Letter from Nasiriyah, Iraq
March 30, 2004
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
Suddenly, the American soldiers grab one of their female
holding her aloft like a trophy. One soldier grabs her breast.
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
The food is fantastic. The magnificent desert stars bath
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
person, or if the food wasn't so damn good, I might begin jotting
names and units and compiling material for a scathing investigative
about G.I.'s going bad in Iraq, smooching in public and downing
Romanian beer as Iraqi resistance fighters, troublemakers and
wreak havoc throughout the country.
But I feel sorry for the poor grunts sent to this hellhole. Besides,
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
to see how things had progressed. Instead, charmed by the utterly
Italian spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, we
are swept into
a desert fete replete with dirty dancing and fueled by an open
Through the haze of techno music and smoke, I begin to recall
high-minded reason we drove 40 kilometers from our cruddy hotel
desert to get to this military base. The commander, I recall.
supposed to interview the commander of one of the Italian units
one responsible for quelling a ferocious gunfight a few nights
between local cops and Shia militiamen.
Sufficiently stuffed with fine meats and drink, we search out
"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
hang on the wall behind him. This colonel has desktop Internet
We engage in small talk. He describes the gunfight that took
place a few
nights ago, drawing a makeshift map to illustrate the progression
gunfifht. Local cops got into a gun battle with members of Shia
groups. Four cops lay dead before his men moved in to quell the
Authorities fear revenge killings. The night before, another
out. The area's Shia militamen, all armed, are beginning to take
into their own hands. He doubts anything resembling peace will
the occupying forces hand the car keys over to the Iraqis on
1, which has been the U.S. plan. The cycle of violence has already
But the cycle of political sniping between Iraq's military and
authorities is also underway.
When I ask him about accusations that the Italians do little,
out their base most of them trying to keep their casualty count
they hurt Prime Minister Silvio Berlosconi's political prospects
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
375 kilometers or 233 miles southeast of Baghdad, on the highway
Basrah and Kut and at the western edge og Iraq's southern marshes.
Euphrates River edges slowly past the center of town, past the
15 American soldiers and untold numbers of Iraqi soldiers and
killed in a weeklong battle last year.
Nasiriyah was also the flashpoint of a March 2, 1991 Shia revolt
Saddam after the first Gulf War, a revolt that spread through
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
did, but when Saddam moved to crush the rebellion, America did
man Bush and his pals in the Gulf States feared the Shia clerics
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
suffered, that Iraq owes them something. In addition, many have
into tribal-based militias, really gangs. They've got guns, and
how to use 'em. I get the sense they're just waiting for the
pull back so they can get their hands on each other.
the occupation soldiers have taken a far more laid back attitude
their peacekeeping duties than Baghdad, Tikrit or Fallujah, where
last week charged through downtown shootin' up "bad guys" (and
cameramen and children), you get a taste of things to come for
The next day we pay a visit to the some of the militia groups.
15th of Shabaan militia, and Moqtada Sadr's Mahdi's Army, and
Hakim family's Badr Brigades and a bunch of other colorful groups.
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
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
throughout Iraq, even the northern Kurds, who suffered immensely
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
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
We stop by the to visit to the Governor of Nasiriyah
called Dhi Qar province). The Gov's a dapper fellow, a business-like
brown suit and tie. He's proud of his people. Indeed, downtown
bustles with vitality, with shops and markets and even Internet
late night and movies projected on a screen in the central square.
But he says trouble lurks under the surface. His authority was
challenged by a large group of armed Shia militiamen holding
in front of his office. He responded by gathering together a
better armed tribal supporters who stood atop the governor's
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
to bolster their numbers. "Even me, I've been doing this job
months," the Guv said. "I still haven't been paid."
Earlier, one of the European coalition officials, a veteran of
reconstruction efforts all over the world, told us candidly he
with the way the money was being spent. He said the occupation
appeared encumbered with all the bureacratic hassles of the United
with none of its political legitimacy. He said many of the development
projects are ideologically and politically driven window dressing
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.
Borzou Daragahi is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in major
newspapers, including The New York Times. He sends out occasional
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