Winning Hearts and Minds


Baghdad , Iraq -- Aadhamiyah. The mosque of Abu Hanifa, built around the tomb of the founder of the mainstream Hanafi school of Islamist jurisprudence, has stood for 1250 years in the Aadhamiya quarter of Baghdad . When Hulagu sacked Baghdad in 1257, he used it to stable his horses, but otherwise it has escaped indignities from the many invaders and foreign overlords to which Baghdad has been subject. It is the most important (though not the largest) Sunni mosque in Baghdad , and a site of pilgrimage for Muslims the world over. When the siege of Fallujah began and a call was put out through the mosques for donations of food, medicine, personal items, blood, and money (an earlier piece I wrote about this drive), it was natural that Abu Hanifa mosque be the epicenter for the effort. Afterward, as Fallujah was bombarded and there was a massive exodus of refugees, the operation of housing them with people in Aadhamiyah was again coordinated through Abu Hanifa. So it was only natural that the U.S. military, suspicious that military supplies are being smuggled into Fallujah and that mujaheddin are going both ways back and forth, would raid the mosque. Issam Rashid, chief of security for the mosque, told us the story. At 3:30 am on Sunday morning, 100 American troops raided the mosque, looking for weapons and resistance fighters. They started the raid the way they virtually always do -- by smashing in the gates with tanks and then driving Hummers in. The Hummers ran over and destroyed some of the stored relief goods (the bulk of the goods had already been sent to Fallujah -- over 200 tons -- but the amount remaining was considerable). More was destroyed as soldiers ripped apart sacks looking for rifles. Rashid estimated maybe three tons of supplies were destroyed. We saw for ourselves some of the remains, sacks of beans ripped apart and strewn around. The mosque was full of people, including 90 down from Kirkuk with the Red Crescent, arranging for further aid to Fallujah. They were all pushed down on the floor, with guns put to the backs of their heads. Another person associated with the mosque, Mr. Alber, who speaks very good English, told us that he repeatedly said, "Please, don't break down doors. Please, don't break windows. We can help you. We can have custodians unlock the doors." (Alber, by the way, was imprisoned by Saddam for running a bakery. As he said, "Under the embargo, you could eat flour, you could eat sugar, you could eat eggs, all separately. But mix them together and bake them and you were harming the economy by raising the price of sugar and you could get 15 years in prison.) The Americans refused to listen to Alber's pleas. We went all around the mosque and the adjacent madrassah, the Imam Aadham Islamic College. We saw dozens of doors broken down, windows broken, ceilings ripped apart, and bullet holes in walls and ceilings. The way the soldiers searched for illicit arms in the ceiling was first to spray the ceiling with gunfire, then break out a panel and go up and search. They even went and rifled through students' exam papers. A feeble old man with a limp who is a "guard" at the mosque (actually a poor man with a large family who is given housing by the imam of the mosque) was hit in the head with a rifle butt and then kicked when he was down -- all because he was a little slow in answering the door. He says he never carries a weapon -- the whole mosque has only three Kalashnikovs, for security, kept in the imam's room (the soldiers confiscated their ammunition in the raid). And, of course, they entered the mosque with their boots on. The American commanders will say this was a necessary precaution to make sure no military goods got into Fallujah and that this was legal under the laws of war. But the Abu Hanifa mosque was not involved in any illicit activities nothing was found. The soldiers didn't bother to ask. They didn't go to the Imam and see if they could search to mosque. And, after a year of being stationed in Aadhamiyah, they didn't know the people well enough to know there would be nothing -- even though they were told repeatedly that the resistance in that area never fired from near the mosque because they were afraid of drawing return fire that would hit the mosque. You can guess how many hearts and minds were won by this little operation -- the third time that the mosque has been raided since the war. Abu Hanifa mosque has a tower that is being reconstructed. It was destroyed by the American attack during the war and is only now being finished, one year later. Rashid told me why. He said, "After the war, the Americans came and offered money to rebuild the tower. We told them no. We will rebuild the tower with our own money. We will take no money from you. You can't just destroy things and then win our goodwill by paying us off. This is not a game." When I asked Rashid if we could use his full name, he said, "Why not?" It's a response we get more and more these days, from people who would have been afraid but have lost their fears through anger. Dignity is one of the few things in Iraq that is not in short supply.

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Rahul Mahajan's picture
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Rahul Mahajan is the publisher of the weblog Empire Notes and is currently writing and blogging from Baghdad. His latest book is Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond.