Bad Debt

Settling accounts in the vacuum of postwar Iraq

"Before they came, they sent a bulldozer to dig a big hole," explained Said Jabir al-Husseini, a fifty-one-year-old farmer who owned the land just next to the land where he was standing—leaning, really, on a wooden walking stick. "After that they brought people blindfolded and hands tied behind their backs."

Al-Husseini could not have been more obliging, but everything about him was dark: his coffee-ground eyes, his cracked-clay face, his gray-dusted black beard, the black netted jacket that lay over his black dishdashah, and, darkest of all, the memory on his mind. In 1991, as the Shiites of southern Iraq rose up against the regime of Saddam Hussein and were brutally put down again, al-Husseini witnessed the digging and the filling of a mass grave here at al-Mahaweel, a little more than an hour's drive south of Baghdad, in the Babel region.

About a week before I arrived, in late May, the grave had been discovered. Now it was a scene of bustling desperation. A stream of Shiites came in hopes of finding long-missing loved ones among the dunes of skulls and bones. Local volunteers were digging up the remains, placing them in plastic bags, and lining the bags up in rows. Now and then the anguish would boil over, as someone finally found a relative—or didn't. U.S. Marines were on hand, strictly, they emphasized, to support the Iraqi effort.

Every day since the digging began, al-Husseini had come here and brought lunch for the workers. Twelve years earlier, from March 7 to April 6 of 1991, he and his father and several of his five brothers had spent every day hiding among some trees and watching as a steady flow of victims arrived by pickup truck and school bus, in groups of approximately 130 to 150. Like other witnesses to this and similar massacres, al-Husseini described a hyper, hurry-it-up quality to the killing. Asked why this was, he cited the powerful, if dubious, rumor that everyone else cited: the regime compensated the killers at a rate of 3,000 dinars (about $9,000 at the time) per victim.

When they went home each night, al-Husseini said, he and his family talked about what they should do, and came to the conclusion that, for survival's sake, they should do nothing. "I kept my mouth shut for twelve years," he told me.

Understandable though this silence was, not everyone understood it. As we talked, people came up to al-Husseini periodically and hit him with a spitball of angry Arabic, scolding him for not coming forward sooner, before their relatives' bodies had been reduced to bone.

Such anger, however, was not in the same universe of rage as that expressed at the man whom these people held most responsible—apart from Saddam Hussein—for what had occurred here: Sheikh Muhammad Jawad al-Naifus, whom U.S. forces had taken into custody in late April and, according to a Marine colonel at the site, were holding on suspicion of mass murder. The sheikh, a few conversations made clear, was viewed as Saddam's eyes, ears, and fist in this area. Now he was also widely viewed as a man who should hang.

Significantly, one person who held this view was a long-bearded, thickly robed old man whose bearing managed somehow to telegraph sorrow, fury, and prestige. He was a member of the Hawza, the Najaf-based Shiite religious body that—emboldened by the fall of the regime—was exerting increasing influence over Iraqi life, influence that was spilling forth from mosques and into hospitals, schools, and police stations. He was at the grave to ensure the proper Islamic redisposal of the victims' bodies. He also favored the proper Islamic disposal of the sheikh's case: swift, sure, and in a Hawza court.

It was not generally agreed at the mass grave that Sheikh al-Naifus should be tried by an Islamic court, but it was emphatically insisted that he and people like him should be tried by an Iraqi court, before the Iraqi public. People clearly feared that such criminals might be subjected to unduly soft American or, worse yet, non-Iraqi Arab justice, and would ultimately be spared or spirited away. But the U.S. military was quick to assuage such fears. Although it had been U.S. forces that arrested al-Naifus, along with two of his sons and two of his grandsons, at his mansion in the nearby village of Balwan, the Marines at the gravesite gave the strong impression that this had been done largely to keep him safe and available until such time as the appropriate Iraqi court could be established.

The question of safety, at least, was real. While al-Naifus was in custody at the police station in the nearby city of al-Hillah, the capital of the Babel region, a local mob gathered to demand his immediate execution. Some Marines later told me, a little derisively, that Iskandar Jawad Witwit, the newly installed, U.S.-approved governor of Babel, had publicly called for his hanging on the spot—which Witwit, a dapper but perpetually harried official, made no attempt to deny when I met with him later at his office in al-Hillah. During the same visit I spoke with the Babel police chief, who had on his shirtsleeve a patch from the Philadelphia Police Department, recently given to him by a well-wishing officer from the City of Brotherly Love. "Al-Naifus is not like a regular criminal," the chief said. "I think he is not a human being."

