Middle East References
May 16, 2004
In Search of Hezbollah, Adam Shatz
The New York Review of Books: In Search of Hezbollah
Volume 51, Number 7 · April 29, 2004
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In Search of Hezbollah
By Adam Shatz
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah
(click for larger image)

Hizbollah: Rebel Without a Cause?
by the International Crisis Group
a briefing paper, July 30, 2003

My Life Is a Weapon: A Modern History of Suicide Bombing
by Christoph Reuter, translated from the German by Helena Ragg-Kirkby
Princeton University Press, 200 pp., $24.95

Hizbu'llah: Politics and Religion
by Amal Saad-Ghorayeb
Pluto, 254 pp., $69.95

Should Hezbollah Be Next?
by Daniel Byman
Foreign Affairs, November/December 2003

Hizballah of Lebanon: Extremist Ideals vs. Mundane Politics
a paper by Augustus Richard Norton
Council on Foreign Relations, 1999

Hezbollah: The Changing Face of Terrorism
by Judith Palmer Harik
I.B. Tauris, 241 pp., $24.95

Hizballah: Terrorism, National Liberation, or Menace?
a report by Sami G. Hajjar
Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, August 2002

Beirut used to be known as the Paris of the Middle East, and in the well-to-do Christian and Sunni quarters of the city, the capital of Lebanon still manages to cast a spell. The central business district—a battleground on the dividing line between Christian East Beirut and Muslim West Beirut during the Lebanese civil war—has been rebuilt by a construction firm whose largest shareholder is Lebanon's prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, a billionaire entrepreneur. The cafés are thick with smoke and conversation in Arabic, English, and French, techno music blares from clubs until four in the morning, and everywhere there are women in miniskirts. The old, pre-war Beirut, the sophisticated world where it mattered to people to be seen, seems to have been resurrected.

But "Haririgrad," as downtown Beirut is sometimes called, is hardly representative of the country. If you take a ten-minute drive to the city's southern suburbs, a series of dingy, overcrowded slums, you will see another country, where hejabs are more common than miniskirts, liquor is hard to find, and you're less likely to see posters of Prime Minister Hariri than of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the forty-four-year-old secretary-general of Hezbollah, the Party of God. A prominent Shiite cleric, shrewd militia leader, and political strategist, Nasrallah is admired throughout the Arab world for leading a campaign of resistance to Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended in May 2000, and for his successful dealings with the Israeli government. Most recently, after three years of on-and-off negotiations through a German mediator, Nasrallah persuaded Ariel Sharon to hand over 429 prisoners, as well as the bodies of fifty-nine Hezbollah fighters killed in combat, in exchange for freeing an Israeli businessman kidnapped by Hezbollah and returning the remains of three Israeli soldiers killed in Lebanon. The deal sparked a day of national celebration in Lebanon, and has been seen by some as a vindication of Hezbollah's use of violence for political leverage.


Most of the residents of southern Beirut, where Nasrallah has his headquarters, are Shiites, who account for 40 percent of Lebanon's population, outnumbering both Christians and Sunnis. Until the 1960s, Lebanon's Shiites were a neglected, invisible community, oppressed by feudal landlords and disdained by their fellow Lebanese. Today, they are a rising political force, thanks in large part to the militant political movement Hezbollah. It is now a virtual state-within-a-state, with an army of several thousand men, an extensive social service network, a popular satellite television station called al-Manar ("the Beacon of Light"), and an annual budget in excess of $100 million, much of which comes from Iran, Hezbollah's major patron.

The movement first emerged during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, in which between twelve and nineteen thousand Lebanese died, most of them civilians and many of them Shiites. Militant followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Hezbollah's original cadres were organized and trained by a 1,500-member contingent of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, who arrived in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley in the summer of 1982, with the permission of the Syrian government. For Iran, whose efforts to spread the Islamic revolution to the Arab world had been stymied by its war with Iraq, Hezbollah provided a means of gaining a foothold in Middle East politics.

Syria's vehemently secular leader Hafez Assad, for his part, had no affection for Hezbollah's religious ideology but keenly grasped its potential as a proxy militia. For Syria, whose principal goal has been to reclaim the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 war, Hezbollah is the only "card" it has to pressure its far more powerful neighbor. Unlike the leftist Lebanese forces that, until that point, had led the resistance to the Israelis, Hezbollah guerrillas could not be penetrated by Israeli intelligence. And in their discipline and willingness to die for their cause they had few rivals, as the world was to discover the following year, when members of the clandestine "Islamic Resistance" (a precursor to Hezbollah, which did not yet officially exist) launched a series of terrifying suicide attacks in Lebanon against American, French, and Israeli targets.

Following the bombings, the Western forces made a fast exit from Beirut; in 1985, faced with fierce resistance from Hezbollah fighters, Israel withdrew to a so-called security zone, a strip of territory along Lebanon's southern border that soon became known as its "insecurity zone." Over the next fifteen years, Hezbollah waged an efficient, disciplined, and popular guerrilla war against the Israeli military.

In May 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak decided to bring an end to an occupation that had cost more than one thousand Israeli lives, and ordered a unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon. The withdrawal did not include a formal peace agreement with Lebanon, and the Israeli army continued to occupy the patch of border territory called the Shebaa Farms, which Hezbollah regards as part of Lebanon. But Lebanese Shiites (as well as a number of Barak's Israeli critics) saw the withdrawal as a major Hez- bollah victory—"the first Arab victory in the history of Arab-Israeli conflict," as Hezbollah often proclaims.[1] It is an event that has helped make Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, one of the most important men in Lebanon.


Hezbollah now has some 100,000 supporters, about half of whom are party members. When Nasrallah raises his voice, the Lebanese pay close attention to what he says, whether or not they like him. Bashar Assad, Syria's young leader and Hezbollah's other major sponsor, is said to revere him.[2] Although Nasrallah depends on Iranian arms and Syria's support for his military operations, he has achieved a significant degree of autonomy from both parties, which may complicate future efforts to disband it. Hezbollah, which adheres to the principle of wilayat al-faqih, or rule by the Islamic jurist, regards Iran's supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as its ultimate leader, and maintains close ties to Iran's leadership, especially to the hard-line clerics who helped organize the party in the early 1980s.[3] It was Khamenei who reportedly influenced Hezbollah's decision to maintain its armed wing rather than devote all its energies to Lebanese politics after Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000. But Hezbollah has long ceased to be an Iranian-controlled militia. (The last remaining Revolutionary Guards left the Bekaa Valley in 1998.) Although Hezbollah is believed to coordinate foreign policy matters with Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the Lebanese and Western experts I've talked to say it reaches most of its everyday decisions without consulting Iran. Moreover, they say, Khamenei has never overruled Nasrallah.

Syria's control of Hezbollah has also declined, and it is widely believed that Bashar Assad—a weak, inexperienced leader who has inherited his father's airs but not his authority—depends more on Nasrallah's "endorsement" than Nasrallah does on his support. For, in the eyes of many Arabs, Hezbollah has succeeded where Syria, which has long prided itself on being a redoubtable opponent of Israeli ambitions, has failed: in defeating Israel on the battlefield. Nasrallah is one of the most resourceful adversaries Israel has ever faced, and his successful guerrilla war against Israel in southern Lebanon has strongly impressed Palestinians and made him a hero in the Occupied Territories, particularly in the refugee camps.

Although Lebanese Shiites have often regarded the Palestinian population in southern Lebanon with suspicion, Hezbollah's ties to Palestinian groups go back more than a decade. In late 1992, Israel expelled to Lebanon 415 leading members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and during the following year, they received training from Hezbollah in both combat strategies and the ideology of martyrdom. In the 1980s, Hezbollah had endorsed suicide attacks as a legitimate and efficient resistance strategy—and some experts argue that the group helped introduce the technique to Israel in 1993, while the exiled Palestinian extremists were in Lebanon.[4]


More recently, Nasrallah has deepened his party's involvement in the second intifada. Hezbollah has offered logistical support and training in the use of explosives and anti-tank missiles to Palestinian extremists, particularly members of Islamic Jihad, and has attempted to smuggle arms into the Occupied Territories to various groups, from the Palestinian Authority to Hamas.[5] In June 2002, shortly after the Israeli government launched Operation Defensive Shield, which culminated in the invasion of the Jenin refugee camp, Nasrallah gave a speech in which he defended and praised suicide bombings of Israeli targets by members of Palestinian groups for "creating a deterrence and equalizing fear." Although he did not claim that Hezbollah had been directly involved in the attacks, he said, "We [Hezbollah] are trying to find a way for this weapon to become more developed, effective, and capable, leading the resistance movement in Palestine to a new and exceptional phase." He continued, "This weapon is today the most powerful weapon the Palestinian people...could ever have." Israeli officials have also alleged that Hezbollah is recruiting Israeli Arabs and trying to organize Iranian-funded terrorist cells in Palestine known as the Return Brigades, though no attacks have been tied to such a group.

Nasrallah's struggle with Israel did not end with the withdrawal of Israeli troops. On March 22, hours after the Israeli assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, Hezbollah demonstrated its solidarity with the Palestinian group by firing more than sixty-five rockets at six different Israeli military positions in the occupied Shebaa Farms. The Israeli air force responded by sending warplanes into Lebanon and firing at suspected Hezbollah bases, reportedly foiling in one case a second Hezbollah rocket attack. According to Haaretz, the Israeli Defense Force has also placed Nasrallah, along with Yasser Arafat, on a list of targets for future assassinations.

Hezbollah has vigorously responded to other Israeli activity along the border. In January, a month after Israeli commandos killed two Lebanese men who had wandered into Israeli territory, Hezbollah guerrillas fired on an Israeli bulldozer which had crossed several yards into Lebanese territory to dismantle roadside bombs, and killed one Israeli soldier. As the Lebanese scholar Amal Saad-Ghorayeb underscores in her perceptive new book, Hizbu'llah: Politics and Ideology, Hezbollah views the conflict with Israel as "'an existential struggle' as opposed to 'a conflict over land.'" In the words of Sheikh Naim Qasim, Hezbollah's deputy secretary-general, "Even if hundreds of years pass by, Israel's existence will continue to be an illegal existence."

Although Hezbollah has denounced attacks on Western civilians—Nawaf al-Musawi, the party's foreign minister, told me in no uncertain terms that he viewed September 11 as an act of terrorism—it makes an exception in the case of Israel. As Nasrallah puts it, "in occupied Palestine there is no difference between a soldier and a civilian, for they are all invaders, occupiers and usurpers of the land." When Nasrallah was asked whether he was prepared to live with a two-state settlement between Israel and Palestine, he said in interviews with both Seymour Hersh and me that he would not sabotage what is finally a "Palestinian matter."[6] But until such a settlement is reached, he will, he said, continue to encourage Palestinian suicide bombers. Israel has found him to be a credible, although exasperatingly tough, negotiator. (Nasrallah has voiced similar respect for Israeli leaders, praising their determination to get back their soldiers' remains. "These values are our values too," he told his followers after the recent prisoner exchange.) It is clear, on the other hand, that he thrives on ambiguity about his intentions toward Israel, and enjoys the confusion it sows across Lebanon's southern border.

Some secular Palestinians, for their part, make plain their anger at the efforts of Nasrallah and Hezbollah to influence the Palestinian cause. I recently talked to a ranking Palestinian official who strongly disputed the analogy between occupied Palestine and South Lebanon. "There were no Israeli settlers in South Lebanon," the official said, and "Israel would have eventually left, with or without Hezbollah." The Palestinian, who declined to be identified, criticized Hezbollah for encouraging Hamas and Islamic Jihad to make suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. "I do not consider this resistance," the official said.

Like most of Hezbollah's leaders, Nasrallah studied both at religious seminaries in Najaf, with Iraqi clerics close to the pro-Iranian Islamic Dawa party, and in the Iranian holy city of Qom, with Iranian disciples of the late Ayatollah Khomeini. But he is a modern Lebanese politician, and the language he speaks is that of nationalism, albeit one saturated with the elements of Shiite theology that emphasize resistance to persecution and martyrdom. The Shia cult of martyrdom is part of a tradition going back to Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, who was slaughtered, along with a small number of his followers, by the army of the hostile caliph Yazid at Karbala in 680 AD. During the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, Hezbollah used the cult of Hussein to glorify self-sacrifice among its fighters and to launch suicide attacks, or "martyrdom operations," against the Israeli army. Since the Israeli withdrawal, Hezbollah's culture of victimhood has given way to celebrations of victory, but the group has used its satellite channel, al-Manar, to promote the same ideology of resistance and martyrdom among Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

Nasrallah, who wears the full beard, dark turban, and robes of a Shia cleric, spoke with me in his office in the southern suburbs of Beirut, the so-called Belt of Misery. The office is in an apartment building in a gated courtyard on Abbas Musawi Street, named for Nasrallah's predecessor, who was assassinated in Lebanon in 1992 in an Israeli helicopter gunship attack that also killed his wife and son. The reception room where we spoke was decorated with portraits of Musawi, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and his successor Ayatollah Khamenei; all the blinds were drawn for security. On the wall just outside hung a portrait of Nasrallah's son, Hadi, who was killed six years ago at age eighteen while fighting Israeli soldiers.

