A City Without Men

Fearing death or imprisonment, Iraqi men flee their cities leaving wives and daughters to fend for themselves

Students study at the Secondary School for Girls in Tal Afar, Iraq. The city has been reduced to a town of mostly women and children. / Adnan Khan

Karima Hashim stepped onto her narrow street in Tal Afar, the closest thing to a playground she’d known in her fourteen years of life, and died, her mother says, when a single bullet from an American sniper smashed through her skull. She had been on her way to buy milk. For two days her crumpled body lay in a pool of blood, watched over by the rocking silhouette of her mother, Tahena, from a second-floor window where she kept a vigil, praying for her daughter’s departed soul and hurling rocks at any stray dog that came too close to Karima’s body.

Tahena was alone now. Her husband and two sons, fearing arrest, detention, or worse, had fled in front of advancing American and Iraqi troops who swept into the city in northwest Iraq last fall in pursuit of insurgents. She watched as the soldiers moved from house to house. Filled with rage, she fought back when they finally kicked her door out of its frame in the middle of the night. “We could hear her screaming at the soldiers,” said a neighbour. “You murdered my daughter! You murdered my daughter!” She kept repeating this until they left, having satisfied themselves that no male was hiding in the house.

When the soldiers invaded Tal Afar as part of Operation Restoring Rights, their goal was to clear the territory along Iraq’s northwestern border with Syria of foreign fighters and their local support network. The American occuppiers seem to assume that all Iraqi men are terrorists, and consequently detention centres are overflowing with suspects. According to Amnesty International, by late November 18,500 people were being held in prisons across Iraq, many of them innocent. By the time 5,000 Iraqi troops, backed by 3,500 American soldiers, arrived in Tal Afar, there were no men left in Tahena’s house hold, just as there were no males of fight ing age left in her entire neighbourhood.

Tal Afar, once a bustling border city of 200,000, has been shattered. Many neighourhoods have been flattened by US air strikes and nearly 400 homes destroyed. It is a desolate city, set on pause, where women spend their days praying for the return of their husbands and sons, who, in this rigidly patriarchal culture, sustain the households. Losing a husband or son makes even the simplest tasks challenging. “We’re afraid to leave our homes,” says Marwa Marwan, an eighteen-year-old student at the Tal Afar Secondary School for Girls. “It’s so dangerous. We do it only because it is necessary for our future. But the boys, if they are still here, don’t dare to leave the house.”

It’s an odd role reversal in a male-dominated society. But any adult male who stayed behind risked imprisonment, and many of the women have yet to hear from husbands, fathers, and brothers seized in the raids. “The Americans arrested my father,” says Asma Omar, another student at the school, as she fought back tears. “They arrived late at night and took him away. I haven’t seen or heard from him in almost a month.” Asma is adamant that her father, who sent her two brothers away just before the Americans arrived, has done nothing wrong. Most of the students in this graduating class of thirty girls tell similar stories. When asked if their houses had been searched by US soldiers, every single girl raised a hand. “We live in fear now,” says Zuleikh Alias, the school’s headmistress, adding that the stories of foreign fighters crossing from Syria and turning Tal Afar into a Taliban-style fundamentalist outpost are false. “It’s the Americans who frighten us. The mujahedeen never caused any problems. They never stopped the girls from attending school, and whenever there was going to be fighting they would call us and tell the girls to go home for their safety.”

With the arrival of the Americans, and the departure of most of the men in the city, the women feel vulnerable in ways they never have in the past. Not only are they afraid of the violence, they are also frightened by the American soldiers, who they claim spend more time staring at the women’s bodies than watching out for their safety. “It’s very uncomfortable for us,” says Marwa. “They never ask us about any dangers or terrorists or things we might need. They just stare and stare and stare.”

At a forward operating base in the al Sarai neighbourhood, one of Tal Afar’s most dangerous, an American officer, who refuses to give his name, responds with injured pride to the accusations. “You know,” he says, his face turning red, “these people tell us on the one hand that they were terrorized by the insurgents. Students couldn’t go to school because they were afraid of being kidnapped. But now that we’ve secured the area, they would rather we go out somewhere in the desert and not show our faces.”

The Americans have locked down the city so thoroughly that attacks against them from insurgents crossing the Syrian border have fallen off dramatically. But at what cost to the innocent non-combatants of Tal Afar? “It’s too much,” says Major Jameel, an officer with the 3rd Division of the Iraqi army. “The Americans don’t understand Iraq. They don’t understand that Tal Afar has had a lot of problems over the past couple of years.”

Many of those problems stem from the deeply ingrained animosity between the Shia and Sunni Muslim populations in the city. “So people are trying to get revenge by giving the Americans bad information,” the major says. “We should only be searching homes when we know we have good information. But the Americans are so afraid that they just go in, break down the door, and arrest all the men.”

America’s heavy-handed approach seems to be its answer to a fundamental question: How do you win a war against insurgents with a minimal loss of soldiers? At least part of the answer involves regarding every male of Arab descent in Iraq as a threat. A second element is to demonstrate that every threat confronting US troops will be met with enough force not only to neutralize the enemy but also to make the underlying message crystal clear: don’t interfere with us. And if civilians like Karima Hashim get in the way, their deaths can be blamed on insurgents or passed off as collateral damage.