"Absolutely, we want to take our revenge from al-Naifus," one of Said Jabir al-Husseini's neighbors told me. We were sitting on a cold stone floor, eating acres of rice and beans off flat tin platters in a structure made of emptied sugarcane stalks. This was an outbuilding on al-Husseini's farm, and being in it was like being in a cool, dim Easter basket. On one wall, as on a wall in almost every home in this part of Iraq, hung a huge, bright picture of Ali and Hussein, the founding figures of Shiism; the standard emerald green of their headpieces almost glowed in the half dark. After giving his eyewitness account, al-Husseini had invited me to lunch along with my interpreter, Ahmad Abdullah Salih, a former Iraqi air-force pilot. About a dozen other local men were present, and they were speculating on what, if anything, should happen to the sheikh's family. "We want to kick them out," the neighbor continued.

Al-Husseini displayed much less bluster, and much more pragmatism, on this topic. Later I asked him whether it would be acceptable for the al-Naifus family to sell its land and keep the money. He replied that it would be, as long as the family left the area, but that in the end it was not up to him; it all depended on what the Hawza said. I asked if he would accept it if the Hawza pronounced that the family should be left alone, and he replied that he would—but added that the Hawza would never do such a thing.

"If the sheikh's family wants to look for trouble," the neighbor fumed, "there will be trouble."

"It's not a mass grave," sixty-two-year-old Sami Jawad al-Naifus, the ninth of the sheikh's nine brothers, had told us the day before. Ahmad and I had just made the first of several visits to the mass grave; it was on our second visit that we met al-Husseini. "It is nothing to do with 1991."

Ahmad and I had not expected to find the al-Naifus family at home. We had driven the few minutes from the mass grave to Balwan to learn whether its people felt threatened by revenge seekers, who might not take care to establish who had what, if any, connection to the sheikh and his alleged misdeeds. One of the villagers pointed out the house of the sheikh. Pulling through the open gate and into the bare, sun-seared courtyard, we expected to see that the place had been looted. But there they were, several of the sheikh's male relatives, and they invited us right into their diwan, the traditional parlor in which Arabs effusively greet, and seat, their guests.

Despite the sheikh's rumored wealth, the house looked rich only in that it was large, and the diwan evoked not splendor so much as comfort. Thickly, immaculately upholstered cushions ran the lengths of each of the four long walls, which—the sheikh being a Sunni—were bare of Ali and Hussein. Cold Pepsi soon came on a tray, and then glasses of hot tea, later followed by a simple but impeccably prepared and presented lunch of rice and chicken and yogurt and salads and fruit.

During our conversation, about a wall's worth of cushioning was taken up by al-Naifus men and assorted associates who had materialized, but most of the talking was done by Sami Jawad and by Ali Jassim, who introduced himself as the sheikh's nephew and appeared to be in his early thirties.

Ahmad and I apologized for barging in like this. Ali Jassim exclaimed that appointments were never required, adding that if the sheikh himself had been present, he would have had something slaughtered especially for us. Each year at Eid al-Fitr, the feast that marks the end of Ramadan fasting, fifty or sixty local people would be invited into this room, Ali Jassim said, and the sheikh would give them money. When, right after the troubles of 1991, Saddam Hussein came to thank the sheikh for what Sami Jawad characterized as "taking control of the area," he didn't stay long enough to enjoy much refreshment. He did, however, leave a white 1990 Mercedes as a gift. But this, Sami Jawad cautioned, should not be taken to mean that the sheikh and Saddam were friends.

"It was his wish to protect the area," Sami Jawad said, explaining the sheikh's control-taking efforts in 1991. These efforts, according to him, consisted of nothing more sinister than setting up some checkpoints, aiding in the apprehension of looters, and "stopping all the nasty people"—helping, in fact, to stem the very kind of chaos that was paralyzing Iraq as we spoke. "It was nothing to do with the Saddam regime."