A short, plump man with boyish features his beard does little to conceal, Nasrallah is not impressive-looking but he is a stirring speaker. His speeches —detailed examinations of Arab politics, and of Hezbollah strategy—are analytical rather than flowery. He seldom makes claims he cannot defend —a rarity in the region, where the relationship between words and deeds is sometimes comically tenuous. Nasrallah knows how to address ordinary Lebanese Shiites because he is one of them. Born in 1960 in East Beirut, he is the son of a grocer who was a follower of the Imam Musa Sadr, an Iranian cleric who settled in Lebanon in the late Fifties and awakened the long-quiescent Shiite population.

If Israel's leaders hoped that, by killing Sheikh Abbas Musawi, they would get a more pliable, or less capable, adversary, they badly miscalculated. Not only did Nasrallah prove to be a more effective military leader than Musawi, he has adroitly translated his military successes into political gains for Hezbollah and its Shiite constituents. Immediately upon assuming power in 1992, he decided that Hezbollah should openly take part in Lebanon's "confessional" political system, in which parliamentary seats are allocated according to religious identity. Radicals accused him of betraying his party's revolutionary principles, but Nasrallah argued that Hezbollah was better off working within the political system than protesting from the sidelines. His gamble paid off. Hezbollah became the biggest of Lebanon's many political factions, commanding the largest single bloc in the country's parliament, and its leader emerged stronger than ever.


Today Hezbollah has nine of the twenty-seven seats reserved for Shiites in the 128-member Lebanese parliament; it also controls three additional seats held by allied parties and occupied, respectively, by a Christian and two Sunnis. Were it not for Syrian backing not only of Hezbollah but of Hezbollah's principal Shiite rival, Amal, Hezbollah would have even more. (The first major Shia organization in Lebanon, Amal was created in 1974 and, along with Hezbollah and other groups, fought against the Israeli occupation in the 1980s. Although it has shared Hezbollah's hostility toward Israel, Amal is far more secular in its politics. It was never as close to Iran, and fought a bloody turf war with Hezbollah over southern Lebanon between 1985 and 1989. Today it has eight delegates in the Lebanese parliament, and maintains a strong following among Shiite professionals, who depend on the extensive patronage network run by Amal's leader, Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament.)

After Israel's withdrawal, some analysts predicted—and many Lebanese hoped—that Hezbollah would soon wind down its military operations and become a purely political party. But Nasrallah has greater ambitions than to win more seats in Lebanon's parliament, and he has had the firm backing of Iran and Syria. At once a determined radical and an astute pragmatist, he views Hezbollah both as a Lebanese party committed to assuring the welfare of its constituents and as a vanguard in the pan-Islamic struggle to destroy Israel and restore Palestine to its native inhabitants.

Nasrallah is not about to surrender power that he believes he might end up needing in the future. Although Hezbollah is a liability for Syria and Iran in their present efforts to improve relations with the American government, the party's arsenal of long-range Katyusha rockets provides it with a defensive shield against Israel. Instead of choosing between politics and "resistance," Nasrallah is pursuing both tracks at once, with a combination of extreme rhetoric and tactical caution that has made Hezbollah the most enigmatic and successful guerrilla organization in the Middle East. Which aspect of Hezbollah's identity he chooses to emphasize will depend, to a large extent, on what happens in the region.

If anything has convinced Nasrallah that now is not the time to disarm, it is intensified American hostility since September 11. In early September 2002, Richard Armitage, the US deputy secretary of state, characterized Hezbollah as "the A-team of terrorists," while "maybe al-Qaeda is actually the B-team," and promised to "go after them just like a high school wrestler goes after opponents." Before the US invasion of Iraq, Democratic senator Bob Graham, a former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, had told 60 Minutes that Hezbollah represented a graver threat than Saddam Hussein. Dick Cheney's new adviser on Syrian policy, David Wurmser, a pro-Likud ideologue, is an open advocate of preemptive war against Syria and Hezbollah, a position favored by neoconservatives in and close to the Bush admin- istration, such as Douglas Feith, John Bolton, and Richard Perle. Perhaps not coincidentally, there have also been lurid accounts of Hezbollah in the American press. Jeffrey Goldberg, writing in The New Yorker, called Hezbollah an "organization devoted to jihad, not to logic," one that "might attack American interests regardless of American interests in Lebanon."[7]


Hezbollah's reputation for violence against the West is well deserved. The group was behind some of the worst attacks against Western military and diplomatic targets of the 1980s, including the October 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut (in which 241 servicemen died) and the 1985 hijacking of a TWA flight (in which an American serviceman on board was brutally beaten, then killed and dumped on the tarmac). Western intelligence officials also believe that in the mid-1980s the group participated in the kidnapping and assassination of American citizens in Lebanon, such as Terry Anderson and CIA station chief William Buckley, who was tortured before he was killed. A Lebanese terrorist group called Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for many of these attacks, but the group shared many of the same leaders as Hezbollah, and US intelligence officials allege it was merely a cover for Hezbollah's military wing.

In the early 1990s, Hezbollah members were connected to two notorious attacks in Buenos Aires: the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy, which killed twenty-nine people, ostensibly in retaliation for Israel's assassination of Sheikh Musawi; and the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center, which killed eighty-five civilians. American and Saudi officials have also implicated Hezbollah in the 1996 truck bombing of Khobar Towers, a US military base in Saudi Arabia, which killed nineteen US servicemen, although their evidence has been questioned by some experts.[8] According to Western officials, many of these attacks were organized by Imad Mughnieh, a shadowy pro-Iranian terrorist who is said at the time to have led Hezbollah's "external security apparatus," an extremist wing of the party that has organized Hezbollah cells and raised funds abroad. Reportedly based in Tehran, Mughnieh is one of three Hezbollah members who remain on the State Department's list of "23 Most Wanted Terrorists." He is alleged to run a network of terrorist cells and training camps in Asia, Europe, and along South America's "triple frontier," where the borders of Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil intersect, and may have had some contact with al-Qaeda in the early 1990s.[9]

In view of these attacks, the concerns of the American government are understandable. And Hezbollah's ideology—a fiery mixture of revolutionary Khomeinism, Shiite nationalism, celebration of martyrdom, and militant anti-Zionism, occasionally accompanied by crude, neo-fascist anti-Semitism—only exacerbates concern about the organization's potential for violence. Nevertheless, there has been little evidence of violence sponsored by Hezbollah itself against Western targets in recent years and the extent of Mughnieh's current ties with Hezbollah's political leadership remains in doubt. Several experts on Hezbollah I spoke to believe that Mughnieh now works solely on behalf of Iran.


Hezbollah's announced long-term objectives—the establishment of an Islamic republic in Lebanon, and the elimination of the State of Israel— have not changed. But it interprets its founding principles with considerable suppleness, as when Nasrallah says he will not sabotage an Israeli–Palestinian peace agreement. Today it is not only prominent in Lebanese politics; it is also a major provider of schools, where the principles of Islam according to Ayatollah Khamenei and Hezbollah ideology are folded into a normal curriculum that is approved by the Lebanese government. It also provides an impressive range of social services such as hospitals and job training to the Shiite community.

In a country mired in patronage and back-room dealing, Hezbollah is respected for its lack of corruption. Although the party's yellow-and-green flag—depicting a fist brandishing a Kalashnikov, posed against a globe— still advocates "the Islamic Revolution in Lebanon," Hezbollah has recently said little about an Islamic state, and begun to build alliances across religious lines, particularly at the municipal level and in professional unions. In 1999, for example, Hezbollah members of Lebanon's engineering syndicate formed a coalition with the Phalange Party, a rightist Christian group, and the National Liberal Party, both allies of Israel during the civil war. Another change that is impossible to ignore is the growing prominence of female activists in the party, a development that makes the party progressive by Islamist standards. "One would have to be blind not to notice the changes Hezbollah has undergone," says Joseph Samaha, a secular Christian writer for the daily as-Safir. "Has Hezbollah tried to ban books or impose sharia? Not once. Their electoral program is [an] almost social democratic [one]. So we're confronting a very different kind of Fundamentalist party."

Moreover, as Daniel Byman, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, points out in his article "Should Hezbollah Be Next?" in Foreign Affairs, over the last decade Hezbollah's military wing has concentrated most of its efforts on strengthening its defensive capacity; according to Byman, Hezbollah has not been linked to a "single attack on a US target" since the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers. In its guerrilla war with Israel in southern Lebanon, it targeted soldiers, not civilians, although it is said to provide both financing and training for Hamas.

While Iran continues to supply Hezbollah with money and arms, including Katyushas that arrive through Syrian ports, it has shown increasing restraint since the mid-1990s, when it used Hezbollah agents to strike at American and Jewish targets outside Israel. Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharazi, has urged Nasrallah to avoid giving Israel a pretext for attacking Lebanon. Although American officials have called attention to the presence of about a hundred Hezbollah members in Iraq, few believe that they are organizing violent resistance.[10] Every Hezbollah official I spoke to vehemently denied such reports, some indicating that they would welcome diplomatic relations with the United States.

Observing these changes, a growing number of American scholars, notably Augustus Richard Norton of Boston University, Judith Harik of the American University in Beirut, and Sami Hajjar of the US Army War College, argue that the party has undergone a genuine transformation, that it cannot be regarded as a terrorist group comparable to al-Qaeda, and that it would be pragmatic to engage in talks with Hezbollah and test its intentions. Their views are shared both by European diplomats such as Giandome-nico Picco, former assistant secretary-general for political affairs at the United Nations, and by retired American diplomats, such as Richard Murphy at the Council on Foreign Relations, and by some officials in the State Department. Dennis Ross, the Middle East envoy under the first Bush and Clinton administrations, has stated that Hezbollah's resistance to the Israeli occupation, unlike its past activities aimed at Western targets, is not terrorism.[11] While the United States, Israel, and Canada classify Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, European allies of the US, including Britain, say a distinction should be made between Hezbollah's political wing and the terrorist "external security apparatus." In their view Nasrallah and his Lebanese political organization are giving support to Palestinian extremists but are not directly involved in international terrorism.


The difference between American and Arab perceptions of Hezbollah is even wider. Michel Samaha, Lebanon's minister of information, insists that Hezbollah has been an important ally in the war against terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. According to Samaha, who is close to the Syrian government and often meets with Nasrallah, Hezbollah has been providing the Lebanese government with intelligence on Sunni extremists operating in refugee camps in southern Lebanon. "What astonishes us is the American attempt to link Hez- bollah to al-Qaeda," Samaha said in his Beirut office. While al-Qaeda is known throughout the Arab world as a terrorist outfit, Hezbollah is just as widely seen as a legitimate resistance organization that has defended its land against the Israeli occupying force, and consistently stood up to the Israeli army.

Which is not to say that Hezbollah is universally well-liked in Lebanon. Although support runs high among Shiites, patience with the party is wearing thin among many Christians and some Sunnis. While they may have cheered Hezbollah's guerrilla war against Israeli troops in southern Lebanon, they are decidedly less enthusiastic about Nasrallah's decision to continue "the resistance" after the Israeli withdrawal. Lebanon has been at peace since the signing of the Taif Accords in 1991, but at the price of losing its sovereignty to Syria, which maintains thousands of troops in the Bekaa Valley and exerts veto power over Lebanese foreign policy. By Syrian design, Hezbollah's is the only militia that was not dismantled after the Lebanese civil war ended, and its refusal to disarm after Israel's withdrawal is a cause of growing irritation among some Lebanese. "We want to go back to normal life," Samir Qassir, a journalist for the daily paper an-Nahar, told me. "Hezbollah is using the struggle with Israel as leverage to gain power in Lebanon."

Last August, a teenager in northern Israel was killed by a Hezbollah anti-aircraft missile, fired after Ali Hussein Saleh, a liaison between Hezbollah and radical Palestinian groups, died in a car bomb explosion in the southern suburbs of Beirut, an apparent "message" from Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service. Saleh, who was a Hezbollah security official and a driver for the Iranian embassy in Beirut, was suspected of channeling funds to Pal-estinian militants, possibly with Iranian assistance, although his actual role remains unclear. Within days, Israeli planes flew over Beirut and created a deafening "sonic boom." Many people in Beirut fled the city, terrified of an invasion. It was a false alarm, but the Lebanese fear that events such as this could easily spiral out of control.

If Hezbollah is, to many Lebanese, a painful reminder of their truncated sovereignty, it also raises more visceral fears of Iran's influence over young Shiites—some of whom march in Hezbollah demonstrations in full military dress, with red bandannas and rifles. "These people are an Iranian import," said Gebran Tuení, the conservative, Orthodox Christian editor of an-Nahar. "They have nothing to do with Arab civilization." Like many Christians, particularly Maronites who have seen their numbers and power decline in recent years, Tuení believes that Hezbollah's evolution is cosmetic, concealing a sinister long-term strategy to Islamicize Lebanon and lead it into a ruinous war with Israel. "Ask Mr. Nasrallah whether there would be a place for Christians in the Islamic Republic of Lebanon," he said, "You might remind him that we are not an external force. We've been here longer than the Muslims—we are not Afrikaners!"


