By Producer
NBC News
updated 1/17/2005 7:48:22 AM ET 2005-01-17T12:48:22

The rays of the midday sun spilled through the cracks of the heavy curtains onto Mahmoud’s bed. The stench of the beer cans swirled in the air. Mahmoud’s clothes were strewn on the ground. The noise emanating from the television disappeared over the Muezzin’s call to prayer from the nearby mosque. Mahmoud woke up and sat on the corner of the bed rubbing his face.

In the center of Baghdad at the south entrance of the International Zone, Ali rearranged his bullet-proof vest. A white Toyota pulled up to the checkpoint. Ali asked the occupants to step out of the car. They stood against the 10-foot grey bomb blast barriers, barbed wire at their feet. 

Ali, 22, made sure his colleagues thoroughly checked the vehicle and its passengers. He gave them and their ID badges the once over before letting them proceed through the gate.

So began two very different, but parallel, lives in today’s Iraq.

Seduction of power
Two years ago Mahmoud, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, was sitting at his desk in the deputy vice-president’s office.

He could pick up the telephone and call any minister in Saddam’s government. While fulfilling his military obligation, Mahmoud managed to get assigned under Azzit Al-Douri, the third most powerful man in the country.

“I realized in order to get ahead in our society, I needed to become powerful. In Iraq you become powerful by being rich or by being close to someone in power,” Mahmoud said.

Despite his inexperience, Mahmoud was able to gain the trust of his senior officers. His stature rose very quickly. At the age of 25, Mahmoud started to achieved power and accumulate wealth.

One bedroom for family of five
Ali, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, still remembers coming home at night covered in grease. His job as mechanic at the local garage nearby his home earned him $30 a month.

He lived in a small apartment with his family. He shared a one bedroom with his mother, father, two sisters, and two brothers.

“I was not too happy with my life. Not only wasn’t I optimistic but I didn’t even know how to change it for the better,” Ali said.

There were days Ali and his family could not afford heating oil. “We didn’t even have blankets. They were so expensive,” he added. Ali’s father was forced to leave his government job and join his son in the garage in order to earn more money for the family.

Under Saddam, Mahmoud enjoyed all the trappings of power. His office was well known in Baghdad for solving problems in return for large sums of money.

Mahmoud drove around in nice cars, wore flashy clothing, and began collecting all types of weapons, his favorite a Browning pistol. He walked around town with a walkie-talkie in his hand, an unparalleled status symbol.

Despite his low rank as a private, officers would salute him. “It was always important for me to be respected," Mahmoud said. "My position made people respect me and, more importantly, fear me.”

How things can change
During Operation Iraqi Freedom, a night time B-52 air strike targeted Saddam’s headquarters. Ali’s apartment complex was near the kill zone. The blasts blew out the windows in his apartment, injuring Ali in his back.

The cost of surgery was more than Ali or his family could afford. Even though he walked with severe pain, Ali was forced to live with shards of glass in his back. When Ali meet his first U.S. military patrol, they felt bad for him and gathered enough money for Ali to have his surgery. “Because the Americans helped me, I wanted to join the Iraqi National Army so that I can pay back the American’s generosity and help my fellow Iraqis at the same time,” Ali said.

Mahmoud put on his tracksuit and walked into his kitchen. He poured himself a glass of tea and sat down. Since the invasion he has not had time to dwell on his losses. He worries about being recognized. He rarely answers his door or answers his telephone.

He passes most of his waking hours in his bedroom watching TV and talking to his girlfriend on the telephone. Before the curfew he would join his friends in a game of pool. “I tried selling cars but my future is no longer in Iraq. As soon as I can get some money together, I am getting out of Iraq and leaving my past here,” Mahmoud said.

Ali, sat behind the wheel of his brand new car and took off his ski mask. He drove to a tea room where he meets his friends to play pool.

His work with the Iraqi National Guard has perks Ali could only dream about. With his ING pass, Ali gets free gas, pass through checkpoints with ease, and can carry a gun. In fact, these days Ali has begun collecting weapons, his favorite a MP5 automatic submachine gun.

Even though Ali has been threatened many times for being “a collaborator with the enemy,” he isn’t deterred.

“I am an Iraqi citizen and I have to defend my country with my blood and soul. We must get rid of these people who are trying to destroy our land in the name of Islam,” Ali said with pride.

Babak Behnam is an NBC News producer. Mohammad Abdul Latif and Ashraf Al-ta'ai also contributed to this report.


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