Lights On

by Anna Badkhen | March 4, 2009

Baghdad, Iraq In December 2007, the Alpha Company of the 4-64 Armor Battalion of the Fourth Brigade, Third Infantry Division, arrived in the neighborhood of Saidiyah in southwest Baghdad. More than half of the onceupscale, religiously mixed neighborhood's 60,000 residents had fled to Jordan, Syria, or other parts of Iraq. Those who stayed rarely ventured out of their homes. Up until a few months earlier, human corpses had littered the street, where stray dogs feasted on them. The police were responsible for collecting the bodies and delivering them to the morgue, but they tended to shirk this duty because warring militias often booby-trapped the bodies.

To reclaim Saidiyah from sectarian violence, Alpha Company worked on isolating it from the rest of the city. First, it finished a twelve-foot wall around the entire neighborhood. When the last Saidiyah house was cleared of weapons and suspected insurgents to the soldiers' satisfaction, the troops pronounced the area safe and encouraged former residents to return. But the residents didn't come rushing back. Most of their neighborhood had been reduced to rubble: Gutted mansions riddled with bullet holes loomed, abandoned, over sewage pooling in craters from roadside bombs. The stores on Alwa Street, once a bustling commercial center of Saidiyah, were shuttered. And, in addition to the ruins, there was psychological devastation--a feeling that, even though the militias were gone, the neighborhood still wasn't safe. Contributing to this fear was the darkness. Before the war, hookah bars, teashops, clothes stores, and restaurants stayed open late, drawing crowds of shoppers to Alwa Street after dark. Baghdadis like to shop well into the night, to avoid the afternoon heat. But, in the mayhem that followed the U.S. invasion, Saidiyah, like most of the country, lost electricity. On most evenings and nights, everything was completely dark. By the time Alpha Company's new captain, Andrew "Drew" Betson, then a 25- year-old West Point graduate with a degree in military history, arrived in April 2008, it seemed clear to Iraqis and Americans alike that the first step to revitalizing Alwa Street would be lighting it. Simply rehooking its 45 light posts into the electricity network wouldn't solve the problem: Baghdad's dilapidated grid produced enough power for only two to four hours of electricity per day in some neighborhoods--in a city where summer temperatures can easily reach 124 degrees. The common fix is for American troops to quickly install a 500-kilowatt generator, and then hire and oversee Iraqis to maintain it. But Betson, who liked to introduce himself to Iraqis in the street as "the new commander" (perhaps, in part, to compensate for his youthful appearance--without his intimidating body armor and protective eyewear, he looked young enough to command a boy scout troop), had been briefed on the intricacies involved in making reconstruction projects in Iraq successful. Betson and his commanders had a different plan: The Americans would buy the generator, but, after this initial investment, its operation would be entirely self-sufficient. Nearby shops would buy excess power, and the money would pay for generator fuel and maintenance, providing an important example that capitalism can work in Baghdad. Even more important, as the U.S. commitment to Iraq dwindles, the project would help Iraqis to stand on their own. But, in order to make this plan a reality, Betson knew he couldn't just throw up the generator and tell the Iraqis they were in charge. Billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars have been wasted on unsuccessful reconstruction projects because Americans have failed to realize that just as important as cash is the Iraqi buy-in--the support and cooperation of the local community. For this more elusive commodity, Betson needed the services of a tall, sinewy Iraqi known as "Dr. Phil." It was Dr. Phil who came up with the sheep. I met Dr. Phil, whose real name is Lutfi Saber Al Abosi, in a smoky office of Saidiyah's neighborhood council. An overhead fan--running off a private generator--ruffled an arrangement of plastic roses and carnations on a giant, polished desk, sending the stifling summer heat around the room in waves. Other Iraqi men in the room wore traditional ankle-length dresses; Dr. Phil, who is 48, donned a pink button-down shirt with pressed khaki slacks. He spoke rapidly, in slightly accented English, peppering the conversation with crude jokes. (Upon learning that I am married and have only two children, he inquired: "The generator is still working?") Dr. Phil's easygoing manner belies a life with its share of tragedy. In his twenties, he had a wife, played drums in a rock band (The Dancing Bees, in honor of the Bee Gees), and owned a store that sold cosmetics and perfume in downtown Baghdad. But, in 1992, he was arrested for supporting Ayad Allawi, the former Baath party leader turned exiled dissident. He spent the next ten years on death row in Saddam Hussein's dungeons. While Dr. Phil was awaiting execution, he lost his shop, and his wife divorced him. "Intelligence officers kept knocking at her door day and night," Dr. Phil explained. In October 2002, after Saddam announced a general amnesty a few months before the U.S. invasion, Dr. Phil was released. After the invasion began, he found a job translating for U.S. forces. He currently divides his time between Amman, Jordan, where his parents live as refugees, and Baghdad, where he is the founding director of the World Brotherhood and Peace Organization. The non- governmental agency has had at least one project financed by