Curiously, though, even as family members denied their connection to Saddam, they bragged about it. This was the first hint that a distinctive verbal gift ran in the family: a gift for unblinking self-contradiction. As the reasoning flowed in one direction, it flowed in the opposite direction as well, so that great, rushing streams of protestation to one effect ran right alongside great, rushing streams of protestation to the opposite effect, with no one seeming to notice. This rendered the conversation almost useless for establishing facts, but very useful for mapping the distance the family had created between itself and the neighboring grave.

"Do you know why Saddam gave him a lot of gifts?" asked a sheikh from one of the lesser branches of the al-Naifus family, who had arrived quite far along in the discussion. He was very tall and free of sweat, and the bright, crisp whiteness of his kaffiyah and dishdashah made it seem weirdly as if the answer would be "Because he used Tide!" The reason, he explained, was that when Saddam's military established a base in the area, the sheikh merely extended his trademark hospitality. So the family wished to stress that the sheikh had not done anything in particular to merit the love of Saddam. But then again, it wished to imply that he had.

"Saddam Hussein gave gifts to all the sheikhs and all the people who protected their own area," Sami Jawad said. "But Sheikh Muhammad was given more than the rest of the sheikhs." Along with the Mercedes, he claimed, had come five million dinars (about $15 million).

The visit ended where it had started: on the subject of the mass grave. Here again the conversation ran in two directions. In less than an hour the family went from flat denial that the mass grave was a mass grave to admission that further investigation might very well establish that it was a mass grave to acknowledgment that the bodies of a couple of people from Balwan had been discovered in the mass grave.

In fact, a young al-Naifus man offered to hop into his truck and lead our car to the house of the family whose members had been unearthed. After a brief drive, he signaled out his window at a dwelling much smaller than the al-Naifus family's. Ahmad and I stopped, and he honked good-bye and drove away.

A man named Faras Abd al-Hamza opened the door. Given who had led us to him, we assumed that any impulse he had to say anything negative about the sheikh had, one way or another, been forestalled. This was not so.

"We knew there were plenty of mass graves in this area," Abd al-Hamza said, explaining how his family knew where to look for his two missing relatives, male cousins, who were thirteen and thirty-five at the time of their disappearance. The body of the younger one had been identified by a watch that the boy had inherited from his father, who had been killed in the Iran-Iraq war. The body of the older cousin had been identified, perhaps less reliably, by a gray dishdashah and white underwear. In any event, both bodies had just been reburied in proper graves.

Abd al-Hamza alleged that soon after his cousins disappeared, one of the sheikh's relatives visited and offered to get them released, provided that the family pay 3,000 dinars by a specific date. At the time, Abd al-Hamza said, he earned 125 dinars a month. The family managed to collect the money, but not until two days after the deadline, so the offer was rescinded. Still, at no point in the previous twelve years had they given up entirely.

"We asked the sheikh many times," he said, "and he left us with hopes they are still alive, maybe they are in jail." Abd al-Hamza, like others, claimed that the sheikh had occasionally been seen at the jail—which many locals believed had been packed with recent, innocent detainees—picking out favored people to set free.

All the same, I asked, would he say that the sheikh was actively involved in the massacre or simply took no action to stop it? "The sheikh is involved," Abd al-Hamza said, with neither doubt nor drama. "He's in the middle, actually, of these troubles." Was it possible that the sheikh was just acting on orders from Saddam, to save his own family? "Some people accepted Saddam's orders as a slave," he said, "and some people said no." What if the sheikh somehow got out of prison or left the country without facing Iraqi justice? "I'll take revenge from him by myself," Abd al-Hamza said, again without thunder. "I'll kill him."

Ahmad and I should not have been surprised, a few days later, to find the sheikh at large in Baghdad. But we were. We met him by appointment in his brother's house, the day after visiting a Baghdad bus company—owned by the sheikh's family—in hopes of finding out exactly where he was being held. The relative working there told us that he had been released, and the shock of that announcement carried through to the following day's meeting.

The sheikh, who is eighty-one, is slight, with a neat, snowy moustache. His very old face flushed with gratitude and good humor, he toyed with a string of clear amber prayer beads in his brother's diwan. The diwan was full of male relatives and friends, and during our visit of an hour or so more came through, to kiss the old man's hand and celebrate his good fortune. (Good fortune had yet to bless his sons and grandsons, who remained in prison but whose release, the family believed, was imminent.)

