Iraqis' Love-Hate Relationship With Americans

Dexter Filkins, a reporter with The New York Times, has spent nearly four years in Iraq. He often heard Iraqis say one thing to Americans and something different to other Iraqis. He details these stories in his new book,The Forever War. Filkins talks with Steve Inskeep about the fragility of truth in Iraq and what that means for a lasting peace.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The reporter Dexter Filkins remembers a day when he stood on a dam over the Euphrates River in Iraq. He heard an Iraqi cheerfully ask an American military officer for help in fixing the dam. And then as soon as the American left, the Iraqi said, I take their money but I hate them. Dexter Filkins recounts stories like that in his book, "The Forever War."

Mr. DEXTER FILKINS (Reporter, The New York Times; Author, "The Forever War"): (Reading) There were always two conversations in Iraq, the one the Iraqis were having with the Americans and the one they were having among themselves. The one the Iraqis were having with us, that was positive and predictable and boring. And it made the Americans happy because it made them think they were winning. And the Iraqis kept it up because it kept the money flowing or because it bought them a little peace. The conversation they were having with each other was the one that really mattered.

INSKEEP: That's Dexter Filkins reading from "The Forever War." He's a New York Times reporter who covered the war in Iraq for three and a half years. He experienced both types of conversations.

Mr. FILKINS: I had gone with my really good friend and interpreter Wazir Joff(ph) to see a Sunni sheik. And as we did, Joff and the sheik began this long conversation. And it was very animated. And I kept saying to my interpreter, you know, what's going on? I came here to talk to this guy about Sunni politics, or whatever, and, you know, he put his hand up and said, just hang on, hang on.

Finally, it was over. We had a perfectly fine interview. I think the sheik, you know, served us tea and cookies. And some time later when we were back in the car, I turned to Joff, my interpreter, and I said, what were you guys talking about back there? And Joff kind of smiled and said, well, he wanted to kidnap you. Fortunately for me, he put that fire out very quickly. But...

INSKEEP: He said he wouldn't go along with the deal?

Mr. FILKINS: Wouldn't go along with the deal, my tribe's bigger than yours, don't even think about it.

INSKEEP: And so how did you try to sort out that question of who was telling you the real story, as opposed to the fake story, when those two conversations were going on, when your own life is sometimes at risk because of that?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, that's the hardest part. I mean, if you want to talk about what it's like to be in Iraq, that's it, it's a labyrinth, it's a hall of mirrors. And I just came from Iraq. It's a lot safer there now, and it's a lot more calm. And so I think the two conversations that I'm talking about, there's less of that now, for that reason.

INSKEEP: Where did you go in Iraq the last few days?

Mr. FILKINS: I went to Baghdad. I mean, I went all over Baghdad which is remarkable. I mean, I haven't done that since 2004. And, you know, I watched a wedding procession. It was really, really different.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that. And we should say this is a city that you were willing to jog through in late 2003 at night, but then became impossible for almost anybody who was American to move around in for a couple of years. And now you're back. What felt different about it?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, it's a remarkable thing because - for example, the park where I used to go jogging in 2003, it was a dead, dying, spooky, absolutely deserted place. I mean, really, really creepy. There were these checkpoints around. There were these guys with guns that didn't have uniforms. It was razor wire that was, you know, crisscrossing the whole thing. I went back there just a couple of weeks ago at sunset. There were probably 2,000 Iraqis. There were women walking around by themselves which was unheard of. I mean, they had jeans on, and they didn't cover their hair, I mean, it was families with children pushing baby strollers. It was completely normal. And so what was so extraordinary about it, I thought Baghdad was dead. And it wasn't dead, it was just hiding. And so, when there was order, the life just kind of flowed back into the streets.

INSKEEP: You said a minute ago that you went to a wedding procession?

Mr. FILKINS: I went to a wedding procession. And actually it was dusk in Adhamiyah, again which was a complete no-go zone two years ago, absolutely under control of the insurgents. And this wedding procession came down the street. It was Thursday night when they have all the weddings in Iraq. Probably 25 cars. The lead car was a Mercedes Benz. And they saw me, and the wedding procession stopped. And the door swung open, and the groom stepped out. And I could see the bride in the car, and she was very heavily made up. Long, white, flowing gown. And he shook my hand, and he said, it's wonderful, it's wonderful. And then - but then...

INSKEEP: Did you have any idea who these people were, or had you just run into the procession?

Mr. FILKINS: I just ran into the procession. But what was really fascinating about it was I was in Adhamiyah to talk to the Awakening people. And these are the former insurgents who are now on the American payroll.

INSKEEP: Sunni Muslims.

Mr. FILKINS: Who essentially are being - yes, Sunni Muslims who are essentially being paid not to kill Americans and Iraqis. And I remember when the groom shook my hand, and he said, it's wonderful, it's wonderful, he turned and he pointed to these gunmen on the American payroll. And he said it's all because of them.

INSKEEP: What did he mean, it's all because of them? That you could shake his hand, that he could get married, that there wasn't a suicide bombing on the street? What?

