Depressingly, when we met for coffee the next day, my friend was not surprised that Baghdad had become a place where people can butcher women like joints of meat and show their freshly used tools to strangers, confident there will be no repercussions.
"It's not a good sign of the times," I said.
"No, it isn't."
But how can Baghdad stop being such an obscene theater, where hate, greed, chauvinism and other of our less-proud predilections are acted out?
So far, American officials in Iraq explain their strategy to locals as hunting down the "bad guys" and building the Iraqi security forces and government so they can impose order on the nation's population.
To some Iraqis, it sounds good in theory, but a bit naïve. Iraqis are cynical about themselves and in moments of frustration or self-doubt they self-deprecatingly quote al-Hajjaj, an Umayyad governor who at the turn of the 8th century described Iraqis "as-shaab al-shiqaq wa an-nifaq" -- the people of division and hypocrisy. It’s a criticism apparently ignored by Europeans who, after World War I, cobbled the modern state of Iraq together despite deep tribal, ethnic and religious gaps — rifts which were only made worse by 25 years of Saddam Hussein’s brutal mismanagement.
Battle for Fallujah
Something had to be done about Fallujah. The "city of mosques," as it is locally known, had become governed by self-styled mujahedeen, or "those who wage a Jihad."
The rugged city of tough Sunni tribesmen was a base where insurgents — Iraqis, foreign fighters and greedy opportunists — assembled car bombs, grabbed hostages and videotaped stomach-turning snuff videos.
The U.S. answer came (for the second time) in November when the Marines led a mission to, in an analogy often used at the time, "clean out" Fallujah.
The rules of the battle were simple: if shots were fired from a building, U.S. forces fired back with penetrating 50-caliber machine guns, tanks, artillery and airpower until the enemy fire stopped. Two thousand Iraqis (most of them gunmen) and nearly 100 Americans troops were killed, and Fallujah was made uninhabitable.
U.S. military officials continue to describe the mission as an unabashed success, "breaking the back" of the insurgency, getting the militants moving, on the run.
This ultimately may prove to be the case, but as I wrote the above paragraph a huge explosion detonated in front of the house of one of Iraq's leading Shiite politicians. The blast, about 750 meters from our news bureau in Baghdad, sent me crouching to the floor and pushed a shock wave through our office that knocked out sections of the ceiling.
The chief Iraq’s of intelligence service General Mohammed Abdullah Shawani has questioned the effectiveness of the Fallujah operation, saying in an interview with the French news agency AFP, “What we have now is an empty city almost destroyed.. and most of the insurgents are free. They have gone either to Mosul or to Baghdad or other areas.”
Militants have gone elsewhere
U.S. commanders agree with Shawani that many insurgents escaped Fallujah, but few in the military or U.S. civilian administration in Iraq seem to be addressing why Mahmoudiya and Fallujah became rebellious safe-havens in the first place, or that there are still many "little-Fallujahs," all of them home to Sunnis. One is Haditha, 78 miles northwest of Baghdad.
In Haditha today all institutions linked to the U.S.-appointed government of Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi do not function.
Schools are closed as often as they are open. In October, insurgents stormed police stations in Haditha and executed 21 officers. After that, the police stopped going to work. The insurgents declared their own state of emergency and use bullhorns to tell people the timing of their curfews.
The people of Haditha listen, mostly out of fear no doubt, but also because many have no love for the American occupation or what the U.S. administration is promising for the future of Iraq — which people in this Sunni town see as Shiite and therefore Iranian domination, and a favored, autonomous status for the Kurds.