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Payback time
Letter from Nasiriyah, Iraq

March 30, 2004

Dear All,

The real fun starts when Green Day comes on. That's when the American soldiers, already hammered, out of uniform and making out lasciviously with each other, start slam dancing. The hosting Italian troops, also drunk but more restrained, are bemused, feigning shock at the Americans who don't know how to hold their liquor.

Suddenly, the American soldiers grab one of their female colleagues and holding her aloft like a trophy. One soldier grabs her breast. She laughs.

The Americans' commanding officers are embarassed.

"This makes Tailhook look like kindergarten," one relatively sober U.S. Air Force sargent snipes.

Bottles of Chianti, cans of beer and flasks full of hard liquor get passed around. The Italians have flown in chunks of delicious parmesan cheese and prepared delicately marinated meats, grilled over a gigantic barbecue. A couple nights before, the Romanian soldiers held a bash.

Tomorrow night, it's the Portugese troops' turn to host.

The food is fantastic. The magnificent desert stars bath the scene in a supernatural light. Nation-building has never been such a blast.

"Without a doubt, the Italians have the best parties," one tipsy female soldier tells me.

I'm not quite sure what I'm doing at this grand, raucous bash in the middle of the desert in Nasiriyah, the southern Iraqi city. If I were a pettier person, or if the food wasn't so damn good, I might begin jotting down names and units and compiling material for a scathing investigative report about G.I.'s going bad in Iraq, smooching in public and downing cans of Romanian beer as Iraqi resistance fighters, troublemakers and criminals wreak havoc throughout the country.

But I feel sorry for the poor grunts sent to this hellhole. Besides, I'm here for another purpose. Another journalist and I decided to head down to the city because it was the site of the greatest battle in last year's war to see how things had progressed. Instead, charmed by the utterly charming Italian spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, we are swept into a desert fete replete with dirty dancing and fueled by an open bar.

Through the haze of techno music and smoke, I begin to recall some, other high-minded reason we drove 40 kilometers from our cruddy hotel through the desert to get to this military base. The commander, I recall. We were supposed to interview the commander of one of the Italian units here, the one responsible for quelling a ferocious gunfight a few nights before between local cops and Shia militiamen.

Sufficiently stuffed with fine meats and drink, we search out il colonel.

"You want to do the interview now?" he asks.

Yup, we reply.

Il colonel is an affable, media-friendly fellow. He stumbles slightly as we head to his office. Portraits of Italy's president and head military honcho hang on the wall behind him. This colonel has desktop Internet access. We engage in small talk. He describes the gunfight that took place a few nights ago, drawing a makeshift map to illustrate the progression of the gunfifht. Local cops got into a gun battle with members of Shia militia groups. Four cops lay dead before his men moved in to quell the fighting.

Authorities fear revenge killings. The night before, another gunfight broke out. The area's Shia militamen, all armed, are beginning to take the law into their own hands. He doubts anything resembling peace will emerge once the occupying forces hand the car keys over to the Iraqis on midnight July 1, which has been the U.S. plan. The cycle of violence has already begun, he says.

But the cycle of political sniping between Iraq's military and political authorities is also underway.

When I ask him about accusations that the Italians do little, just hanging out their base most of them trying to keep their casualty count low lest they hurt Prime Minister Silvio Berlosconi's political prospects back in Rome. He erupts in a Pinteresque fury against the "anglo" Coalition Provisional Authority conspiring with the "anglo" press to give his men a bad name. "These people, they chat," he says in a whisper. "I don't chat. I deal in facts."

He points to the map he drew of the shootout. "These are facts."

Nasiriyah, a city of about 500,000, is in the middle of farm country, about 375 kilometers or 233 miles southeast of Baghdad, on the highway between Basrah and Kut and at the western edge og Iraq's southern marshes. The Euphrates River edges slowly past the center of town, past the bridge where 15 American soldiers and untold numbers of Iraqi soldiers and civilians were killed in a weeklong battle last year.

Nasiriyah was also the flashpoint of a March 2, 1991 Shia revolt against Saddam after the first Gulf War, a revolt that spread through the entire Shia south of the country before it was put down with brutal force. That was the battle when George Bush Sr. urged Iraqis to rise up against Saddam. They did, but when Saddam moved to crush the rebellion, America did nothing. Old man Bush and his pals in the Gulf States feared the Shia clerics would take over Iraq and cozy up to Iran. Saddam killed people like flies, like half a million of them.

The point is, the Shia in this part of Iraq really sense that they've suffered, that Iraq owes them something. In addition, many have organized into tribal-based militias, really gangs. They've got guns, and they know how to use 'em. I get the sense they're just waiting for the Americans to pull back so they can get their hands on each other.

Maybe down here, where the occupation soldiers have taken a far more laid back attitude toward their peacekeeping duties than Baghdad, Tikrit or Fallujah, where Marines last week charged through downtown shootin' up "bad guys" (and television cameramen and children), you get a taste of things to come for Iraq.

The next day we pay a visit to the some of the militia groups. There's the 15th of Shabaan militia, and Moqtada Sadr's Mahdi's Army, and there's the Hakim family's Badr Brigades and a bunch of other colorful groups. They all claim to have fought Saddam and now were preparing to assume more power. One militia leader said he was the guy who shot Saddam's son in an incident in the late 1990s. "What frustrates us that we're cut out of power now," he said. "We're confident we'll eventually get that power when there's an election."

I've often heard similar boasts and from other ethnic and religious leaders throughout Iraq, even the northern Kurds, who suffered immensely under Saddam, supported America's war against Baghdad and now figure it's time for a little payback Once the Americans pull back, they're confident they'll be able to wrestle political control, in the schools, shops and streets if not in Baghdad. The problem is there are so many groups with so many gripes and so many guns.

We stop by the to visit to the Governor of Nasiriyah province (actually called Dhi Qar province). The Gov's a dapper fellow, a business-like in brown suit and tie. He's proud of his people. Indeed, downtown Nasiriyah, bustles with vitality, with shops and markets and even Internet cafes open late night and movies projected on a screen in the central square.

But he says trouble lurks under the surface. His authority was recently challenged by a large group of armed Shia militiamen holding a demonstration in front of his office. He responded by gathering together a collection of better armed tribal supporters who stood atop the governor's building office and stared his opponents down. The confrontation subsided peaceably.

He warns that despite the billions U.S. taxpayers are paying to foot the Iraq bill, there's little money trickling down to the street. He worries the swarms of aimless young men will be easy prey for the militia groups, hoping to bolster their numbers. "Even me, I've been doing this job for three months," the Guv said. "I still haven't been paid."

Earlier, one of the European coalition officials, a veteran of post-conflict reconstruction efforts all over the world, told us candidly he was disgusted with the way the money was being spent. He said the occupation authorities appeared encumbered with all the bureacratic hassles of the United Nations with none of its political legitimacy. He said many of the development projects are ideologically and politically driven window dressing meant to make Americans look good rather than to create a sustainable economy to get the young kids off the streets.

I asked how the reconstruction could be improved.

"Elect a new president," he told us.

Kind regards,


Borzou Daragahi is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in major newspapers, including
The New York Times. He sends out occasional letters like this one to friends and family. You can subscribe by sending a blank email to

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