Tuení's fears are understandable, but they may be exaggerated. Although Hezbollah has repeatedly shown its readiness to engage in hostile action on the Israeli border, it has until now avoided large-scale attacks that might result in a broader conflict. Hezbollah's parliamentary representatives and mayors have avoided appeals to religion; they have worked instead to raise the standard of living in poor Shiite communities. After Israel's withdrawal, Nasrallah took steps to ensure that there were no revenge killings against Christians in the south, and that Christians who had fled to Israel during the war could return home safely, although some were sentenced to short terms in prison by the Lebanese government. When I asked Nasrallah about his views on an Islamic state, he said,

We believe the requirement for an Islamic state is to have an overwhelming popular desire, and we're not talking about fifty percent plus one, but a large majority. And this is not available in Lebanon and probably never will be.
While Nasrallah's pan-Islamic message of fighting the Israelis until the "liberation of Jerusalem" appeals to Hezbollah's soldiers, the roots of Hezbollah's popularity among Shiites lie elsewhere. Judith Harik's surveys of Shiite opinion have shown that "deep religiosity and strong support of Islamic goals were not significant as a determinant of popular support for Hezbollah." What is significant, in addition to the party's success in ending a hated occupation, are its social services, especially in the southern suburbs of Beirut, the Bekaa Valley, and in the south, a region of some 250 small villages recovering from two decades of war. By emphasizing public works over piety, Hezbollah has succeeded in embedding itself deeply into Lebanese society, a fact that anyone seeking to confront its military wing will have to face. Hezbollah's growing popularity in Lebanon will be the subject of a second article.

—March 31, 2004

[1] See, for example, "Hezbollah 2, Israel 0," by Israel's former defense minister Moshe Arens, Haaretz, February 16, 2004. "It is Hezbollah's second vic- tory over Israel," Arens wrote of the recent prisoner exchange. "Its first victory over Israel was when Ehud Barak decided to pull the IDF out of southern Lebanon."

[2] By contrast, Bashar's father, the late dictator Hafez Assad, held Hezbollah officials at arm's length, punishing them harshly when they defied his wishes. In 1987, when Hezbollah refused to hand over its bases in West Beirut to Syria, Syrian troops killed twenty-three Hezbollah fighters.

[3] According to the International Crisis Group, in its briefing paper "Hizbollah: Rebel Without a Cause?," the Lebanese cleric Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah was considered Hezbollah's spiritual leader through the early 1990s but has distanced himself from the party's leadership in recent years. Fadlallah, who was the first cleric in the Islamic world to condemn publicly the attacks of September 11, is believed to agree with Hezbollah on most political issues but diverges on religious doctrine. According to some reports, he has emerged as a rival to Hezbollah for influence in the Lebanese Shiite community, although some experts believe he remains a mentor to members of Hezbollah.

[4] According to Christoph Reuter in My Life Is a Weapon, the first suicide attack in Israel took place in April 1993. Jessica Stern also suggests Hezbollah taught suicide bombing to the Palestinians in Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (Ecco, 2003), p. 47.

[5] In 2002, Israel intercepted a ship carrying arms that had embarked from Iran with a Hezbollah-trained crew, the so-called Karine A shipment; Hezbollah agents have also tried to smuggle wea-pons into the West Bank via Jordan.

[6] Seymour Hersh, "The Syrian Bet," The New Yorker, July 28, 2003.

[7] Jeffrey Goldberg, "In the Party of God," The New Yorker, July 14 and 21, 2002.

[8] Of all the charges made against Hezbollah, the connection to the Khobar bombing is the least persuasive. In his recent book Against All Enemies (Free Press, 2004), Richard A. Clarke cites a Saudi who claimed to the FBI that the Khobar attack was partly directed by a leader of "Saudi Hezbollah" —an Iranian-sponsored Saudi Shiite group; although Clarke suggests that some members of Saudi Hezbollah may have received training in the Bekaa Valley, he does not accuse the Lebanese party of planning the Khobar attack. When I spoke to Robert Baer, a former CIA analyst stationed in Beirut and an expert on terrorism, he expressed strong doubts that Lebanese Hezbollah participated in Khobar, which he believes to have been the work of Saudi Hezbollah, backed by Iran and possibly al-Qaeda as well.

[9] According to court testimony by Alie Abdelseoud Mohammed, an al-Qaeda member and former US Army sergeant who was arrested in September 1998, Mughnieh met with Osama bin Laden in the early 1990s.

[10] "Hezbollah, in Iraq, Refrains from Attacks on Americans," The New York Times, November 24, 2003.

[11] Ross stated in the daily as-Safir that the US included Hezbollah on its list of terrorist groups for Hezbollah's past activities, not for its ongoing resistance to Israel. See Sami Hajjar, "Hizballah: Terrorism, National Liberation, or Menace?," p. 48.

Will moderate Iraqis embrace democracy—or Islamist radicalism? by George Packer
The New Yorker
Will moderate Iraqis embrace democracy—or Islamist radicalism?
Issue of 2004-05-17
Posted 2004-05-10
On the March morning I visited the Baghdad morgue, which is in a decaying neighborhood near the Tigris River, a young forensic-medicine specialist named Dr. Bashir Shaker was on duty. It was the day after Ashura, one of the most important religious holidays on the Shiite calendar, which commemorates the murder of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, and the massacre of his followers at Karbala, in 680 A.D. Thirteen hundred and twenty-four years later, Baghdad was festooned with the symbols of Shiite piety and penitence: the red flags of Hussein’s blood, the green flags of Islam, the black flags of grief bearing messages such as “Hussein Taught Us to Become Victims in Order to Gain Victory.” For the first time in decades, Iraqi Shiites felt free to observe the day of martyrdom and the forty days of full-throated mourning that follow. The chants, the parades, the beating of chests, and the flaying of backs in ceremonies of atonement also became displays of collective power.

The shrines of Baghdad and Karbala were therefore unusually crowded with black-clad Shiite pilgrims that day—and when suicide bombers in their midst detonated a series of explosions it was the worst civilian massacre since the start of the war. The death toll in the two cities was at least a hundred and eighty, and the Baghdad morgue became a charnel house filled with bodies, heads, limbs, and buckets of flesh. Outside the morgue, a man waited to enter and look for the corpse of an eleven-year-old boy, a neighbor, whose father lay wounded in the hospital. Others were leaving with rags still pressed to their faces, a response to the stench inside. The authorities were rushing to complete the process of identification. There would be no forensic autopsies of the victims, Shaker told me; these followers of Hussein were Shiite martyrs, and Islam forbade the violation of their bodies.

Before the American invasion of Iraq, Dr. Shaker said, only one murder victim arrived at the city morgue each month. This statistic underscores two conditions of Iraqi life under Saddam Hussein: the state had a near-monopoly on killing, and most of the victims of the state disappeared into unmarked mass graves. One unintended effect of Iraq’s liberation from Baathist tyranny has been the widespread dispersal of violence. In occupied Iraq, between fifteen and twenty-five murder victims arrive at the Baghdad morgue daily, most of them with gunshot wounds. Shaker estimated that five cases a week involve Baathists executed in reprisal killings; their families typically retrieve the bodies without informing the police. With barely functioning courts, a weak, ill-trained, and often corrupt new police force, a foreign occupier that has failed to provide security, and a pervasive atmosphere of lawlessness, Iraqis don’t expect the justice that was denied them during the reign of Saddam Hussein to materialize anytime soon.

The day I visited, Shaker said that he was reviewing “an interesting case,” unrelated to the Ashura bombings. The body of a woman, forty-one years old and never married, had recently been discovered with six gunshot wounds in the chest. Shaker’s initial examination had found that the woman appeared not to be a virgin, and the number of gunshots suggested that the murder was premeditated. These details cast suspicion on her family: Shaker said that such a crime was called “washing the shame.” Honor killing is an old custom in Iraq, he said, though in this case there was a new element: before the war, the family would have burned or drowned the woman to disguise the murder. “Now you can kill and go,” Shaker said. “No need to cover the crime.” The standard sentence for “washing the shame” is six months.

The woman’s case was referred to a committee of five doctors, including Iraq’s leading hymen expert. To Shaker’s surprise, the committee found that the woman’s hymen was extremely thin but intact. Case closed: the family would not be investigated, and, without the means to find other clues, the police would seal the woman’s file.

Down the hall from the morgue, which is in a squat, two-story yellow building called the Medico-Legal Institute, is an examination room with a reclining chair and stirrups. This is where virginity exams on living subjects take place—most of them on suspected prostitutes, but also on runaways, kidnapping victims, and girls who have suffered an accident and whose parents, for the sake of marriageability, want a medical certificate establishing their purity.

An entire subspecialty of forensic medicine in Iraq deals with virginity, Shaker said. In any criminal case involving a woman, it’s the most important piece of information. “It rules our life,” he added. The surprising thing about these details of his profession is their ordinariness. In the West, Iraqis developed a reputation for cosmopolitan modernity that is now decades out of date. In order to win the support of Iraq’s clerics, Saddam obliged people to adopt a harsh form of traditional Islam. In private matters of religion, family, and the treatment of women, the vast majority of Iraqis are far more conservative than most outsiders understand.

In March, 2003, a week before the start of the war, a sixteen-year-old girl whom the Baathist police had found wandering disoriented through the streets was brought to the Medico-Legal Institute. Upon examining her, Shaker found that her virginity had been recently and violently taken. The girl, named Raghda, was beautiful, with pale skin and large, dark eyes, and she was so miserable she could hardly speak. Raghda seemed nothing like the teen-age prostitutes Shaker examined, and he gently persuaded her to tell him what had happened.

Raghda had gone to audition as a television announcer at the studio owned by Uday Hussein, Saddam’s psychopathic older son. Along with the six other finalists, she was taken to a room where Uday—crippled from a 1996 assassination attempt—was seated in a chair, holding a pistol in his lap. He ordered the girls to undress and walk in a circle around his chair. When one girl begged to be excused, Uday shot her dead. After that, the other girls, including Raghda, did as they were told. In the following days, Uday (who was committing some of his last crimes in power, while an invasion force gathered along Iraq’s southern border) raped the girls, then threw them out on the street, drugged, with a wad of cash, which was how Raghda was found by the police. When she told them her story, they gave her a beating and then took her to the Medico-Legal Institute.

“If you want to help me,” Raghda told the doctor, “go tell my parents their daughter was found dead.”

On March 18th, two days before the war started, Shaker completed Raghda’s paperwork. “Notice that there is the appearance of complete hymen rupture from the top to the base,” he wrote. “In conclusion, the hymen membrane was ruptured longer than two weeks ago; I cannot say how long. End of report.” Raghda was returned to the police; Shaker never learned her fate.

Shaker served in the Iraqi Army and, a decade ago, took part in the occupation of Kuwait. Now he handles Baghdad’s nightly traffic of violent death. One Friday brought thirty-two bodies, including two foreign engineers—one German, one Dutch—who had been gunned down by insurgents on a road south of Baghdad, and two Iraqi journalists shot to death by American soldiers as they drove away from a checkpoint. For Shaker, such cases are purely intellectual matters. He told me without emotion that his testimony in trials has sent homosexuals to execution. The effect of this dispassion shows in the cold, handsome gaze of his blue eyes; in his direct, uninflected manner of speaking; and in the way his smile turns almost automatically into a sneer. But he hadn’t got over Raghda.

When I met him, Shaker said he was looking for a change in his life: “Any change, better or worse.” He had a restless mind and hated boredom, and, since the Americans represented something new, he welcomed spending time with me. I assumed that this forward-thinking man of science—with a flat-top haircut and clean-shaven jaw—wanted a relatively secular, liberal Iraq. I kept waiting for him to catch my eye in the middle of one of his clinical descriptions and shake his head over the backwardness of a society obsessed with virginity and prostitution. It never happened.

Shaker was born in 1968, the year the Baath Party came to power. “For thirty-five years, I feel I was dead,” he said. “Only these last weeks I’m beginning to live.” The fall of Saddam and the arrival of foreign occupiers—who happened to be the makers of his favorite old movies—had, at last, brought the chance for a new life. Eager to obtain travel documents and venture outside Iraq, he sold his private dermatology practice and a piece of land he’d received as a former soldier. His first foreign trip was to Amman, Jordan, where he had arranged to meet an Iraqi girl who was living in exile in Amsterdam. They married after two days. “Like a movie,” he said. His wife is still in Amsterdam, but the plan is for her to move to Baghdad, once the city returns to calm.

Though Shaker was initially grateful to the foreign occupiers, the disorder on Baghdad’s streets disillusioned him. The morgue reflected that chaos—it had the improvised, filthy atmosphere of a front-line hospital. There were pools of blood on the floor, and empty stretchers attracted flies. In the hall, bodies lay uncovered on tables: a man with a broad mustache and a slashed throat, found naked under a pile of garbage in a middle-class district; a man with a gunshot wound in his head, his blue eyes open and filmy; the small, blackened corpse of a badly burned woman. Amid the gloomy chill of the refrigerated room, six other naked bodies lay sprawled on the floor, two women and four men. One of the women, believed to be a prostitute, had been shot through the nipple—by a relative, Shaker assumed.