The sheikh exulted over the treatment he had received from his American captors: "There were nice beds, bathrooms, soap, hot water, cold water, good food, perfect food, different kinds of food ... Iraqi food." At one point, the sheikh said, a male soldier and a female soldier brought a bottle of cold water and washed his head; at another, in order to show understanding for how much the sheikh missed his family, a soldier shared a picture of his own wife and children.

At such recollections the sheikh exhibited an almost boyish cheeriness, but mostly he was the quintessential sheikh: a man given to observations like "I am sheikh. I am famous. I am part of the biggest family in Iraq"; a man who could announce his inability to read or write almost as a point of pride; a man who could ask to tell his side of the story—beginning from the time of King Faisal—in such a way that it was not a request at all.

The sheikh explained that he had been detained in several places. At various times he was kept with the sons and grandsons with whom he had been arrested; at other times he was alone. First he was taken to Saddam's palace at al-Hillah, which had been made into a U.S. Marine command post. The next day he was transferred to the police station at al-Hillah, where the mob, and the governor, threatened to lynch him. During this period, the sheikh recalled to general nods, his family offered to try to spring him by force, but he refused. After six days and a brief stopover back at the palace, the sheikh was flown by helicopter to what he later realized was the airport jail in the city of al-Diwaniyah, where he spent four days. Then he was taken by car to the jail at Baghdad International Airport, where he spent nine days. Finally, he and one grandson were taken to the Enemy Prisoner of War internment facility at Umm Qasr. The facility, he recalled, was a sea of tents. "They told me I should choose any tent I liked." On the fifth day there officials gave him his papers, a lift to the transport terminal, a box of food, and enough cash to hop a cab by himself to Baghdad—which, unbeknownst even to his family, he did.

Later on in our conversation the sheikh furnished, unprompted, the form release papers, dated May 18, 2003. They gave such information as his Enemy Prisoner of War number (ISN US 9IZ-109366) and his date of birth (1/1/1922). They also described the terms of his release.

The Board reached the conclusion that there was no evidence to doubt that the person was a civilian status and there was no evidence to support an assertion that he had committed a belligerent act against coalition forces ... It was further satisfied that there was no further realistic investigation that could be undertaken in respect of this individual's case.

Of course, no one had accused the sheikh of being anything but a civilian, or of threatening coalition forces in any way. Everyone, including the U.S. military, had described his alleged offenses as Iraqi crimes against Iraqi citizens—crimes that indeed should be addressed in an Iraqi court of some kind. The release papers said nothing about the sheikh's being obligated to remain in the country or otherwise available for further questioning, and the sheikh insisted that he had been released on no conditions of any kind.

Nor, he took pains to say, should there have been any conditions. After all, he was completely innocent: not only did he have no part in the creation of the mass grave near his home but he had been totally shocked to learn, just recently, of its existence. He had been well aware, however, of the mass jailing that had preceded the mass burial. In fact, the sheikh volunteered that, just as his accusers charged, he had visited the jail, had intervened in behalf of a few prisoners, and had declined to intervene in behalf of others. But this, he insisted, did not mean that he had had the slightest idea of, let alone a hand in, the fate that awaited those prisoners to whom he denied favor.

The sheikh's release papers closed by stating that the U.S. military was no longer responsible for his safety. Even if he was innocent, I remarked, so many around him believed with all their bitter hearts that he was guilty. Wasn't he afraid?

At this point one of the sheikh's nephews, a middle-aged man whose dishdashah bunched around a great watermelon of a belly, grew animated. He vowed that "more than a hundred thousand" members of the extended family would retaliate against any who attacked the sheikh, and he boasted of the family arsenal—pistols, AK-47s, and such—with which they'd retaliate.

The sheikh appreciated this display, but remained calm throughout it. Though friends had advised him to disappear, he said, he would not. "Where shall I go?" he asked. "I'll never leave my house. I'll stay because I am right." Even as the sheikh was speaking, it was hard to believe he was there. The total—if totally illusory—absence of any sense of menace felt equal parts incredible and irrefutable. The next day Ahmad and I stopped in again at Iskandar Witwit's office in al-Hillah, and by then it just seemed incredible.

A minute after we arrived, Witwit took a telephone call in which he was told that the sheikh had been released. Although he dismissed this entirely as a rumor, he sent someone to ask around in Balwan. "No, no," Witwit said, shaking his head and slashing the air with his hand when we asked what would happen if the news turned out to be true. "People are going to be angry with the American Army. There's going to be a lot of trouble."