Crumbling at the seams in Iraq

U.S. soldiers patrol in Mahmoudiya after an attack last April on a police chief linked to the U.S. authorities. One resident says locals don't tolerate U.S. forces in the Sunni city.
U.S. soldiers patrol in Mahmoudiya after an attack last April on a police chief linked to the U.S. authorities. One resident says locals don't tolerate U.S. forces in the Sunni city.Khalid Mohammed / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

A cab driver trolled down Baghdad's Karadah Street, past rows of barber shops and electronics stores just lifting up their gates for the day, fishing for a final fare to cap off a long night of kidnap and murder.

My friend flagged down the taxi and, according to one of many fraternal Arab customs, sat in the front seat, so as not to make the driver feel too much like a driver.

"Where you going?" the cabbie wanted to know.

"Dora," said my friend, who, without casting aspersions, looks remarkably like Saddam Hussein when he was in his 40s, with a bristly mustache, an athletic build and deep-set brooding eyes.

But their conversation was interrupted by a convoy of Humvees that cut them off, an American gunner in the turret pointing a machine gun at the car, telling the driver in no uncertain terms to stay back.

"Where I'm from they can't do that," the driver grumbled acerbically.

Thus began their conversation about Mahmoudiya, a Sunni Muslim town south of Baghdad overrun by rebels, bandits, bullies, hijackers, Islamic militants and others who specialize in organized nefariousness.

"If we see a Humvee, we destroy it. The Americans can't come into our city," bragged the driver, also in his early 40s, but unlike my fastidiously groomed friend, he had an unkempt salt-and-pepper beard and a strong yet plump physique like an aging fisherman or a construction foreman.

Tribal game
"How do you manage that?" probed my friend, a local journalist I've known for the past two years in Iraq.

"Why do you ask?" the driver shot back, which in an Arabic conversation — often amply-sprinkled with saccharine platitudes — translates to something like, "What's it to you, tough guy?"

To assuage the driver, the two men played the Iraqi "tribal game."

The rules are simple. My friend — also a Sunni Muslim — listed his family's credentials, ticking off names of prominent relatives, some alive, most distant and long dead.  The two men were not from the same tribe, but were both descendents of giant extended families known to be friendly to each other, powerful and, most important in Iraq, "honorable." 

So now the two acted like reunited cousins. The driver explained that he lived in Mahmoudiya, but came every day to Baghdad to work the cab, which he used for his "real job."

"And what's that?"

"I specialize in killing women," he said.

A long bloody blade
The atmosphere in the car turned stifling and tense, as if an inconsonant note had been played on an unseen piano.

"I kill whores, women who go to the Green Zone and have sex with the Americans," the driver added as a justification.  

The Green Zone is the sprawling American headquarters in Baghdad; Saddam Hussein's erstwhile Republican Palace, then and now, a forbidden city within the Iraqi capital where rumors continue to circulate about what goes on behind its high concrete walls.

My friend eyeballed the road for a place to get out.

"I use this," continued the driver, taking a nearly foot-long folding knife from under his seat.  He opened the long blade. It was encrusted with blood.

"I pick up the women as they leave the Green Zone, drive them to a quiet area and kill them," he said, waving the big knife like a violin bow.

Like most Iraqis who lived under Saddam's Orwellian state my friend has become an expert at saving his own skin.

Under Saddam, courts sentenced people to a year in prison for blaspheming the Muslim Prophet Mohammed and, with amazing chutzpah, hubris and apostasy, to death for insulting the president. So it was relatively easy for my friend to feign sympathy for those who kill "whores" and other transgressors. 

He soon had the murderer laughing and relaxed, but got out of the cab well short of his home.

"I didn't want this man to know where I lived," he told me.