These days, the morgue overflows, but the examination room down the hall is usually empty. Before the war, it was the other way around; Shaker used to perform five or six virginity exams a day. Shaker is a Shiite Muslim, and he was appalled by this inversion of the normal order. In his view, a fragile moral relationship existed between the two sections of the Medico-Legal Institute—as if the social control of virginity offered a defense against the anarchy that led to murder. He noted that in Iran, an Islamist theocracy, prostitutes were publicly whipped. He thought the same practice should be instituted in Iraq—where the sex trade, he claimed, had reached epidemic proportions in the lawlessness of the occupation. “It’s strict, it’s horrible, but it has good results,” he said of Islamic law. “Prostitution now is normal here.” He blamed the Americans for the moral laxity in Baghdad, and especially L. Paul Bremer, the administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, for threatening, in February, to veto any interim constitution that declared Islam to be the principal basis of federal law. “When they give everybody their rights, it’s causing bad things in society—it’s corrupting us,” Shaker said. “If Islam is the main source of law, none of these things would happen.”

The doctor said that he belonged to “the middle level of mind” in Iraqi society, somewhere between the strictly religious masses and the secular élite. “There are many Iraqis like me,” he said. In Iraq, there is nothing unusual about a doctor who loves Marilyn Monroe and Cary Grant, desires the public whipping of prostitutes, and believes that executed homosexuals got what they deserved. Yet Shaker’s mix of traditional and modern views causes him considerable inner conflict. “I hate Iraq,” he said. “And I love it.” He longs to live abroad, but fears the moral climate outside the country. He is wary of the Western images that appear on his television screen, though he installed a satellite dish on his roof when it was illegal, and dangerous, to own one. He adores his new wife, an independent-minded woman who wears low-cut shirts, but he wants her to start covering her hair and acting like a traditional Muslim woman when she moves to Baghdad. His work fascinates him, but he is concerned that his daily immersion in death will make him less spiritual. “The doctor of forensic medicine deals only with bodies,” he said. “So maybe in the end I will become like you—an existentialist.”

Dr. Shaker lives with his mother and his brothers and sisters on a tidy side street in Al Thawra, the heavily Shiite slum district in northeastern Baghdad. Last year, the neighborhood was renamed Sadr City, in honor of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, a revered Shiite leader known for his subversive sermons against Baathist tyranny; he was assassinated in 1999, almost certainly on Saddam’s orders. His son, Moqtada al-Sadr, declared himself his successor. With the overthrow of Saddam, Moqtada began stridently fomenting dissent against the American occupation. Throughout Sadr City, young men in black uniforms guided traffic: these were members of the Mahdi Army, Moqtada’s militia.

A round sticker was affixed to the wooden front door of Shaker’s house; it bore an image of Ayatollah Sadr, along with a quotation, from one of his sermons, insisting that women be veiled. In the Shakers’ living room hung a picture of Imam Hussein crossing a river on horseback by moonlight, like one of the Christian saints. Compact disks containing forty-five sermons by Ayatollah Sadr were stacked inside the family’s TV cabinet, alongside a pile of back issues of Al Hawza, the fiercely anti-American newspaper published by Moqtada al-Sadr. Shaker told me that he got his television news from Al Jazeera and Iranian broadcasts—he never watched Iraq’s American-run network. His main source of information from the non-Islamic world, I realized, was old Hollywood movies. That wouldn’t offer him much help in parsing the truth of a story I noticed in Al Hawza. The newspaper had reprinted photographs of President Bush and President Clinton holding up their index and pinkie fingers; the accompanying article offered the images as evidence of a Zionist-Masonic conspiracy.

Shaker’s younger brothers, Ali and Samir, joined us in the living room. Ali was a secondary-school math teacher, Samir an unemployed telecom repairman. Unlike their dirty-blond, fair-skinned older brother, they were dark and bearded—respectful, serious, slightly wary.

“Samir is closer to God than me,” Shaker said. “Ali is like me—flexible.” Ali and Samir were devoted followers of Moqtada; they shared his hostility toward the occupation. From time to time, someone knocked on the door, and one of the brothers would get up to receive a tray of food or beverages from the hands of an unseen woman.

Ali brought up the Ashura bombings. “Ninety-five per cent of Iraqis knew the main purpose of this was to start a religious war between Shia and Sunnis,” he said. He was skeptical of the Americans’ assertion that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist with ties to Al Qaeda, was responsible for the attacks. “This Zarqawi—it’s only a game that the Americans use,” Ali declared. “Before the election of Bush, they’ll show Zarqawi on TV. Just like Saddam—they captured him months before they showed him.”

The brothers told me a joke about the occupation: An American soldier is about to kill a Shiite, who cries, “Please, no, in the name of Imam Hussein!” The American asks who Imam Hussein was, and then decides to spare the man’s life. A few weeks later, this same soldier is sent to Falluja, where he is cornered by a Sunni insurgent. The soldier thinks fast and cries, “Please, no, in the name of Imam Hussein!” The insurgent says, “What? You’re an American and a Shiite?,” and blows him away.

There was a moment of laughter in the living room.

Ali sat cross-legged on a rug against the wall, and looked directly at me. “Before this war, I was waiting for the Americans to come—and now I feel sort of cheated. All this talk about rebuilding Iraq, and all we see is a couple of light coats of paint. And they say they renovated Iraq.”

Samir, the unemployed younger brother, spoke in darker tones, with a faint smile. He had never had any illusions. “No enemy loves his enemy. We know very well that the Americans don’t intend us any good.”

The Americans had at least got rid of Saddam, I observed. “That’s not enough,” Ali said. “Now things are worse. We can’t go outside at four in the morning, as before.”

If within a year there were free elections in Iraq, I asked, would they be satisfied?

“Yes,” Samir said.

Ali disagreed. “I don’t think the people will be satisfied. So what if we have a President? The mobile phones we have here don’t work. Why can’t it be like the Gulf countries? Maybe in generations after generations. But we won’t be here then. It pisses me off.”

Shaker also spoke of the urgent need for improved services. Then he asked to borrow my satellite phone and disappeared up on the roof, to call his new wife in Amsterdam.

One Friday not long after the Ashura bombings, I went with Shaker to hear prayers in Kadhimiya, an old Shiite neighborhood in the northwestern part of Baghdad that is famous for its gold shops. One of the bombs killed nearly sixty people at the local shrine, which holds the remains of two imams who came after the martyred Hussein. Along a broad pedestrian market street that ends in the square in front of the sixteenth-century mosque, cordons of grim-looking young Mahdi Army militiamen, carrying Kalashnikovs, searched the throngs of pilgrims for weapons.

There were no Iraqi policemen or American soldiers on the streets. One Mahdi soldier, who was eighteen years old, said that the Americans had prevented Moqtada’s militia from carrying their weapons on Ashura. This was a foolish decision, he said: if the militia had been armed, it would have been able to hold back the surges of worshippers and catch the suicide bombers mingling in the crowd.

While Shaker went into a shop to wash himself before prayers, a local cleric named Sheikh Muhammad Kinani told me that the bombers were Wahhabi members of Al Qaeda, working in concert with an American soldier employed by the John Kerry campaign. “I believe John Kerry is behind this so Bush will lose his Presidency and look bad in front of the world,” he said. “But it’s the Iraqis who pay for it.”

Such rumors proliferate on the streets of Iraq’s cities these days. In fact, the traffic in conspiracy theories is so heavy that an American intelligence unit began putting out “The Baghdad Mosquito,” a daily compendium of rumors currently in circulation. According to several Shiites I spoke with in Kadhimiya, Wahhabi men all have light-colored beards and are the enemies of true Muslims. A merchant on the pedestrian market street said, “We caught a Wahhabi from Ramadi an hour ago.” The captive, he said, was wearing a short dishdasha, in the Wahhabi style; although his feet were dirty, his body was suspiciously clean. A search of the Wahhabi man turned up blank paper and a map. Local people took him to the police station, where he would be tortured until he confessed.

Prayers began beneath a hot noon sun. The shrine itself, with its splendid golden domes and minarets, was closed because of bomb damage. Men filled the square; holding black signs and pictures of Shiite martyrs, and shaking their fists, they chanted, “Pray to Muhammad and the followers of Muhammad and hurry the damning of our enemies. Give victory to Moqtada! We follow Moq-ta-da!” Shaker knelt in the front row and prayed. He seemed alone in the crowd, the only worshipper who wasn’t chanting.

One of Moqtada’s aides, Hazem al-Araji, delivered the sermon. He is a thirty-five-year-old sayyid with a salt-and-pepper beard who spent two years in exile in Vancouver before the war. Later, in a conversation at his office, he proved to be a smooth, smiling politician who Googles himself several times a day to keep up with his press, and who made a theocratic Islamic state sound not very different from a parliamentary democracy. But, in front of the crowd of worshippers outside the shrine, Araji let loose an incendiary and conspiracy-laced analysis of the violence in Iraq. The attacks came from four sources, he declared, none of them Iraqi or Muslim: it was the Jews, the Americans, the British, and the Wahhabi. The Jews—who had been warned to stay away from the World Trade Center on September 11th, so that not one Jew died—“want Iraqis to die.” America, the devil, allows the violence in order to have an excuse to continue occupying Iraq. The British, America’s partners, are more directly responsible, since they invented Wahhabism and, therefore, Al Qaeda, which have “nothing to do with Islam.”

Shaker knelt, slump-shouldered, and gazed down at his clasped hands, muttering prayers. He looked puzzled, as if he were trying to figure something out. I wondered if the cleric’s ranting embarrassed him.

“If you read the modern books of history,” Araji proclaimed, “you know that Wahhabism started in 1870 by the good graces of the British government in order to go against Islam, to make Islam look bad, to make Muslims fight each other. Those who know—good. Those who don’t—know now.”

Araji was referring to “Confessions of a British Spy,” an apocryphal memoir attributed to a British colonial officer of the early eighteenth century named Hempher. (Araji was off by a hundred and fifty years.) Going undercover, Hempher befriends a gullible, hotheaded Iraqi in Basra named Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and tempts him into founding a heretical sect of Islam that will bring disrepute to other Muslims and turn them against one another: “We, the English people, have to make mischief and arouse schism in all our colonies in order that we may live in welfare and luxury.” Hempher cannot conceal his admiration for the spiritual grandeur of Islam, which more than once nearly causes him to abandon his mission. “Confessions of a British Spy” reads like an Anglophobic variation on “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”; it is probably the labor of a Sunni Muslim author whose intent is to present Muslims as both too holy and too weak to organize anything as destructive as Wahhabism (or, Araji’s listeners could deduce, to pull off a crime as appalling as the Ashura bombings, which took place two centuries after Wahhabis, on the same holiday, sacked the Shiite shrine at Karbala, slaughtering two thousand citizens). With its subtext of powerlessness, the “memoir” is ultimately a confession of Muslim humiliation—a text that was bound to find an audience in occupied Iraq, where the name Hempher has begun to circulate among militant Shiites.

“America, England, Israel, do whatever you have to do, build more missiles, more explosives, more terrorism all over the world,” Araji said. “But it’s not going to stop us.”

The crowd chanted, “Yes, yes to Islam!”

“Just a speech,” Shaker scoffed as we drove out of Kadhimiya. “If I knew this man is going to deliver the Friday prayers, I would not go.” He would have preferred to hear Moqtada himself. If Moqtada had come, he said, there would have been less talk and more action.

It is one measure of America’s inability to achieve its goals in Iraq that a man of “the middle level of mind” like Bashir Shaker—who had everything to gain from the overthrow of Saddam and the opportunities it opened up—feels himself pulled toward a harsher brand of Islam in reaction to the pervasive insecurity of the occupation. Many flaws of the occupation have by now been exhaustively documented: the lack of significant international support at the outset; the catastrophic looting that followed the fall of Baghdad; the commitment of a grossly insufficient number of American troops to provide security, rebuild infrastructure, and fight a widening insurgency; the decisions to abolish the Iraqi Army and purge higher-level Baathists from government jobs, which turned several hundred thousand mostly Sunni Arabs, who might have become partners, into jobless, well-armed, and well-funded potential enemies; the slipshod planning in Washington and political mistakes in Baghdad that have forced the occupation authority to toss out one road map for Iraq’s future after another.

Yet perhaps the greatest mistake made by the architects of the war was to assume that their vision of a liberal state would be eagerly embraced by an ethnically divided, overwhelmingly Islamic country with a long history of dictatorship. The Coalition Provisional Authority managed the occupation as if benevolent American intentions guaranteed success. Giving Iraqis a chance to experience and participate in democracy became less important than achieving a desired outcome. As a result, Paul Bremer and his colleagues failed to anticipate the level of resistance that would emanate from Iraq’s various factions—in particular, the Shia.

The C.P.A. has been consistently slow to respond to the simmering frustrations of ordinary Iraqis. Since conditions in Iraq were already unravelling when Bremer arrived, last May, his primary focus has been on establishing his authority. “One thing that the C.P.A. couldn’t make a mistake about was showing that it was in control,” Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the British envoy to Iraq, told me at the end of March, just before returning to London. “This place has to be controlled, and I think this is an area where Bremer has got it exactly right, has shown that he’s boss. The Iraqis wanted a boss.” But, Greenstock admitted, “we could have been more consultative.”

Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, who served as a C.P.A. adviser on democracy, put it more bluntly: “There has always been a tension in our occupation between control and legitimacy. And the more we’ve sought control, the less legitimacy we’ve had. I think we have erred in general, from the start, much too heavily in the direction of control at the expense of legitimacy, and that has come back to haunt us.”

