapped soldiers. The survivors of the siege were sent on a death march and were press-ganged into work as laborers on a railroad line. It had been the longest and most terrible siege in the history of the British Empire.
Kut is now an ugly, down-at-the-heels town of a few hundred thousand people. To get to it from Baghdad, you drive through a flat landscape of churned-up, trash-strewn brown earth and an industrial belt of scrubby factories that eventually merges into green fields of alfalfa and small farms and stands of date palms. When I drove there in mid-March, I saw hundreds of newly bulldozed snipers’ nests and sandbagged foxholes. They were fragile, rather pointless-looking defenses—a single shot from a tank would blow any one of them to smithereens. Not much else in the way of military preparation seemed to be going on. Just outside the large concrete arches and the military inspection post that serve as the gateway to Kut, we passed an army barracks where uniformed men who seemed to be recruits were being rallied at the roadside, but there was a desultory look to their activity.
Donkey carts carrying jerricans and fresh alfalfa bobbed along on the streets of Kut. It was a springlike morning, and as I waited outside the governor’s compound, where I had gone to ask permission to visit the British cemetery, I could hear children playing in a nearby schoolyard. The school let out, and a group of young boys came down the road, hopping in and out of recently dug foxholes. After an hour or so, some senior-looking officials emerged with my minder, Muslim, and we drove in a big loop around the town, past a stadium where soldiers were making more dugouts in the median strip of a boulevard, and into a scrubby area of the city, with tiny, badly built brick houses and raw sewage running down the streets. The British cemetery is a sunken square of land surrounded by buildings on three sides. A fence ran along the street in front of it, but the front gate was open, and I could see that the whole place was strewn with garbage, and about half of it was hidden behind a tall thicket of weeds. An inscription next to the front gate read, “Kut War Cemetery, 1914-1918.” As I stared in dismay, the man who had guided us from the governor’s office explained, through Muslim, that the poor state of the graveyard was the result of the U.N. sanctions and the lack of diplomatic relations with Great Britain. “The men who used to look after it, and who received salaries from the British, have gone,” he said. “That is the reason it looks like this.”
We clambered down to the cemetery grounds, over a huge pile of stinking rubbish. Women peering out of a window giggled and chattered. Some young boys sat on a wall, dangling their feet and staring at us. The stench of excrement was strong; in one spot the skin of a freshly slaughtered goat buzzed with flies. There was a dead tree with bicycle inner tubes caught in its branches. An unmarked obelisk at the center was splattered with black and yellow paint, and broken-off headstones lay everywhere. Those still standing and legible showed that most of the men who were buried here, English privates with surnames like Martin, Nicholls, Newton, and Rogers, had been killed at the height of the siege of Kut, between January and April of 1916.
When I was done poking around, I chatted with the official from the governor’s office and mentioned that ten thousand soldiers had died in Kut. He smiled. “And if the Americans invade you will see many of them killed at the borders with Iraq,” he said. “We are here, living in our homes, and we will defend ourselves and our country with courage, the same as people anywhere would do in our position.” I asked the officer his name. He told me, with some reluctance, that it was Hassan Al-Wazaty. When I asked him his rank, he laughed and demurred: “No rank. I am just one of the people of Iraq. We are all like soldiers now.”
Later, in a situation without minders or translators, I told a man who is highly placed in Baghdad that I had seen trenches and foxholes on the road to Kut, and he laughed. That was just to keep people busy doing things, he said. It was obvious that the regime did not intend to defend anything but Baghdad itself. The Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard had been pulled to Baghdad from the south and the north and had been dispersed throughout the city, in civilian areas. This seemed like a foolhardy policy to him, but there it was. “If everything else is gone,” he said, “then why fight for Baghdad? What is the point in that?”
Colonel Leachman was buried in an unmarked grave in Al Fallujah, among the bodies of other soldiers who had fallen in the Arab rebellion. Leachman’s body was disinterred in 1921 and reburied in Baghdad, in the North Gate War Cemetery, in the Bab al Mouatham neighborhood. The graveyard is a dusty fifteen-acre oblong with rows of regimental tombstones, and open spaces where the ashes of Muslim and Hindu soldiers lie. It is dotted with the odd plinth and funereal obelisk and bisected by a row of forlorn-looking date palms. The Turkish embassy is across the street. Several laborers were working on a new guardhouse when Khalid, the minder who was soon to abscond to his home in Karbala, and I visited. One of the laborers unlocked the gate and pointed to General Maude’s imposing domed stone mausoleum at the center of the grounds. “That’s where most of the visitors go,” he said. We walked toward it, passing an obelisk inscribed with the message, in English and Sanskrit, “God is One—His is the Victory: In Memory of the brave Hindus and Sikhs who sacrificed their lives in the Great War for their King and their Country.” Etched into a large limestone plinth nearby were the words “Their Name Liveth for Evermore.”
Some of the headstones had broken off, and lay toppled and neglected. Those still standing were etched with Christian crosses and regimental insignias: an elephant and palm for the Ceylon Sanitary Corps, a castle standard for the Essex Regiments, and a stag’s head for the Seaforth Highlanders. The headstone for 201775 Private S. Brown of the Dorsetshire Regiment, who died on September 28, 1917, at the age of twenty-five, bore the words “Peace, Perfect Peace.” Many of the graves were anonymous and were inscribed with the same message: “Four Soldiers of the Great War—Known Unto God.” The casket in General Maude’s mausoleum bore the epitaph “He Fought a Good Fight and Kept the Faith.” A plaque identifying him was covered with graffito markings in Arabic, the names of Iraqi boys: Jassim, Muhammad, Shakir . . .
As we were walking out of the cemetery, we passed an obelisk with the inscription “Here are the honoured Turkish soldiers who fell for their country in the Great War, 1914-1918.” When I pointed this out to Khalid, he seemed confused, and I explained that the obelisk had been erected by the British to honor their enemies. He smirked. “So, the British have honor!” he said, and he walked away, then turned back. “Maybe they will do the same for us, after they have killed us. Thank you very much.”