Mr. FILKINS: All of the above. What the Awakening did, basically, and they're happy to tell you about it, is the insurgents who were kind of reconcilable, more moderate, went after al-Qaeda, who were not reconcilable, who were the guys who were killing the Shiites and driving the civil war. They knew where they lived. You know, third house on the left. Take him out. And they did. And I remember talking to this Sunni sheik. And he said, it took us six weeks, and we killed 466 Qaeda leaders. And I said, 466? And he said, yes, we have a list.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Not 400, not 500.

Mr. FILKINS: Four hundred and sixty-six. And so you can see what a crazy world it is.

INSKEEP: But let me come back to the first point of this conversation, the idea that there are two conversations in Iraq, and if you are an Iraqi, you are compelled to give the friendliest conversation you can to whoever has the nearest gun. Do you sense that that is still happening in Iraq?

Mr. FILKINS: Yes. But I think it's different now. I'll give you an example. I was sitting in the office with a former officer in the Iraqi army whose last name was al-Tikriti, which means he's from Tikrit, Saddam's hometown. Sunni Muslim, probably a former insurgent. And here he was, you know, being paid $500 a month by the American military to keep the peace.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: I sat in his office, and his phone rang. And there was somebody shouting into the telephone. And, you know, Mr. al-Tikriti practically had a nervous breakdown as he was listening to the telephone. And he finally put the telephone down, and he said, he humiliated me, he abused me. And I said, who? And he said, well, the Iraqi army colonel who's just down the street, who's a Shiite guy. That shows you the fragility of this whole thing that we've constructed.

INSKEEP: Well, did you see anything that struck you as a change that was not fragile, that was permanent and showing the way to a different Iraq?

Mr. FILKINS: It's all pretty fragile. I think what struck me as possibly more lasting was that ordinary people wanted peace. I really got a sense, you know, walking through Abu-Nawas Park at dusk looking at 2,000 Iraqis, you know, walking with their families. This is what they wanted, you know. And so possibly they'll be more reluctant about relying on bad people, and they'll be more eager to stand up to the bad people.

INSKEEP: Although I can remember thinking the same thing about Afghanistan at the end of 2001. Here's a country that's had more than 20 years of war. People are obviously tired of it, they're exhausted. But it turns out that there are some people in Afghanistan that were happy to do another seven years.

Mr. FILKINS: Absolutely. I had an interesting conversation with General Raymond Odierno who's taking over for General David Petraeus as the lead commander there.

INSKEEP: In Iraq, yes.

Mr. FILKINS: And what he said to me was ordinary people didn't want the violence, right. It was groups of bad people. So, on the Sunni side, it was the al-Qaeda guys who were driving car bombs into Shiite mosques. And then the Shiite militias were going to the Sunni neighborhoods and retaliating. And then, of course, you know, both of those groups were killing American soldiers. But if they could break that order, and peace would follow - and I think for the moment, that appears to be the case - could it all come back? Probably. Trying to build something that's sustainable there is the big challenge in the future.

INSKEEP: Dexter Filkins is author of "The Forever War." Thanks very much.

Mr. FILKINS: Thank you.

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Excerpt: 'The Forever War'

Dexter Filkin's 'The Forever War'
The Forever War
By Dexter Filkins
Hardcover, 384 pages
Alfred A. Knopf List Price: $25

This excerpt contains descriptions of violence and disturbing scenes.

Chapter 1: Only This

They led the man to a spot at the middle of the field. A soccer field, grass, with mainly dirt around the center where the players spent most of the game. There was a special section for the handicapped on the far side, a section for women. The orphans were walking up and down the bleachers on my side selling candy and cigarettes.

A couple of older men carried whips. They wore grenade launchers on their backs.

The people are coming, a voice was saying into the loudspeaker, and the voice was right, the people were streaming in and taking their seats. Not with any great enthusiasm, as far as I could tell; they were kind of shuffling in. I probably had more enthusiasm than anybody. I had a special seat; they'd put me in the grass at the edge of the field. In America, I would have been on the sidelines, at the fifty yard line with the coaches. Come sit with us, they'd said; you are our honored guest.

A white Toyota Hi-Lux drove onto the field and four men wearing green hoods climbed out of the back. There was a fifth man, a prisoner, no hood, sitting in the bed of the truck. The hooded men laid their man in the grass just off midfield, flat on his back, and crouched around him. It was hard to see. The man on his back was docile; there was no struggle at all. The voice on the loudspeaker said he was a pickpocket.

"Nothing that is being done here is against God's law," the voice said.

The green hoods appeared busy, and one of them stood up. He held the man's severed right hand in the air, displaying it for the crowd. He was holding it up by its middle finger, moving in a semicircle so everyone could see. The handicapped and the women. Then he pulled his hood back, revealing his face, and he took a breath. He tossed the hand into the grass and gave a little shrug.

I couldn't tell if the pickpocket had been given any sort of anesthesia. He wasn't screaming. His eyes were open very wide, and as the men with the hoods lifted him back into the bed of the Hi-Lux, he stared at the stump of his hand. I took notes the whole time.

I looked back at the crowd, and it was remarkably calm, unfeeling almost, which wasn't really surprising, after all they'd been through. A small drama with the orphans was unfolding in the stands; they were getting crazy and one of the guards was beating them with his whip.