This is a dilemma that Bremer has never been able to resolve. In January and February, he oversaw the drafting of an interim Iraqi constitution by the Governing Council, the Iraqi body appointed by the Coalition. If Bremer had encouraged widespread public discussion of the emerging document’s main points, in order to make educated participants of Iraqis, he would have risked seeing the inevitable controversies fought out in the streets. Instead, the interim constitution was written under tremendous time pressure, in small, secretive committee meetings during all-night negotiating sessions inside the Green Zone, the impenetrable fortified area in the center of Baghdad. The signing ceremony, on March 5th, was elaborately planned for the cameras: twenty-five pens were laid out on a table, one for each council member, and a chamber ensemble provided music. At the last minute, however, five Shiite members who had agreed to sign the document ruined Bremer’s script by failing to show up.

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most respected Shiite cleric, had belatedly expressed his opposition to Article 61c of the interim constitution. The article, which soon became notorious, essentially gave Iraq’s minority Kurds and Sunnis veto power over any element of the permanent constitution. For the Kurds, who were long oppressed by Iraq’s central government, Article 61c was a guarantee of minority rights in a federal republic. In January, Bremer had sent a young and inexperienced team of advisers to negotiate with the senior Kurdish leaders, who refused to back off heavy demands. Even after Bremer personally intervened, the Kurds got almost everything they wanted, including an autonomous region in the north. To the Shiite religious leadership, which apparently learned of the article’s language only at the last hour, the same Article 61c appeared to stand in the way of majority rule.

On March 8th, after three days of persuasion, the five Shiite holdouts on the council signed the document. The interim constitution is a real achievement—the only one the Governing Council can claim. It represents political compromise and a broad consensus about individual rights. During the final day and night of negotiations, Bremer yielded control—a rare moment for an official who has been described as a micromanager—and for eight hours became a silent observer, allowing the Iraqis to work out the unavoidable conflicts between majority rule and minority rights. But, because the C.P.A. and the council had failed to build any support for the interim constitution outside the Green Zone, its unveiling inspired street demonstrations, mass confusion over its contents, and a sharp increase in tension between the Shia and the Kurds. At a meeting of the district council in Baghdad’s Karrada neighborhood, I listened to Governing Council representatives patiently explaining the interim constitution to a roomful of increasingly agitated citizens who, confronted with a fait accompli, accused the council of dismembering the country.

Even as it became clear that the key article risked undermining the entire document’s legitimacy in the eyes of Iraq’s majority, Bremer refused to consider any changes. An official involved in the process said that Bremer wanted the interim constitution to be sold to the Iraqi public in a one-way conversation: “He has a tremendous investment in this as one of his prized accomplishments.”

Other than the June 30th deadline for the transfer of sovereignty, the interim constitution is just about all that remains of the November 15th agreement between the C.P.A. and the Governing Council—the agreement that outlined Iraq’s political future, replacing Bremer’s original plan. Throughout the year of its existence, the C.P.A. has seen its blueprints overrun by events beyond the Green Zone that were to some degree predictable—and were caused partly by its own deep isolation.

One crucial example has been the fate of Moqtada al-Sadr. Last summer, Hume Horan, the C.P.A.’s senior liaison to the Shia religious community, spoke with me about the dilemma posed by Moqtada. On the day after the fall of Baghdad, an American-backed liberal cleric, Abdel Majid al-Khoei, was killed by a mob of Moqtada’s followers outside the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf. (Eyewitnesses have said that Moqtada himself refused to save his rival when Khoei was dragged bleeding to his door.) The murder was a power grab by Iraq’s most radical Shiite faction. Later, Al Hawza, Moqtada’s newspaper, published a blacklist with the names of Iraqi “collaborators,” at least one of whom was subsequently killed. As a result, Horan told me, Moqtada’s paper could be shut down and he could be arrested. Then again, putting Moqtada in jail might make him a martyr and, therefore, more dangerous.

During our conversation, Horan sounded as if he were inclined to let the establishment Shiite clerics of Najaf deal with the demagogic young upstart who had planted himself in their midst. “His father would be so distressed if he’d seen his son,” Horan said of Moqtada. “Here’s this unchurched son of one of the great churchmen, who fills the role without any of the qualifications. What is he lashing out at? Is it his own sense of inadequacy that is being projected?”

Last August, an Iraqi judge issued a warrant charging Moqtada with having ordered the killing of Khoei, but the C.P.A. kept the warrant a secret while it deliberated. One Coalition official said that the C.P.A. prepared to seize Moqtada on two occasions. “The word was ‘Lock your doors, bring everybody in. We’re going to snatch Moqtada,’” he said. Both operations were abruptly called off. “The decisions had to have occurred somewhere up the Defense Department chain,” the official said. (A C.P.A. spokesman said that its plans to capture Moqtada were not that definitive.)

During this same period, the C.P.A. found itself in a series of protracted battles with Ayatollah Sistani, the Shiite leader. The first was over Bremer’s decision to have the permanent constitution written by unelected Iraqis. That plan was finally scrapped, in favor of the November 15th agreement, which put the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty ahead of elections and a constitution. Then another dispute arose: Sistani objected to the C.P.A.’s proposal to hold regional caucuses for the selection of Iraq’s interim government. Months went by before Bremer, having steadily misjudged Sistani’s power, threw out the plan.

While the C.P.A. and Sistani took each other’s measure in private, there was no political progress in Iraq. The local and provincial councils set up by the C.P.A.—which should have been seedbeds of Iraq’s future leadership, offering the best hope for the emergence of moderate indigenous alternatives to the sectarian parties, with their armed militias and foreign backers—never received the means to exercise real power and show their constituents concrete results. For months, members went unpaid; I was told that a draft of the government order delineating the councils’ powers was prepared in October—but it wasn’t issued until April 6th. The councils’ reconstruction efforts were constantly hindered by bureaucratic clots that kept money from flowing to local military commanders and civil authorities.

The absence of healthier politics created a dangerous vacuum, which was filled by the most extreme tendencies in Iraq: the Sunni resistance, made up of Baathist, Islamist, and nationalist elements; and the Shiite street politics of Moqtada al-Sadr. Sistani and Moqtada are natural foes, for personal and ideological reasons, and Sistani, because of his immensely greater religious authority, commands a much larger following among Iraqi Shiites. But after Sistani declared his opposition to the interim constitution the balance of power shifted. “As long as the Coalition had Sistani’s tacit support, it didn’t need to worry too much about Moqtada al-Sadr,” Amatzia Baram, an Iraq scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace, in Washington, told me. “But when Sistani announced his objection to the interim constitution the Coalition lost him.” Article 61c placed Sistani, who was born in Iran, in a terrible position: he couldn’t seem to be selling out Arab interests to the Kurds, nor could he afford to give Shiite radicals the chance to accuse him of selling out Islam. “That was a watershed moment,” Baram said. “Because, from now on, every crazy Shiite could claim that he was fighting the Americans in Sistani’s name. The moment radicals could present themselves as fighting for Sistani’s causes, that united the Shia community against the Americans and the Governing Council. They were using Sistani’s slogans against Sistani. Sistani became marginalized in his own name.”

Moqtada’s amplified significance was lost on Coalition officials. In late March, I asked Greenstock about the size of his following. “Tiny—and with no political impact,” he said. “Go around Sadr City again now and you will find fewer Moqtada al-Sadr followers than you would have done five months ago.” He added, “We thought he had an opportunity to bubble up and grow—he hasn’t done it. Partly because he knows that if he moves anywhere he’ll be picked up.”

A week later, on March 28th, Bremer ordered the closing of Al Hawza; within days, American soldiers had arrested an aide to Moqtada. Urged on by Moqtada’s vitriolic speeches, the Mahdi Army responded with demonstrations that quickly escalated into armed confrontations with Coalition troops in Baghdad and a number of southern cities, several of which fell under the militia’s control. The uprising seriously damaged the C.P.A.’s authority and undermined the occupation’s legitimacy in the eyes of many Shiites who otherwise have no love for the erratic Moqtada and his violent followers. In early May, after a month of fighting, the Americans acted to end the uprising, confronting the Mahdi Army in Najaf and Karbala.

The timing of the C.P.A.’s move against Al Hawza was baffling, coming in the middle of the mourning period that follows Ashura. A senior official in Washington suggested to me that the Administration had been caught off guard: “Was there a series of decisions that seemed idiotic to those of us back here? Yes. Is one of them that, during a major Muslim holiday, Moqtada al-Sadr is suddenly a persona non grata? Yes.” Worse, the C.P.A. seemed not to have prepared for the reaction from Moqtada’s militia, betraying a serious miscalculation of the young cleric’s strength. The Mahdi Army had been acquiring money and guns since last summer, and continued to intimidate townspeople in Najaf and elsewhere; at one point in January, militiamen occupied the shrine of Imam Ali.

Amatzia Baram faulted Bremer for the clumsy manner of the March crackdown on Moqtada, but not for the effort itself. As with so many other C.P.A. decisions, he said, “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. That’s the main problem in Iraq these days.”

Moqtada’s newfound power was in part a result of the failed communications effort by the C.P.A. Its Iraqi Media Network has been ineptly run, featuring vapid programming and Coalition-friendly news briefs. The Pentagon, which is in charge of the occupation of Iraq, kept tight control over the flow of news for domestic political reasons. It was a self-defeating effort, however: American propaganda was no match for Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya—and Moqtada’s newspaper.

The C.P.A., having sacrificed legitimacy for control, has ended up with neither. A former Coalition official traced the failures in Baghdad directly back to Washington, and he identified the central irony of the occupation: “A lot of this is the unwillingness of the Bush Administration to rock the boat before the election. And it’s laughable that it’s pursued this policy. Because of the failure to confront Moqtada, because of the failure to disarm the militias, because of the lack of troops on the ground, Bush may well lose the election.”

In March, during the standoff over the interim constitution, I went to see Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurd on the Governing Council. A small man with a large nose and an unblinking stare, Othman was for many years the personal doctor of Mustafa Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas who fought the Iraqi central government. Before the American invasion, Othman was living in London, and, like most Kurdish politicians, he shares the Americans’ vision of a relatively secular and liberal Iraq. But, much to the annoyance of the C.P.A., he has proved to be the Governing Council’s in-house critic. When most of its other members were jockeying to perpetuate their positions beyond the June 30th transfer of sovereignty, Othman was calling flatly for the council to be dissolved, saying that it hadn’t worked. He placed the blame for the debacle over Article 61c squarely on Bremer—who, Othman claimed, had coddled the council’s Shiite bloc early on, encouraging its members to become intransigent. “It’s a humiliation to him,” he told me, with faint satisfaction. “He gave them that leverage, coming and going, and it was very bad.”

I asked Othman if the occupation was a failure. “It’s not a success, either security-wise or media-wise or economic-wise,” he said. “But I can’t say it’s a failure.” He believed that most Iraqis still hoped for a decent life and a better society. In fact, Othman declared, going further than most observers would, “if things are set right, I think liberalism and secularism have the majority in this country always. But are the people now free to express their points of view? They are not. Because the country now is ruled by militias, mullahs, and warlords. The simple citizen is not allowed to have his own rights, to say freely what he wants.” In one way, he added, the Americans were like Saddam: “They are not caring much for a simple Iraqi citizen. They care for a chief of a tribe here, a mullah there, a religious man here, a militiaman here, head of a party there.”

As the June 30th deadline approaches, with no Iraqi interim government in sight, the United States has turned reluctantly to the United Nations. Until recently, Washington consistently prevented the U.N. from establishing any real authority in Iraq (the words “United Nations” appear nowhere in the November 15th agreement). But the Administration now finds that the C.P.A. and the Governing Council have so little legitimacy in the eyes of most Iraqis—including Ayatollah Sistani—that the transfer of sovereignty can’t occur without outside help. Enter Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.’s envoy to Iraq, and an Algerian diplomat who was Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s representative in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. In April, Brahimi and his team travelled to Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra to meet with groups of Iraqis and begin preparations for an interim government. The senior Administration official told me, “Brahimi has identified—unlike the ivory-tower C.P.A.—a lot of passionate, talented Iraqis who want the same things we want: freedom, democracy, liberty.”

Fairly quickly, Brahimi concluded that the Governing Council should not be part of the new Iraqi government. “The Governing Council in its current constitution doesn’t have the confidence of most Iraqis,” his spokesman, Ahmed Fawzi, told me. At the end of April, Brahimi briefed the U.N. Security Council, in New York; he called for a caretaker government of technocrats, whose main purpose will be to prepare the country for elections by January, 2005. “We are reaching out to the professional associations, the trade unions, the universities, and asking them to give us the best of their crop,” Fawzi said. “The best five lawyers, the best five doctors, the best five accountants, the best five engineers, to form a short list acceptable to all for a short-term interim government.” A Prime Minister and a cabinet will be chosen by Brahimi, Bremer, and the Governing Council by the end of May. It seems inevitable that some of Iraq’s leading politicians, including members of the Governing Council, will end up with positions in the interim government, though this will surely be the subject of intense negotiations between rival factions. Brahimi, who oversaw Afghanistan’s loya jirga, imagines Iraqis from all sectors of society gathering in a national conference soon after June 30th to choose an advisory body, or rump parliament. The conference could be the first chance for ordinary Iraqis to feel that they have a stake in the country’s political future.

