What is it with Iraqi dentists and their interest in politics?
Iraq’s Curse: A Thirst for Final, Crushing Victory
By EDWARD WONG
Published: June 3, 2007
PERHAPS no fact is more revealing about Iraq’s history than this: The Iraqis have a word that means to utterly defeat and humiliate someone by dragging his corpse through the streets.
The word is “sahel,” and it helps explain much of what I have seen in three and a half years of covering the war.
It is a word unique to Iraq, my friend Razzaq explained over tea one afternoon on my final tour. Throughout Iraq’s history, he said, power has changed hands only through extreme violence, when a leader was vanquished absolutely, and his destruction was put on display for all to see.
Most famously it happened to a former prime minister, Nuri al-Said, who tried to flee after a military coup in 1958 by scurrying through eastern Baghdad dressed as a woman. He was shot dead. His body was disinterred and hacked apart, the bits dragged through the streets. In later years, Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party crushed their enemies with the same brand of brutality.
“Other Arabs say, ‘You are the country of sahel,’ ” Razzaq said. “It has always been that way in Iraq.”
But in this war, the moment of sahel has been elusive. No faction — not the Shiite Arabs or Sunni Arabs or Kurds — has been able to secure absolute power, and that has only sharpened the hunger for it.
Listen to Iraqis engaged in the fight, and you realize they are far from exhausted by the war. Many say this is only the beginning.
President Bush, on the other hand, has escalated the American military involvement here on the assumption that the Iraqi factions have tired of armed conflict and are ready to reach a grand accord. Certainly there are Iraqis who have grown weary. But they are not the ones at the country’s helm; many are among some two million who have fled, helping leave the way open for extremists to take control of their homeland.
“We’ve changed nothing,” said Fakhri al-Qaisi, a Sunni Arab dentist turned hard-line politician who has three bullets lodged in his torso from a recent assassination attempt. “It’s dark. There will be more blood.”
I first met Mr. Qaisi in 2003 at a Salafi mosque in western Baghdad, when the Sunni Arab insurgency was gaining momentum. He articulated the Sunnis’ simmering anger at being ousted from power. That fury has blossomed and is likely only to grow, as religious Shiite leaders and their militias become more entrenched in the government and as Kurds in the north push to expand their region and secede in all but name.
Caught in the middle of the civil war are the Americans. To Iraq’s factions, they are the weakest of all the armed groups in one crucial respect: their will is ebbing and their time here is limited. That leaves Iraqis more motivated than ever to cling to their weapons, preparing for what many see as an inevitable plunge into the abyss.
“Everyone — the Sunni, the Shia — is playing the waiting game,” an Iraqi leader told me over dinner at his home in the Green Zone. “They’re waiting out the Americans. Everyone is using time against you.”
Much seemed different in April 2003, when the Americans pulled down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square and allowed Iraqis to drag it through the streets. It looked like an act of sahel at the time, but the Americans failed to establish total control, as Iraqi history says a conqueror must.
Four years on, Sunni and Shiite attacks against the Americans are expanding. There is little love among Iraqi civilians for the troops, though many fear the anarchy that could follow an American withdrawal.
“I’m still sticking by my principle, which is against the occupation,” Mr. Qaisi said in an interview here while visiting from his new home in Tikrit. “I’m Iraqi, and I think the Iraqi people should have this principle. We have the right to defend our country as George Washington did.”
As long as I have known him, Mr. Qaisi has rejected the idea that the Sunni Arabs are the minority in this country. To him and many other Sunni Arabs, the borders of Iraq do not delineate the boundaries of the war. The conflict is set, instead, against the backdrop of the entire Islamic world, in which demography and history have always favored the Sunnis. That sense of entitlement is fed by the notion that Iraq’s Shiite Arabs are just proxies for Iran’s Persian rulers.
For the Shiites, who make up 60 percent of Iraqis, the unalloyed hostility of the Sunni Arabs only reinforces a centuries-old sense of victimhood. So the Shiite militias grow, stoking vengeance. Through force of arms, and backed by the Americans and Iran, the religious Shiites intend to dominate the country entirely, taking what they believe was stripped from them when their revered leader Hussein was murdered in the desert of seventh-century Mesopotamia.