Crater compels Iraqis to visit and to reflect

Rahim Muhammed, left, looks at a crater left by coalition bombs in a residential neighborhood in Baghdad while a young girl plays. These homes were targeted during a coalition strike on Saddam Hussein, who was thought to be in the neighborhood at the time. (Noah Addis)

BAGHDAD — Rahim Muhammed stood alone at the edge of a 40-foot pit, hands clasped behind his back, in silent contemplation.

He looked down on broken concrete blocks, a twisted bed frame, the shattered remains of a television and unidentifiable bits and scraps of human habitation. Fixing his eyes on a child’s blackened doll, Muhammed clucked his tongue several times, a sign of disapproval common to Iraqi men.

The jagged hole in the ground was once a house. Americans know it as the site where Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was believed to be meeting with top aides April 7, prompting the U.S. military to drop four 2,000-pound bombs on it. Iraqis know it as the spot where 10 civilians, several of them children, died that day.

Now it is a symbol and a gathering point, a place where men from across Baghdad and its suburbs come to look and to discuss the war, its toll and the hardships it has left behind.

“People come every day,” said Muhammed, 37, a resident of the neighborhood, known as the Mansour section. “Not just from here, but from faraway places. It is a tragedy, and people want to see it with their own eyes.”

Ten civilians were killed in the coalition bombing, neighbors said. (Noah Addis)

As he spoke, men arrived by foot and by car, carefully navigating the rubble-strewn street. Like Muhammed, they stared into the hole and at the surrounding houses, their windows blown out and walls buckled.

“They found one boy’s body on the roof of that house over there,” Muhammed, pointing across the street, said to one of the new arrivals.

The crowd nearby nodded.

“I heard that the father went out for ice cream and wouldn’t let his children come with him. When he came back, they were dead,” said Hayder Ali, 38, of Baghdad’s Muthana section several miles away. “He must be dying of grief.”

Whether the story is true is almost irrelevant. To the men at the pit — residents of a city where bombs fell daily for weeks — it was accepted as fact. Soon the talk turned to the U.S. occupation, to the lack of electricity and running water, and to the poverty that now afflicts even those who were once considered affluent.

One man, a banker whose workplace was looted and burned in the post-Saddam spasm of lawlessness, said he has had to sell most of his furniture to feed his five children.

“When I have no furniture left, what will I sell?” he asked. “The Americans need to give us food or money to feed ourselves.”

Nearly all of those gathered complained about the lack of security around the capital, where the night belongs to armed men who steal and fire off bursts from AK-47s.

“When Saddam was here, at least we had security and a stable life,” said Jabbar al-Dehabi, 42. “Now there are thieves and gangs. There is too much shooting everywhere and no protection for honest Iraqi people. We are living terribly.

“I give America one more week,” he said. “If things do not get better in one week, I will pick up a gun myself and shoot the American soldiers.”

Again, the men in the crowd nodded.

The statement is remarkable for its source. Al-Dehabi said he hated Saddam and welcomed the U.S. troops. He is educated and, unlike some in Baghdad, a religious moderate who has no desire to transform Iraq into a militant Islamic state. He is, in short, the type of man the United States had been counting on to be a friend after the war.

Al-Dehabi said friendship with the United States is still possible, but only if basic services are restored quickly.

Jay Garner, the retired U.S. Army general now administering Baghdad, has said the coalition is doing all that it can, as fast as it can, to return Baghdad to some semblance of normalcy with regular electricity and running water, a more effective police force and reopened schools. This week, he called on Iraqis to return to work.

But the men gathered at the pit said they have no jobs to go back to, their shops and offices looted or destroyed.

Ahmed Jabbar, who visits the crater nearly every day to look at the damage and vent his frustration with others, owns a supermarket and a flower shop down the street. Both were badly damaged in the April 7 bombing. Then they were looted.

“Who will fix this?” he asked. “I can’t afford to do it. We are economically destroyed now, completely destroyed.”

The men returned their attention to the hole in the ground.

Muhammed said he hoped the houses could be rebuilt. But with so much to rebuild in Baghdad, he said, he had little hope of it.

“As long as this is here, it reminds us,” he said. “This place is bad for America.”

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