Military expert Douglas Ross, professor of political science at Simon Fraser University, whom I met in Afghanistan while he was inspecting troops last summer, put it this way: “Canada’s military strategy relies heavily on multitasking its limited resources. The result is extremely well-trained soldiers who have a fuller picture of the complexities of war zones. With the American army, as big as it is, the training of soldiers is extremely specialized — a grunt, for example, is a grunt. He is taught to kill, and that is all he knows.”

Without a broader understanding of the complexities of Iraqi society, American soldiers often can’t tell the enemy from allies, making civilian casualties inevitable. While US soldiers certainly can’t be held entirely to blame for civilian deaths, the United States assumed the moral responsibility for providing security for the vast majority of peaceful Iraqi citizens. The first priority should be to save innocent lives, not American soldiers who freely enlisted in the military, and are well aware of the deadly consequences of entering a war zone.

But the White House is in a public relations war at home. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who served under both Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, remembers the hard political lessons of the Vietnam War, when support evaporated as the death toll mounted. Public support for the Iraq war has already fallen to the point where half of all Americans no longer believe it is worth fighting. To maintain what support there is, soldiers are being kept as far out of harm’s way as possible.

The success of that policy is clearly reflected in the fact that by the end of November fewer than 1,700 US soldiers had died directly at the hands of the enemy — a minuscule number in the history of modern warfare. Even factoring in other losses, the Americans lost soldiers at the rate of barely two a day during the first thousand days of the war that began on March 20, 2003. In Vietnam, the number was closer to twenty a day.

Iraqi civilians, 30,000 of whom have died so far, are continuing to perish at the rate of nearly thirty a day, according to Iraqi Body Count, a British organization that has been monitoring civilian casualties since the start of the war. This number may actually be on the low end of the scale: in 2004 the British medical journal Lancet put the number of civilians killed at more than 98,000.

The Pentagon’s own figures, released for the first time in October, state that more than 25,000 Iraqis were killed in fighting between January 1, 2004 and September 16, 2005. The White House has embarked on a strategy to convince the American public that terrorists and so-called Islamo-fascists are primarily responsible for the appalling death rate among Iraqi civilians.

Setting aside civilian deaths caused by air strikes and so-called “collateral” incidents, responsibility for the failure to secure the country for civilians must fall on the occupier. After all, when insurgents in Iraq attack, they often strike out at those working with the occupiers, including contractors, police, army recruits, translators, and government employees. The occupation, that is, has created a low-level civil war.

The attacks against those who cooperate are also linked to the increasing role that the poorly trained and equipped Iraqi security forces have shouldered in the fighting. They are being forced to do more because the Americans, in an effort to keep their own casualty figures down, are stepping aside, arguing that the Iraqis are increasingly capable of defending themselves. But the Iraqi army has virtually no armoured vehicles, limited communications equipment, is riddled with spies, and an abbreviated training program that does little more than show recruits how to salute and fire a gun before sending them out to the front lines.

While in Tal Afar I rode almost exclusively with the Iraqi army, often in the back of a pickup truck converted for military use that offers little protection against roadside bombs and snipers. Many of the vehicles being used by the Iraqis were already riddled with bullet holes and shrapnel scars. But these same Iraqis are expected to guard government buildings, patrol the dangerous streets of cities like Tal Afar, and relentlessly hunt down insurgents, most of whom are well-trained former members of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard, who are often tipped off by infiltrators working within the army’s ranks.

It’s no wonder then that many Iraqis are reverting to their tribal pasts for safety and security. Kurds trust Kurds and only Kurds, Shiites trust only their own, and the Sunnis, who are in the minority in most of Iraq, believe they are fighting for their very existence. The civil war, which appears to be well under way, is partially rooted in the failure of the United States to bring these groups together by producing a viable alternative that all Iraqis can support. “The Americans have fallen so far behind their target goals of training Iraqi forces,” says David L. Phillips, visiting scholar at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, “that all-out civil war is all but inevitable now.”

If Phillips is right and an all-out civil war begins, will American forces intervene or will they cut their losses and leave? The Pentagon has already made it clear that it wants to lower troop levels to 100,000 from 155,000 by the end of 2006. Certainly the US soldiers I talked to have little respect for the Iraqis and would leave if they could. That desire was clear in an exchange between two American soldiers after a grenade attack on a fortified checkpoint in Tal Afar. “Any injured?” asked one of the soldiers. “Civilians you mean?” asked the other. The first made a face like he’d just stepped in a pile of fresh dog shit. “I don’t give a fuck about them,” he drawled in a thick southern accent.

A sandstorm that blew into Tal Afar, as they often do at dusk in Iraq’s western badlands, painted the sky a Martian red. A Bradley fighting vehicle fired off test rounds from its 25-mm cannon at the remains of a car positioned some 300 metres away on the edge of the city. The thunderous explosions echoed through the desolate streets of Tal Afar. In the gloom, Karima’s mother could probably hear the sounds of the explosions as she prepared dinner, too frightened now to answer her door, too fearful of what lies beyond.

On the doors of hundreds of homes they had raided and ransacked, American soldiers left their mark — a single spray-painted word splattered in dripping black: PAID. For the grunts, it is a fair trade: the civilians inside had received financial compensation after their homes were raided. But for the people of Tal Afar it is a mark of humiliation, and many remain in fear waiting for the next soldier to kick in the door

Adnan Khan