It’s not clear that a U.S. Administration with a history of pronounced hostility to the U.N. will relinquish real authority in Iraq to it, even now. The senior official said, “There are people in this Administration who have led me to believe that the U.N. is a greater clear and present danger to the United States than any foreign enemy, including Osama bin Laden.” Robert Blackwill, a director at the National Security Council, will be Washington’s point man in the process; according to the senior official, Blackwill will keep the pressure on Bremer to accept Brahimi’s recommendations. Will the U.N., for its part, having been so badly undermined by the Administration on Iraq, return in force now, when things are going so poorly? “Kofi’s going to have a really hard time looking at this and saying, ‘Do I want a piece of this?’” the senior official said.

Annan and Brahimi, perhaps sensing that the U.N. is being set up to take the fall for what is bound to be an unstable, tumultuous period before elections, have tried to lower expectations about the organization’s role in Iraq. Brahimi cannot answer some of the most important questions about the transition—such as how extensive Iraqi sovereignty will be, and what the relationship will be between the interim government and the U.S. military. Ahmed Fawzi expressed the hope that a sovereign Iraqi government will take the steam out of the insurgency. In the meantime, another U.N. official told me, the security situation in Iraq is so perilous that “it’s going to be very difficult for any full-scale engagement of the U.N. in Iraq for the next couple of months.” He added, “We’re expected to take the lead—and we’re not the lead. We’re helping to do what we can. But the political reality is that the Americans are the biggest player in Iraq, and they’re going to be before and after June 30th.”

The only good reason left for the invasion of Iraq, and for an ongoing war involving a hundred and thirty-five thousand American troops, is the creation of a decent Iraqi government. The National Democratic Institute is an organization funded largely by the U.S. government and affiliated with the Democratic Party; it operates with relative independence, under the direction of the National Endowment for Democracy. The institute’s purpose is to find what Mahmoud Othman called “the simple citizens” in a place like Iraq, and help them to participate in democratic political life. This tends to be obscure, poorly funded work—but the Bush Administration wants to pour half a billion dollars into Iraq for “democracy-building” programs before the transfer of sovereignty and national elections. The effort is floundering, however, because the escalation of violence has made it hard to spend the money.

Early one morning in mid-March, I drove to Hilla, which is ninety minutes south of Baghdad, with a group of Iraqis and Americans working for N.D.I. We travelled in non-armored vehicles, without guards. In the back seat of one of the sedans, wearing a navy-blue suit, a salmon-colored tie, and glasses, was David Dettman, a pale, chain-smoking political consultant from Ohio. For many years, Dettman, who is thirty-three and has the nervous, self-deprecating sense of humor of a Jack Lemmon character, worked successfully as a campaign consultant in Washington. Then he ran for the Ohio state legislature as a Democrat, got creamed, and had an epiphany. “What got me charged up is that I really believed in the process,” he told me. He decided to leave his job, and he became one of N.D.I.’s democratization missionaries, posted in Ukraine. To the dismay of his wife, his mother, and his boss, Dettman had come to Iraq for two weeks to train groups of aspiring political-party activists in Baghdad, Tikrit, and Hilla.

The workshop in Hilla took place in the city’s former secret-police headquarters, which has become a human-rights center. Forty Iraqis—including a political-science professor and an unemployed sports instructor—had travelled at some risk to attend the class. They listened intently and took careful notes as Dettman stood before a flip chart and presented a ten-step program on message development and voter contact. Mayasa al-Naimy, an Iraqi staff member of N.D.I., gamely translated the exotic campaign terminology: “earned media,” “communications strategy,” “wedge and base issues.” (Dettman had told me earlier, “Politics is the art of getting people to vote for you. It’s applicable all over the world. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have a job.”)

After two hours of discussion, an Iraqi raised his hand. “This shows me we’re making a transition from dictatorship to democracy,” he said. “That makes me feel good. But this is the question: Will the American Administration leave it to us? Or just throw someone on us? Will all these efforts be lost?”

Outside, in the distance, there was an explosion—mortar fire—and then a second, closer one, which was followed by gunfire. Dettman glanced out the window and grinned with alarm.

“Does that answer your question?” someone asked.

“I’m not the government,” Dettman said. “I’m N.D.I. We have to eat lunch. Can we talk about this later?”

After lunch, Dettman returned to the question. “My opinion is if America invaded Iraq for nothing other than to have a friendly dictator, then all of the American and Iraqi lives that were lost will have been wasted,” he said. “I supported the invasion because I’m in the democratization business. I don’t know anything about W.M.D.—I don’t know if anyone was telling the truth or not—but I do know the Iraqi people deserve freedom. I can’t say the Americans won’t do anything wrong, because they already have done many things wrong in this occupation. And I’m sorry. But there’s a reason N.D.I. is here now, and there’s a reason we didn’t bring a tank. We’re the least armed Americans in Hilla. We’re here trusting your hospitality. Because democracy is good and right.” He went on, “If this traumatic war was fought for anything other than that, I’m gonna be mad. Here’s the problem: I can’t do much. I’m just the arrogant American in a suit standing up in front of you. I haven’t suffered as much as you have. Only you can build democracy here. But if I just thought America was going to steal the freedom we fought for I would have stayed home with my wife and had a lovely time.”

“Aren’t you having a lovely time here?” someone asked.

“I am having a lovely time. But I miss my wife.”

It was a heartfelt speech, and it was received with scattered applause. Then a man sitting near me muttered to himself, “A British guy named Hempher laid plans decades ago for Presidents to take turns ruling Iraq.”

The people in the room belonged to Shaker’s “middle level of mind.” They were neither mullahs nor militiamen, and some of the parties they belonged to counted no more than several hundred members. One of the participants was Jawdet al-Obeidi, a former Army officer from Hilla. He fled Iraq after taking part in the Shiite uprising in 1991, and ended up in Portland, Oregon. He started a small limousine company there, and last year he sold it and returned to Iraq, as a member of a militia aligned with the U.S. invasion force. Since then, Obeidi has poured a hundred and fifty thousand dollars of his savings into building a coalition of almost two hundred small political parties that can challenge the larger parties in parliamentary elections. (Already, there are some three hundred political parties in Iraq.) The coalition’s platform combines a moderate Muslim agenda with Iraqi nationalism and a respect for individual rights—a deliberately mild mixture that seems designed to have broad support. Obeidi, a balding, middle-aged man with a salesman’s cheerfulness, has received death threats, and his brother-in-law survived three bullets in the head.

Also at the meeting was a married couple from Mahawil, a village of dirt roads and salt marshes near Hilla: Emad Dawood, who worked in a shop selling construction materials, and his wife, Saad, who had received a business degree in Baghdad but was unable to find work, and was now raising their three children. She was one of only three women at the meeting; like the others, she wore a hijab.

Her husband explained to me, “We go everywhere together.”

“Any educated couple would do this,” Saad said.

“Of course, we have religion, and we go by the rules,” Emad added. “The Islamic religion doesn’t say women can’t mix with other men, but everything has to do with limits.”

Saad pointed out that Islam doesn’t deny women the right to participate in politics: “They should have a role in everything.”

In Hilla, the repression of the 1991 Shiite uprising was particularly brutal, and, last year, mass graves containing thousands of victims were uncovered on the periphery of the town. Saad and Emad had each lost a brother, and many friends. The couple had only the vaguest notion of what was in Iraq’s new interim constitution, but they knew very well what it was like to live under Saddam. “It’s like a hammer on your head every day,” Emad said, “and then they take it away.”

The Dawoods had once seen the Americans as heroic liberators, but the feeling was short-lived. According to Emad, as the occupation ground on, with constant power outages and rampant crime, ordinary unhappiness was turning into a kind of insanity. “Things are just getting worse here,” Saad added. “Of course, if there was democracy things would change.”

“But democracy needs a long period of time, because we’ve been living so long under Saddam,” Emad said.

“Most people do not get the idea of democracy,” Saad said. “Ask anybody about democracy, and you’d find most people would say, ‘What am I going to do with democracy? Give me security first.’”

Emad told me, “I know a guy who shot two bullets at random. He said, ‘Isn’t this freedom?’”

As for Dettman’s presentation, it clearly meant something to this couple that Americans had come to meet with them in Hilla. Dettman had given them a lot of helpful information, they felt. Their only complaint was that there was no exam at the end, to test how much they’d learned about democracy.

The failures of the occupation and the violence of the insurgency have stranded moderate Iraqis like those who attended the meeting in Hilla. Lakhdar Brahimi wants to bring such Iraqis onto the national political stage, but, considering the disproportionate power of groups represented on the Governing Council and backed by foreign states, the chances for success are poor. Marina Ottaway, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me that, after the fall of dictatorships, “you always have a lot of political parties forming, and they never get anywhere.” N.D.I., she concluded, is “bravely doing something that is completely futile.”

Of course, electoral success isn’t the only measure of what organizations like N.D.I. are trying to do. In Hilla, it felt like an achievement simply to hold a discussion, amid gunfire, about democracy, in which there was a genuine give-and-take between Iraqis and foreigners. The fact that Hempher, the supposed British spy blamed for so much trouble in the Muslim world, was invoked at the Hilla workshop was a less hopeful sign. The Americans’ mistakes in Iraq have been only part of the story of disappointment. Many Iraqis—damaged beyond imagining by the cruelty of Saddam’s rule, and afflicted with outsized expectations and suspicions of America—have fallen back on aspects of their culture and faith that offer a blind resistance to the new world that has been thrown open before them. In the past year, Iraq has undergone not just a war but a revolution. It’s no wonder that Iraqis have responded not only with hope but with confusion, rage, and despair; the wonder is that Americans expected anything else.

We left Hilla just before dark, and set out for Baghdad. An hour later, on a nearby road, three people—an American woman working with Iraqi women’s groups, a C.P.A. press officer, and their Iraqi translator—were ambushed and shot to death by men wearing Iraqi police uniforms. It was the start of a wave of attacks on foreign civilians and the Iraqis who worked with them. The violence had still not subsided by early May, and most of the non-governmental groups and contractors working for democracy in Iraq had evacuated their foreign employees. Les Campbell, the Middle East director of N.D.I., recently told me that the organization’s foreign staff was in Amman, Jordan, waiting for the violence to diminish before returning to Baghdad, where the Iraqi staff continues to work. Meanwhile, Campbell is talking with private security firms, and looking for the right armored car.

He has not lost his optimism altogether. “Even with all the problems in Iraq, there is already far more civil-society space and party organizing than in any other Arab country,” he said. He described how N.D.I.’s Iraqi staff members, such as Mayasa al-Naimy, have begun to blossom intellectually. “Even in the midst of the killings, which are terrible, and even though the planning and administration continue to be a joke, something interesting is going on here,” Campbell said. “It makes me sort of sick to think it might not work.”

Three days after the trip to Hilla, I paid another visit to Dr. Shaker at his house in Sadr City. His brother Samir had just come back from a demonstration against the interim constitution, led by one of Moqtada al-Sadr’s top aides, in Firdus Square, the same spot where Saddam’s statue was pulled down a year ago. “The Kurds have more rights than the others,” Samir said. “They can veto anything we decide, but we don’t have the right to veto.”

Ali had watched a Shiite politician on television who said that Arabs could refuse the Kurds’ demands for federalism. “We don’t know anything about the constitution,” Ali said. “It was written, handed over to the Governing Council to sign, and then shown to the people, who never saw it before.”

As for Shaker, the controversy filled him with foreboding. He doubted that Iraq would remain intact. The Shia, the Kurds, and the Sunnis had agendas that could never be reconciled. “The story will be like Lebanon,” Shaker told me. “A civil war.”

Arab against Kurd? “A strong possibility.” Shiite against Sunni? “It’s a possibility,” he said. “The constitution will be the starting point, and then the event will be gradually increased.” I asked if he envisioned rival armies fighting each other. “That is how I imagine it,” he said. But, the likeliest scenario of all, he added, was a civil war among his own people, the Shia.

It was my last visit to the house. Afterward, neighbors belonging to Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army warned Shaker against having any more American visitors.

It was a few weeks later, on March 28th, that Moqtada’s uprising began, and Sadr City exploded in days and nights of firefights between militiamen and American soldiers. I spoke with the doctor by phone. He had spent days trapped at home, unable to go to the morgue, while the uprising continued. Twelve of his friends in the neighborhood had died in crossfire. His brothers, Ali and Samir, wanted to join the Mahdi Army and fight the Americans, but he had stopped them. The scale of the violence shocked him, but not its outbreak, which he had seen coming. The bravery of the young militiamen, standing up to tanks with small arms, impressed him, and though he deplored their tactics, he sympathized with their goal—“real Islamic democracy.”

Shaker said, “My idea of the situation now: the Americans are at the high level and Moqtada is down at the bottom, and they can’t understand each other. They should be in the middle.” He added, “The Americans have to use the political way. Bremer must be more diplomatic, more flexible. He needs to go through the middle level of mind—as I told you. He must speak to people like me.”