grants it received from U.S. forces for serving as a middleman--nominally, between the troops and the Iraqi contractors. In reality, Dr. Phil's artful mediation is between the Western culture of action and instant gratification and Iraq's way of doing business: an intricately choreographed ballet that involves forging tribal alliances, appeasing the egos of elders and government officials, and showing ordinary Iraqis that a project has the blessing of all proper authorities on earth and in heaven. Initially, as the U.S. military adopted a campaign to win over Iraqi hearts and minds, troops were encouraged to step into this role themselves. But, for many, adopting the etiquette and customs of Iraq didn't come easy. Engaging all the Iraqi actors typically adds weeks, or even months, to the completion of any project and involves many seemingly pointless conversations about families or American pop music over tasty but timeconsuming meals at sheiks' houses, thus contradicting everything American officers are trained to be: "aggressive, confident, A-type personalities," as one Army captain described it. As Major Timothy "T.J." Reed, a civil-affairs officer in Baghdad, put it, "I see where I'm at, I see my goal. Do I have to eat?" But storming the hill, Reed and several American military contractors in Iraq told me, is the approach that has cost the United States billions of dollars in projects that simply faded into the country's dust-caked landscape, abandoned because the Iraqis did not feel invested in them. Take, for example, the Americans' failed effort to expand the outdoor Dora Market. Fabled for its fresh fish and cheap vegetables, the downtown Baghdad market is a claustrophobic hodgepodge of stalls laden with produce, carts overflowing with freshwater carp, and shops selling everything from bootleg DVDs to freshly slaughtered lamb, all squeezed between a major city artery and a set of railroad tracks. After getting the sectarian violence that plagued the market under control, American troops decided to improve the conditions of what, to them, still looked like an unsanitary location and a likely spot for a potential terrorist attack. They found a plot of land a few blocks away, built 200 cement stalls in neat rows and pens for animals, threw in a couple of modern bathrooms with flush-down toilets, and surrounded the whole thing with a tall fence to ward off suicide bombers. But Iraqi vendors were wary of the new market. They didn't want to move from their historic spots by the railroad and the bigger shops. Then, Reed explained, it turned out that the plot that the Americans had assumed was no-man's-land in fact belonged to an Iraqi family that now wanted compensation. "You can either rush to fail, or you can slow down for success," said Reed, who worked as a city planner in New Mexico. "I always preach slowing down for success." But, in addition to the cultural challenge of learning to slow down, American troops increasingly don't have the time or manpower to do the legwork required. They are worn out by multiple deployments and stretched thin by their many duties. Plus, now that a swift withdrawal seems inevitable, the troops will have to dedicate more time and effort to training Iraqi forces. This will leave them with even less time to spend on getting sheiks to commit to reconstruction projects. For these reasons, the military has recently learned to lean on the Dr. Phils of Iraq. For months, Dr. Phil shuttled between the fortified former warehouse on Saidiyah's western border where Alpha Company was deployed and the manicured gardens and stuffy parlors of local sheiks, talking shop with the Americans and drinking gallons of hot tea with the Iraqis. He gave the Americans what they wanted to see: a blueprint for the generator project, with estimates, dates, and figures. He also gave the Iraqis what they wanted: the understanding that, when the project was completed, they would get the credit-- and the gratitude of Saidiyah's residents. In addition to cajoling the sheiks, Dr. Phil had another idea for insuring the generator's success. On a scorching May afternoon, he invited Betson and a group of soldiers to a sun-drenched intersection on Alwa Street, where a stocky Iraqi in rolled-up gray sweatpants dragged a filthy sheep along the tiled sidewalk. The Iraqi's name was Bassam the Butcher, and, true to his name, he put his right foot--shod in a rubber, manure-caked flip-flop--just below the animal's neck, pinning it to the ground, and, with one swift movement of a short, thin blade, slashed its neck. Betson and his company lowered their M4 rifles and snapped pictures with their digital cameras. After methodically repeating the procedure on three more sheep, Bassam carried plastic bags sloshing with blood across the street, to the 500-kilowatt generator, fuel tank, and transformer booth that Betson and his company had recently installed. There, the butcher and some neighborhood boys dipped their hands into the sacrificial blood and pressed their palms against the canary yellow walls of the spanking-new equipment. The ancient tradition of public ritual slaughter has made a comeback in Iraq since the war began. Bloody handprints adorn the metal gates of houses of newlyweds and recently freed detainees. Sacrificing the sheep on the sidewalk and then smearing the generator with their blood, Dr. Phil explained, would show Saidiyah's residents that the people behind the project shared their culture, their beliefs, and their superstitions. For this reason, he paid for the sheep and for the butcher's services out of his own pocket--$180, more than half the average monthly income in Iraq, per sheep. "This