Goodwill is fragile in new Iraq
A new market was built, then sacked this weekend by US troops.
ABU GHRAIB, IRAQ — As the cinderblock rubble of what was to be Abu Ghraib's new marketplace is carted off by scavengers, a piece of the goodwill that had slowly been built between Iraqis and Americans stationed here is also disappearing.
Just this month the new market had opened, a symbol of reconstruction progress in this poor agricultural town just west of Baghdad - and on the fringes of the violent Sunni Triangle. But by Sunday, what was intended as a community-improvement project, planned and executed by the US military in cooperation with the local town council, lay in ruins. It was crushed by American tanks and a combination of fear, misunderstandings, and outside insurgent interference.
The two days of riots and destruction of Abu Ghraib's market - which left at least seven Iraqis dead - symbolize the fragile state of relations between Iraqis and the American authorities, and the susceptibility of those relations to cultural differences and faltering security. Six months after the American military began planning and helping with everything from water projects to school refurbishments here, Abu Ghraib suggests how cooperation and sympathies so painstakingly nurtured, can be lost in a flash.
"We loved the Americans when they came, I believed when they said they came to help us," says Hossein Ibrahim, an intense former film student who lost the dishware and cutlery he sold in the market after the war. "But now I hate them, they are worse than Saddam."
The Americans, many of whom have been here since the war, are perplexed by the abrupt turn against a project meant to improve lives. But at the same time, as US soldiers have faced increasing roadside attacks and random fire, they have shifted to a more defensive and protective stance - a position that raises walls higher between them and the Iraqis.
"We'd made a lot of progress, so to have this problem at the market, where people come in and occupy it, and force us to destroy it, is really... It's disturbing," says Maj. Eric Wick, executive officer of the 2nd Battalion, 70th Armored Regiment, responsible for Abu Ghraib.
"It seems like we've taken a step backwards, but we're working hard with the local council to get things back on track," adds the Wisconsinite, who has watched Abu Ghraib evolve for eight months. "We want to make things better."
There are about as many versions of what happened at the Abu Ghraib market, beginning Friday, as there are plump crimson pomegranates on the average fruit cart here. But what started as a small protest over Iraqi police efforts to move traffic- blocking vendors flared to a bloody confrontation between locals and outsiders on one side- some armed with rockets - and US troops and tanks.
The new market was designed to get vendors - whose numbers had mushroomed after the war as nearby factories closed - off the streets and into new stalls. The market was also envisioned as a traffic-control project. The many vendors often blocked the entrance to a hospital, as well as the highway running through town to nearby Fallujah.
As attacks against US forces have increased in Fallujah - where a helicopter was downed Sunday, killing 15 American soldiers - keeping the highway clear has become a higher priority.
Offering more than 400 stalls, the new market looked like it would be a success. But when the town council decided to impose a small daily fee for stall space, some vendors balked, and returned to laying out their goods beside the highway.
With congestion building again, the new Iraqi police on Friday decided to return order and clear the street. Rocks were thrown, and the police, feeling threatened, called in the Americans. As tanks and infantry soldiers arrived, what had been small-arms fire escalated to grenades and 25- millimeter shells being fired at the US troops.
According to Major Wick, the Americans followed established rules of engagement, carefully targeting only rioters with weapons or seen lobbing grenades. But buildings where assailants had taken up positions - in at least one case with a missile launcher - were fired on. And as at least a dozen individuals retreated with arms into the new market, the Americans turned to blasting the very walls that so recently they had helped build.
On Sunday, violence peaked again when Estonian soldiers on patrol were attacked, obliging the Americans to step in once more. By the time it was all over, at least seven Iraqis were dead - although Wick acknowledges that some of the injured had been removed from the scene by locals, and that 14 funerals were held in Abu Ghraib on Monday.
"The Americans arrest people just for selling in the streets, and now they kill them, so how is this better than Saddam?" says Ali Ahmed Saleh, standing by the flattened hulk that was once the rusty pickup from which he operated a moving business.
Furious that a tank crushed his only source of income, he says it's actions like this that are turning Abu Ghraib away from the US. "The Americans used to walk through the market and buy things, it was nice, but about a month ago they changed. They showed less respect, and now this. I'm afraid that with so many people out of work in the market," he adds, "if someone comes and offers them $200 to kill an American, they won't hesitate to do it."
WHAT happened about a month ago is that attacks on Americans here picked up. Security forces also began getting information about infiltration by outside parties - perhaps Hussein loyalists or radical Islamists - and some local people say they noticed more visits by strangers as well.
American soldiers on search missions following the riots found weapons in one mosque. And on Monday, a new banner, "Long live the Jihadis," fluttered at the town's entrance, though no one claimed to have put it up.
And the Iraqi outsiders weren't the only newcomers. Feeling a need for reinforced security, the nearby American base called in Ace Company, an armored group whose moniker is "Aces of Death." While the 70th Armored Regiment had ridden around Abu Ghraib for months with a smiling turtle as their emblem, now Ace Company flies through town with their symbol, a skull and crossbones.
"They are the dirty unit, they are killers and thieves," says Saad Jemeel, who lost the lamb meat stall he rented in the new market. "What are we supposed to think when we see their flag, that they are coming to help us?"
The local council, which was so proud to be the first elected municipal council of the new Iraq, has also been stunned by riots that targeted Iraqi authorities - the police and the council - as much as the US military.
"So much needed to be done here and we have accomplished so much, there's more electricity, clean water, better schools, it's difficult to understand why this happened," says Dhari Khamis al-Dhari, a local sheikh who was the council's chairman for its first six months. "There isn't much to smile about these days."
Now the council sits behind large sand-filled berms and a locked gate, watched over by two American tanks. Mr. Dhari, still a council member here, has moved up to a seat on the Baghdad city council in recognition of his ability to navigate local and American demands. But he and other council members have received threats in Abu Ghraib, so they don't mingle with the public as they once did.
"I'm sure it's people from outside the area," says Dhari, who admits to feeling deep sadness over the recent events.
The council on Sunday voted to build a new market outside the town center and away from the Fallujah highway - a decision that could inflame public opinion again when moving time comes.
But Major Wick remains hopeful. He says the riots have resulted in an abrupt uptick in local cooperation, as more people decide they want the attacks to stop. And he thinks the bitterness over the ill-fated market can be addressed. On the council, he says, "They're looking at making the destroyed site into a park instead."