How a secret Pentagon program came to Abu Ghraib, by Seymour Hersh
The New Yorker: THE GRAY ZONE
How a secret Pentagon program came to Abu Ghraib.
Issue of 2004-05-24
Posted 2004-05-15
The roots of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists but in a decision, approved last year by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to expand a highly secret operation, which had been focussed on the hunt for Al Qaeda, to the interrogation of prisoners in Iraq. Rumsfeld’s decision embittered the American intelligence community, damaged the effectiveness of élite combat units, and hurt America’s prospects in the war on terror.

According to interviews with several past and present American intelligence officials, the Pentagon’s operation, known inside the intelligence community by several code words, including Copper Green, encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in an effort to generate more intelligence about the growing insurgency in Iraq. A senior C.I.A. official, in confirming the details of this account last week, said that the operation stemmed from Rumsfeld’s long-standing desire to wrest control of America’s clandestine and paramilitary operations from the C.I.A.

Rumsfeld, during appearances last week before Congress to testify about Abu Ghraib, was precluded by law from explicitly mentioning highly secret matters in an unclassified session. But he conveyed the message that he was telling the public all that he knew about the story. He said, “Any suggestion that there is not a full, deep awareness of what has happened, and the damage it has done, I think, would be a misunderstanding.” The senior C.I.A. official, asked about Rumsfeld’s testimony and that of Stephen Cambone, his Under-Secretary for Intelligence, said, “Some people think you can bullshit anyone.”

The Abu Ghraib story began, in a sense, just weeks after the September 11, 2001, attacks, with the American bombing of Afghanistan. Almost from the start, the Administration’s search for Al Qaeda members in the war zone, and its worldwide search for terrorists, came up against major command-and-control problems. For example, combat forces that had Al Qaeda targets in sight had to obtain legal clearance before firing on them. On October 7th, the night the bombing began, an unmanned Predator aircraft tracked an automobile convoy that, American intelligence believed, contained Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader. A lawyer on duty at the United States Central Command headquarters, in Tampa, Florida, refused to authorize a strike. By the time an attack was approved, the target was out of reach. Rumsfeld was apoplectic over what he saw as a self-defeating hesitation to attack that was due to political correctness. One officer described him to me that fall as “kicking a lot of glass and breaking doors.” In November, the Washington Post reported that, as many as ten times since early October, Air Force pilots believed they’d had senior Al Qaeda and Taliban members in their sights but had been unable to act in time because of legalistic hurdles. There were similar problems throughout the world, as American Special Forces units seeking to move quickly against suspected terrorist cells were compelled to get prior approval from local American ambassadors and brief their superiors in the chain of command.

Rumsfeld reacted in his usual direct fashion: he authorized the establishment of a highly secret program that was given blanket advance approval to kill or capture and, if possible, interrogate “high value” targets in the Bush Administration’s war on terror. A special-access program, or sap—subject to the Defense Department’s most stringent level of security—was set up, with an office in a secure area of the Pentagon. The program would recruit operatives and acquire the necessary equipment, including aircraft, and would keep its activities under wraps. America’s most successful intelligence operations during the Cold War had been saps, including the Navy’s submarine penetration of underwater cables used by the Soviet high command and construction of the Air Force’s stealth bomber. All the so-called “black” programs had one element in common: the Secretary of Defense, or his deputy, had to conclude that the normal military classification restraints did not provide enough security.

“Rumsfeld’s goal was to get a capability in place to take on a high-value target—a standup group to hit quickly,” a former high-level intelligence official told me. “He got all the agencies together—the C.I.A. and the N.S.A.—to get pre-approval in place. Just say the code word and go.” The operation had across-the-board approval from Rumsfeld and from Condoleezza Rice, the national-security adviser. President Bush was informed of the existence of the program, the former intelligence official said.

The people assigned to the program worked by the book, the former intelligence official told me. They created code words, and recruited, after careful screening, highly trained commandos and operatives from America’s élite forces—Navy seals, the Army’s Delta Force, and the C.I.A.’s paramilitary experts. They also asked some basic questions: “Do the people working the problem have to use aliases? Yes. Do we need dead drops for the mail? Yes. No traceability and no budget. And some special-access programs are never fully briefed to Congress.”

In theory, the operation enabled the Bush Administration to respond immediately to time-sensitive intelligence: commandos crossed borders without visas and could interrogate terrorism suspects deemed too important for transfer to the military’s facilities at Guantánamo, Cuba. They carried out instant interrogations—using force if necessary—at secret C.I.A. detention centers scattered around the world. The intelligence would be relayed to the sap command center in the Pentagon in real time, and sifted for those pieces of information critical to the “white,” or overt, world.

Fewer than two hundred operatives and officials, including Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were “completely read into the program,” the former intelligence official said. The goal was to keep the operation protected. “We’re not going to read more people than necessary into our heart of darkness,” he said. “The rules are ‘Grab whom you must. Do what you want.’”

One Pentagon official who was deeply involved in the program was Stephen Cambone, who was named Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence in March, 2003. The office was new; it was created as part of Rumsfeld’s reorganization of the Pentagon. Cambone was unpopular among military and civilian intelligence bureaucrats in the Pentagon, essentially because he had little experience in running intelligence programs, though in 1998 he had served as staff director for a committee, headed by Rumsfeld, that warned of an emerging ballistic-missile threat to the United States. He was known instead for his closeness to Rumsfeld. “Remember Henry II—‘Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’” the senior C.I.A. official said to me, with a laugh, last week. “Whatever Rumsfeld whimsically says, Cambone will do ten times that much.”

Cambone was a strong advocate for war against Iraq. He shared Rumsfeld’s disdain for the analysis and assessments proffered by the C.I.A., viewing them as too cautious, and chafed, as did Rumsfeld, at the C.I.A.’s inability, before the Iraq war, to state conclusively that Saddam Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction. Cambone’s military assistant, Army Lieutenant General William G. (Jerry) Boykin, was also controversial. Last fall, he generated unwanted headlines after it was reported that, in a speech at an Oregon church, he equated the Muslim world with Satan.

Early in his tenure, Cambone provoked a bureaucratic battle within the Pentagon by insisting that he be given control of all special-access programs that were relevant to the war on terror. Those programs, which had been viewed by many in the Pentagon as sacrosanct, were monitored by Kenneth deGraffenreid, who had experience in counter-intelligence programs. Cambone got control, and deGraffenreid subsequently left the Pentagon. Asked for comment on this story, a Pentagon spokesman said, “I will not discuss any covert programs; however, Dr. Cambone did not assume his position as the Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence until March 7, 2003, and had no involvement in the decision-making process regarding interrogation procedures in Iraq or anywhere else.”

In mid-2003, the special-access program was regarded in the Pentagon as one of the success stories of the war on terror. “It was an active program,” the former intelligence official told me. “It’s been the most important capability we have for dealing with an imminent threat. If we discover where Osama bin Laden is, we can get him. And we can remove an existing threat with a real capability to hit the United States—and do so without visibility.” Some of its methods were troubling and could not bear close scrutiny, however.

By then, the war in Iraq had begun. The sap was involved in some assignments in Iraq, the former official said. C.I.A. and other American Special Forces operatives secretly teamed up to hunt for Saddam Hussein and—without success—for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But they weren’t able to stop the evolving insurgency.

In the first months after the fall of Baghdad, Rumsfeld and his aides still had a limited view of the insurgency, seeing it as little more than the work of Baathist “dead-enders,” criminal gangs, and foreign terrorists who were Al Qaeda followers. The Administration measured its success in the war by how many of those on its list of the fifty-five most wanted members of the old regime—reproduced on playing cards—had been captured. Then, in August, 2003, terror bombings in Baghdad hit the Jordanian Embassy, killing nineteen people, and the United Nations headquarters, killing twenty-three people, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the head of the U.N. mission. On August 25th, less than a week after the U.N. bombing, Rumsfeld acknowledged, in a talk before the Veterans of Foreign Wars, that “the dead-enders are still with us.” He went on, “There are some today who are surprised that there are still pockets of resistance in Iraq, and they suggest that this represents some sort of failure on the part of the Coalition. But this is not the case.” Rumsfeld compared the insurgents with those true believers who “fought on during and after the defeat of the Nazi regime in Germany.” A few weeks later—and five months after the fall of Baghdad—the Defense Secretary declared,“It is, in my view, better to be dealing with terrorists in Iraq than in the United States.”

Inside the Pentagon, there was a growing realization that the war was going badly. The increasingly beleaguered and baffled Army leadership was telling reporters that the insurgents consisted of five thousand Baathists loyal to Saddam Hussein. “When you understand that they’re organized in a cellular structure,” General John Abizaid, the head of the Central Command, declared, “that . . . they have access to a lot of money and a lot of ammunition, you’ll understand how dangerous they are.”

The American military and intelligence communities were having little success in penetrating the insurgency. One internal report prepared for the U.S. military, made available to me, concluded that the insurgents’“strategic and operational intelligence has proven to be quite good.” According to the study:

Their ability to attack convoys, other vulnerable targets and particular individuals has been the result of painstaking surveillance and reconnaissance. Inside information has been passed on to insurgent cells about convoy/troop movements and daily habits of Iraqis working with coalition from within the Iraqi security services, primarily the Iraqi Police force which is rife with sympathy for the insurgents, Iraqi ministries and from within pro-insurgent individuals working with the CPA’s so-called Green Zone.

The study concluded, “Politically, the U.S. has failed to date. Insurgencies can be fixed or ameliorated by dealing with what caused them in the first place. The disaster that is the reconstruction of Iraq has been the key cause of the insurgency. There is no legitimate government, and it behooves the Coalition Provisional Authority to absorb the sad but unvarnished fact that most Iraqis do not see the Governing Council”—the Iraqi body appointed by the C.P.A.—“as the legitimate authority. Indeed, they know that the true power is the CPA.”

By the fall, a military analyst told me, the extent of the Pentagon’s political and military misjudgments was clear. Donald Rumsfeld’s “dead-enders” now included not only Baathists but many marginal figures as well—thugs and criminals who were among the tens of thousands of prisoners freed the previous fall by Saddam as part of a prewar general amnesty. Their desperation was not driving the insurgency; it simply made them easy recruits for those who were. The analyst said, “We’d killed and captured guys who had been given two or three hundred dollars to ‘pray and spray’”—that is, shoot randomly and hope for the best. “They weren’t really insurgents but down-and-outers who were paid by wealthy individuals sympathetic to the insurgency.” In many cases, the paymasters were Sunnis who had been members of the Baath Party. The analyst said that the insurgents “spent three or four months figuring out how we operated and developing their own countermeasures. If that meant putting up a hapless guy to go and attack a convoy and see how the American troops responded, they’d do it.” Then, the analyst said, “the clever ones began to get in on the action.”

By contrast, according to the military report, the American and Coalition forces knew little about the insurgency: “Human intelligence is poor or lacking . . . due to the dearth of competence and expertise. . . . The intelligence effort is not coördinated since either too many groups are involved in gathering intelligence or the final product does not get to the troops in the field in a timely manner.” The success of the war was at risk; something had to be done to change the dynamic.

The solution, endorsed by Rumsfeld and carried out by Stephen Cambone, was to get tough with those Iraqis in the Army prison system who were suspected of being insurgents. A key player was Major General Geoffrey Miller, the commander of the detention and interrogation center at Guantánamo, who had been summoned to Baghdad in late August to review prison interrogation procedures. The internal Army report on the abuse charges, written by Major General Antonio Taguba in February, revealed that Miller urged that the commanders in Baghdad change policy and place military intelligence in charge of the prison. The report quoted Miller as recommending that “detention operations must act as an enabler for interrogation.”

Miller’s concept, as it emerged in recent Senate hearings, was to “Gitmoize” the prison system in Iraq—to make it more focussed on interrogation. He also briefed military commanders in Iraq on the interrogation methods used in Cuba—methods that could, with special approval, include sleep deprivation, exposure to extremes of cold and heat, and placing prisoners in “stress positions” for agonizing lengths of time. (The Bush Administration had unilaterally declared Al Qaeda and other captured members of international terrorist networks to be illegal combatants, and not eligible for the protection of the Geneva Conventions.)

Rumsfeld and Cambone went a step further, however: they expanded the scope of the sap, bringing its unconventional methods to Abu Ghraib. The commandos were to operate in Iraq as they had in Afghanistan. The male prisoners could be treated roughly, and exposed to sexual humiliation.

“They weren’t getting anything substantive from the detainees in Iraq,” the former intelligence official told me. “No names. Nothing that they could hang their hat on. Cambone says, I’ve got to crack this thing and I’m tired of working through the normal chain of command. I’ve got this apparatus set up—the black special-access program—and I’m going in hot. So he pulls the switch, and the electricity begins flowing last summer. And it’s working. We’re getting a picture of the insurgency in Iraq and the intelligence is flowing into the white world. We’re getting good stuff. But we’ve got more targets”—prisoners in Iraqi jails—“than people who can handle them.”

Cambone then made another crucial decision, the former intelligence official told me: not only would he bring the sap’s rules into the prisons; he would bring some of the Army military-intelligence officers working inside the Iraqi prisons under the sap’sauspices. “So here are fundamentally good soldiers—military-intelligence guys—being told that no rules apply,” the former official, who has extensive knowledge of the special-access programs, added. “And, as far as they’re concerned, this is a covert operation, and it’s to be kept within Defense Department channels.”