is something private, " Dr. Phil said, as he watched Bassam the Butcher work. "It's for me, for my family, for Saidiyah." Betson seemed relatively comfortable with the proceedings. (During the slaughter, Betson--whose training as a military engineer who lays, detects, and disarms mines taught him, quite incongruously, how to skin a rabbit--looked more amused than grossed out.) He patiently watched the ceremony and then joined Dr. Phil and a small group of other Iraqis for lunch in the living room of Ali Al Ameri, an important neighborhood leader. But, as Betson and several of his soldiers slumped in upholstered couches and armchairs around low tables laden with rice, fresh vegetables, tabouleh, and roasted chicken, the limits of their cultural outreach became apparent. One soldier was spitting brown saliva mixed with chewing tobacco into a plastic bottle, and Al Ameri was politely trying not to notice. All of a sudden, the front door flew open and in walked Sheik Ali Al Allawi, his colossal frame clothed in an impeccably white flowing robe. He was carrying a giant pewter tray laden with steaming chunks of grilled liver, and Dr. Phil and Al Ameri nodded in approval. The liver, too, was part of the ritual to dedicate the generator. "Fresh," the sheik announced, brimming under his thick black mustache as he lowered the tray onto a table. "Never been frozen!" Betson rolled his eyes, theatrically, mouthing the words "sacrificial liver. " The Americans respectfully observed the ritual but declined to take a bite. On June 10, a few weeks after the sheep sacrifice, hundreds of Saidiyah residents gathered on Alwa Street to watch the 45 light posts, each crowned with four pinkish lights, illuminate the street for the first time in years. Fares Ali Al Qabi, an influential Saidiyah leader who is competing for the sheikdom of his tribe, described the scene. "I saw people's faces, how they lit up, as though something great had happened in their own house," Al Qabi recalled. "There was a crowd outside, but no one worried about terrorists. All the people came--Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Christians. I still remember it: All the people together, happy." It was an August night, and we were standing outside Sun City Foods, a lamb burger joint on Alwa Street. Around us, a transformed Alwa Street bustled with life. Cars honked at pedestrians who absentmindedly strolled off the crowded sidewalks, gawking at colorful windows of stores that now stayed open well after dark. Small groups of willowy young women flocked into Yasini Al Naami's hair salon, which Al Naami--her locks rolled up in tinfoil twists--opened as soon as the street lights went on. The street lights, she said, made her feel safe. "Every store on Alwa Street is open now," said Sheik Al Allawi, who lives with two of his four wives and a dozen of his 24 children in a house less than a block away. "Shops stay open past midnight." Over a sweating 7-Up at Sun City Foods, Al Qabi claimed that the idea of lighting Alwa Street belonged to him and other neighborhood elders--the best indicator of the project's success. But, although Al Qabi took credit for coming up with the idea, he acknowledged that Dr. Phil--whom Saidiyah's sheiks call, respectfully, "Doctor Lutfi," even though he has no doctorate or medical degree--was the one who "made this happen." Betson beamed as he showed off the reincarnated Alwa Street and posed for snapshots under a light. ("This one's for the folks back home," he said, drawing his M4 rifle close to his chest and lifting his chin.) If he felt slighted that Al Qabi named Dr. Phil, and not him, as the man who turned on the lights in Saidiyah, he didn't show it. After all, this was a sure sign of Iraqi buy-in. The successful relighting of Alwa Street seemed to signal that there is no better way to guarantee Iraqis' commitment to reconstruction than for the Americans to step back and put them in charge of it. But, even then, one careless move can plunge a whole street back into darkness. About two weeks before I shared a 7-Up with Al Qabi, something happened that reminded the residents of Alwa Street that their project--like their country-- was still not entirely their own. Returning from a routine patrol, one of Alpha Company's 30-ton Bradleys "took a right and took it a little too sharp," Betson said. It hit one of the electric poles on Alwa Street, bending it. The wires ripped. The lights went out. "Even though I knew it was an accident, I was so sad. It was as though something happened to me, or to my child," Al Qabi told me. It took nearly two weeks for the lights to be repaired. The day I arrived to talk to Al Qabi, a group of electricians perched in a white cherry picker were affixing wires to a new pole. The sun had already set, but the air was still well above 110 degrees. Dust from a recent sandstorm still hung above Baghdad, and the street felt a bit like the inside of a vacuum cleaner. Faruk Al Timimi, the owner of Sun City Foods, periodically peeked outside to check on the electricians' progress as he was trying to decide whether to close his restaurant for the night. He was using power from a pricey neighborhood generator that shut down from time to time, submerging the diners inside his joint's mirrored interior into darkness. Finally, the electricians outside came down from their truck. One of the men strolled over to the transformer booth and pulled the switch. Along the length of Alwa Street, for the moment at least, the pinkish lights flickered on.

Anna Badkhen has reported extensively from Iraq. She is working on a book about war and food.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/lights-0