The military-police prison guards, the former official said, included “recycled hillbillies from Cumberland, Maryland.” He was referring to members of the 372nd Military Police Company. Seven members of the company are now facing charges for their role in the abuse at Abu Ghraib. “How are these guys from Cumberland going to know anything? The Army Reserve doesn’t know what it’s doing.”

Who was in charge of Abu Ghraib—whether military police or military intelligence—was no longer the only question that mattered. Hard-core special operatives, some of them with aliases, were working in the prison. The military police assigned to guard the prisoners wore uniforms, but many others—military intelligence officers, contract interpreters, C.I.A. officers, and the men from the special-access program—wore civilian clothes. It was not clear who was who, even to Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, then the commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade, and the officer ostensibly in charge. “I thought most of the civilians there were interpreters, but there were some civilians that I didn’t know,” Karpinski told me. “I called them the disappearing ghosts. I’d seen them once in a while at Abu Ghraib and then I’d see them months later. They were nice—they’d always call out to me and say, ‘Hey, remember me? How are you doing?’” The mysterious civilians, she said, were “always bringing in somebody for interrogation or waiting to collect somebody going out.” Karpinski added that she had no idea who was operating in her prison system. (General Taguba found that Karpinski’s leadership failures contributed to the abuses.)

By fall, according to the former intelligence official, the senior leadership of the C.I.A. had had enough. “They said, ‘No way. We signed up for the core program in Afghanistan—pre-approved for operations against high-value terrorist targets—and now you want to use it for cabdrivers, brothers-in-law, and people pulled off the streets’”—the sort of prisoners who populate the Iraqi jails. “The C.I.A.’s legal people objected,” and the agency ended its sap involvement in Abu Ghraib, the former official said.

The C.I.A.’s complaints were echoed throughout the intelligence community. There was fear that the situation at Abu Ghraib would lead to the exposure of the secret sap, and thereby bring an end to what had been, before Iraq, a valuable cover operation. “This was stupidity,” a government consultant told me. “You’re taking a program that was operating in the chaos of Afghanistan against Al Qaeda, a stateless terror group, and bringing it into a structured, traditional war zone. Sooner or later, the commandos would bump into the legal and moral procedures of a conventional war with an Army of a hundred and thirty-five thousand soldiers.”

The former senior intelligence official blamed hubris for the Abu Ghraib disaster. “There’s nothing more exhilarating for a pissant Pentagon civilian than dealing with an important national security issue without dealing with military planners, who are always worried about risk,” he told me. “What could be more boring than needing the coöperation of logistical planners?” The only difficulty, the former official added, is that, “as soon as you enlarge the secret program beyond the oversight capability of experienced people, you lose control. We’ve never had a case where a special-access program went sour—and this goes back to the Cold War.”

In a separate interview, a Pentagon consultant, who spent much of his career directly involved with special-access programs, spread the blame. “The White House subcontracted this to the Pentagon, and the Pentagon subcontracted it to Cambone,” he said. “This is Cambone’s deal, but Rumsfeld and Myers approved the program.” When it came to the interrogation operation at Abu Ghraib, he said, Rumsfeld left the details to Cambone. Rumsfeld may not be personally culpable, the consultant added, “but he’s responsible for the checks and balances. The issue is that, since 9/11, we’ve changed the rules on how we deal with terrorism, and created conditions where the ends justify the means.”

Last week, statements made by one of the seven accused M.P.s, Specialist Jeremy Sivits, who is expected to plead guilty, were released. In them, he claimed that senior commanders in his unit would have stopped the abuse had they witnessed it. One of the questions that will be explored at any trial, however, is why a group of Army Reserve military policemen, most of them from small towns, tormented their prisoners as they did, in a manner that was especially humiliating for Iraqi men.

The notion that Arabs are particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation became a talking point among pro-war Washington conservatives in the months before the March, 2003, invasion of Iraq. One book that was frequently cited was “The Arab Mind,” a study of Arab culture and psychology, first published in 1973, by Raphael Patai, a cultural anthropologist who taught at, among other universities, Columbia and Princeton, and who died in 1996. The book includes a twenty-five-page chapter on Arabs and sex, depicting sex as a taboo vested with shame and repression. “The segregation of the sexes, the veiling of the women . . . and all the other minute rules that govern and restrict contact between men and women, have the effect of making sex a prime mental preoccupation in the Arab world,” Patai wrote. Homosexual activity, “or any indication of homosexual leanings, as with all other expressions of sexuality, is never given any publicity. These are private affairs and remain in private.” The Patai book, an academic told me, was “the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior.” In their discussions, he said, two themes emerged—“one, that Arabs only understand force and, two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation.”

The government consultant said that there may have been a serious goal, in the beginning, behind the sexual humiliation and the posed photographs. It was thought that some prisoners would do anything—including spying on their associates—to avoid dissemination of the shameful photos to family and friends. The government consultant said, “I was told that the purpose of the photographs was to create an army of informants, people you could insert back in the population.” The idea was that they would be motivated by fear of exposure, and gather information about pending insurgency action, the consultant said. If so, it wasn’t effective; the insurgency continued to grow.

“This shit has been brewing for months,” the Pentagon consultant who has dealt with saps told me. “You don’t keep prisoners naked in their cell and then let them get bitten by dogs. This is sick.” The consultant explained that he and his colleagues, all of whom had served for years on active duty in the military, had been appalled by the misuse of Army guard dogs inside Abu Ghraib. “We don’t raise kids to do things like that. When you go after Mullah Omar, that’s one thing. But when you give the authority to kids who don’t know the rules, that’s another.”

In 2003, Rumsfeld’s apparent disregard for the requirements of the Geneva Conventions while carrying out the war on terror had led a group of senior military legal officers from the Judge Advocate General’s (jag) Corps to pay two surprise visits within five months to Scott Horton, who was then chairman of the New York City Bar Association’s Committee on International Human Rights. “They wanted us to challenge the Bush Administration about its standards for detentions and interrogation,” Horton told me. “They were urging us to get involved and speak in a very loud voice. It came pretty much out of the blue. The message was that conditions are ripe for abuse, and it’s going to occur.” The military officials were most alarmed about the growing use of civilian contractors in the interrogation process, Horton recalled. “They said there was an atmosphere of legal ambiguity being created as a result of a policy decision at the highest levels in the Pentagon. The jag officers were being cut out of the policy formulation process.” They told him that, with the war on terror, a fifty-year history of exemplary application of the Geneva Conventions had come to an end.

The abuses at Abu Ghraib were exposed on January 13th, when Joseph Darby, a young military policeman assigned to Abu Ghraib, reported the wrongdoing to the Army’s Criminal Investigations Division. He also turned over a CD full of photographs. Within three days, a report made its way to Donald Rumsfeld, who informed President Bush.

The inquiry presented a dilemma for the Pentagon. The C.I.D. had to be allowed to continue, the former intelligence official said. “You can’t cover it up. You have to prosecute these guys for being off the reservation. But how do you prosecute them when they were covered by the special-access program? So you hope that maybe it’ll go away.” The Pentagon’s attitude last January, he said, was “Somebody got caught with some photos. What’s the big deal? Take care of it.” Rumsfeld’s explanation to the White House, the official added, was reassuring: “‘We’ve got a glitch in the program. We’ll prosecute it.’ The cover story was that some kids got out of control.”

In their testimony before Congress last week, Rumsfeld and Cambone struggled to convince the legislators that Miller’s visit to Baghdad in late August had nothing to do with the subsequent abuse. Cambone sought to assure the Senate Armed Services Committee that the interplay between Miller and Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, had only a casual connection to his office. Miller’s recommendations, Cambone said, were made to Sanchez. His own role, he said, was mainly to insure that the “flow of intelligence back to the commands” was “efficient and effective.” He added that Miller’s goal was “to provide a safe, secure and humane environment that supports the expeditious collection of intelligence.”

It was a hard sell. Senator Hillary Clinton, Democrat of New York, posed the essential question facing the senators:

If, indeed, General Miller was sent from Guantánamo to Iraq for the purpose of acquiring more actionable intelligence from detainees, then it is fair to conclude that the actions that are at point here in your report [on abuses at Abu Ghraib] are in some way connected to General Miller’s arrival and his specific orders, however they were interpreted, by those MPs and the military intelligence that were involved.. . .Therefore, I for one don’t believe I yet have adequate information from Mr. Cambone and the Defense Department as to exactly what General Miller’s orders were . . . how he carried out those orders, and the connection between his arrival in the fall of ’03 and the intensity of the abuses that occurred afterward.

Sometime before the Abu Ghraib abuses became public, the former intelligence official told me, Miller was “read in”—that is, briefed—on the special-access operation. In April, Miller returned to Baghdad to assume control of the Iraqi prisons; once the scandal hit, with its glaring headlines, General Sanchez presented him to the American and international media as the general who would clean up the Iraqi prison system and instill respect for the Geneva Conventions. “His job is to save what he can,” the former official said. “He’s there to protect the program while limiting any loss of core capability.” As for Antonio Taguba, the former intelligence official added, “He goes into it not knowing shit. And then: ‘Holy cow! What’s going on?’”

If General Miller had been summoned by Congress to testify, he, like Rumsfeld and Cambone, would not have been able to mention the special-access program. “If you give away the fact that a special-access program exists,”the former intelligence official told me, “you blow the whole quick-reaction program.”

One puzzling aspect of Rumsfeld’s account of his initial reaction to news of the Abu Ghraib investigation was his lack of alarm and lack of curiosity. One factor may have been recent history: there had been many previous complaints of prisoner abuse from organization like Human Rights Watch and the International Red Cross, and the Pentagon had weathered them with ease. Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he had not been provided with details of alleged abuses until late March, when he read the specific charges. “You read it, as I say, it’s one thing. You see these photographs and it’s just unbelievable. . . . It wasn’t three-dimensional. It wasn’t video. It wasn’t color. It was quite a different thing.” The former intelligence official said that, in his view, Rumsfeld and other senior Pentagon officials had not studied the photographs because “they thought what was in there was permitted under the rules of engagement,” as applied to the sap. “The photos,” he added, “turned out to be the result of the program run amok.”

The former intelligence official made it clear that he was not alleging that Rumsfeld or General Myers knew that atrocities were committed. But, he said, “it was their permission granted to do the sap, generically, and there was enough ambiguity, which permitted the abuses.”

This official went on, “The black guys”—those in the Pentagon’s secret program—“say we’ve got to accept the prosecution. They’re vaccinated from the reality.” The sap is still active, and “the United States is picking up guys for interrogation. The question is, how do they protect the quick-reaction force without blowing its cover?” The program was protected by the fact that no one on the outside was allowed to know of its existence. “If you even give a hint that you’re aware of a black program that you’re not read into, you lose your clearances,” the former official said. “Nobody will talk. So the only people left to prosecute are those who are undefended—the poor kids at the end of the food chain.”

The most vulnerable senior official is Cambone. “The Pentagon is trying now to protect Cambone, and doesn’t know how to do it,” the former intelligence official said.

Last week, the government consultant, who has close ties to many conservatives, defended the Administration’s continued secrecy about the special-access program in Abu Ghraib. “Why keep it black?” the consultant asked. “Because the process is unpleasant. It’s like making sausage—you like the result but you don’t want to know how it was made. Also, you don’t want the Iraqi public, and the Arab world, to know. Remember, we went to Iraq to democratize the Middle East. The last thing you want to do is let the Arab world know how you treat Arab males in prison.”

The former intelligence official told me he feared that one of the disastrous effects of the prison-abuse scandal would be the undermining of legitimate operations in the war on terror, which had already suffered from the draining of resources into Iraq. He portrayed Abu Ghraib as “a tumor” on the war on terror. He said, “As long as it’s benign and contained, the Pentagon can deal with the photo crisis without jeopardizing the secret program. As soon as it begins to grow, with nobody to diagnose it—it becomes a malignant tumor.”

The Pentagon consultant made a similar point. Cambone and his superiors, the consultant said, “created the conditions that allowed transgressions to take place. And now we’re going to end up with another Church Commission”—the 1975 Senate committee on intelligence, headed by Senator Frank Church, of Idaho, which investigated C.I.A. abuses during the previous two decades. Abu Ghraib had sent the message that the Pentagon leadership was unable to handle its discretionary power. “When the shit hits the fan, as it did on 9/11, how do you push the pedal?” the consultant asked. “You do it selectively and with intelligence.”

“Congress is going to get to the bottom of this,” the Pentagon consultant said. “You have to demonstrate that there are checks and balances in the system.” He added, “When you live in a world of gray zones, you have to have very clear red lines.”

Senator John McCain, of Arizona, said, “If this is true, it certainly increases the dimension of this issue and deserves significant scrutiny. I will do all possible to get to the bottom of this, and all other allegations.”

“In an odd way,” Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said, “the sexual abuses at Abu Ghraib have become a diversion for the prisoner abuse and the violation of the Geneva Conventions that is authorized.” Since September 11th, Roth added, the military has systematically used third-degree techniques around the world on detainees. “Some jags hate this and are horrified that the tolerance of mistreatment will come back and haunt us in the next war,” Roth told me. “We’re giving the world a ready-made excuse to ignore the Geneva Conventions. Rumsfeld has lowered the bar.”

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