"Get back," he was saying, drawing the whip over his head. The orphans cowered.

I thought that was it, but as it turned out the amputation was just a warm-up. Another Toyota Hi-Lux, this one ma-roon, rumbled onto midfield carrying a group of long-haired men with guns. The long hair coming out of their white turbans. They had a blindfolded man with them. The Taliban were known for a lot of things and the Hi-Lux was one, jacked up and fast and menacing; they had conquered most of the country with them. You saw a Hi-Lux and you could be sure that something bad was going to happen soon.

"The people are coming!" the voice said again into the speaker, louder now and more excited. "The people are coming to see, with their own eyes, what sharia means."

The men with guns led the blindfolded man from the truck and walked him to midfield and sat him down in the dirt. His head and body were wrapped in a dull gray blanket, all of a piece. Seated there in the dirt at midfield at the Kabul Sports Stadium, he didn't look much like a man at all, more like a sack of flour. In that outfit, it was difficult even to tell which way he was facing. His name was Atiqullah, one of the Talibs said.

The man who had pulled his hood back was standing at midfield, facing the crowd. The voice on the loudspeaker introduced him as Mulvi Abdur Rahman Muzami, a judge. He was pacing back and forth, his green surgical smock still intact. The crowd was quiet.

Atiqullah had been convicted of killing another man in an irrigation dispute, the Talibs said. An argument over water. He'd beaten his victim to death with an ax, or so they said. He was eighteen.

"The Koran says the killer must be killed in order to create peace in society," the loudspeaker said, echoing inside the stadium. "If punishment is not meted out, such crimes will become common. Anarchy and chaos will return."

By this time a group had gathered behind me. It was the family of the murderer and the family of the victim. The two groups behind me were toing-and-froing as in a rugby game. One family spoke, leaning forward, then the other. The families were close enough to touch. Sharia law allows for the possibility of mercy: Atiqullah's execution could be halted if the family of the victim so willed it.

Judge Muzami hovered a few feet away, watching.

"Please spare my son," Atiqullah's father, Abdul Modin, said. He was weeping. "Please spare my son."

"I am not ready to do that," the victim's father, Ahmad Noor, said, not weeping. "I am not ready to forgive him. He killed my son. He cut his throat. I do not forgive him."

The families were wearing olive clothes that looked like old blankets and their faces were lined and dry. The women were weeping. Everyone looked the same. I forgot who was who.

"Even if you gave me all the gold in the world," Noor said, "I would not accept it."

Then he turned to a young man next to him. My son will do it, he said.

The mood tightened. I looked back and saw the Taliban guards whipping some children who had tried to sneak into the stadium. Atiqullah was still sitting on the field, possibly oblivious. The voice crackled over the loudspeaker.

"O ye who believe!" the voice in the loudspeaker called. "Revenge is prescribed for you in the matter of the murdered; the freeman for the freeman, and the slave for the slave, and the female for the female.

"People are entitled to revenge."

One of the green hoods handed a Kalashnikov to the murder victim's brother. The crowd fell silent.

Just then a jumbo jet appeared in the sky above, rumbling, forcing a pause in the ceremony. The brother stood holding his Kalashnikov. I looked up. I wondered how a jet airliner could happen by such a place, over a city such as this, wondered where it might be going. I considered for a second the momentary collision of the centuries.

The jumbo jet flew away and the echo died and the brother crouched and took aim, leveling his Kalashnikov at Atiqullah's head.

"In revenge there is life," the loudspeaker said.

The brother fired. Atiqullah lingered motionless for a second then collapsed in a heap under the gray blanket. I felt what I believed was a vibration from the stands. The brother stood over Atiqullah, aimed his AK-47 and fired again. The body lay still under the blanket.

"In revenge there is life," the loudspeaker said.

The brother walked around Atiqullah, as if he were looking for signs of life. Seeing one, apparently, he crouched and fired again.

Spectators rushed onto the field just like the end of a college football game. The two men, killer and avenger, were carried away in separate Hi-Luxes, one maroon, one white. The brother stood up in the bed of the white truck as it rumbled away, surrounded by his fellows. He held his arms in the air and was smiling.

I had to move fast to talk to people before they went home. Most everyone said they approved, but no one seemed to have any enthusiasm.

"In America, you have television and movies-the cinema," one of the Afghans told me. "Here, there is only this."

I left the stadium and walked in a line of people through the streets. I spotted something in the corner of my eye. It was a boy, a street boy, with bright green eyes. He was standing in an alley, watching me. The boy stood for a few more seconds, his eyes following mine. Then he turned and ran.

In the late afternoons the center of Kabul had an empty, twilight feel, a quiet that promised nothing more than another day like itself. There were hardly any cars then, just some women floating silently in their head-to-toe burqas. Old meat hung in the stalls. Buildings listed in the ruins.

One of those afternoons, a thin little shoeshine boy walked up to me. He was smiling and running his finger across his throat.

"Mother is no more," he said, finger across the neck. "Father is finished."

His name was Nasir and he repeated the phrase in German and French, smiling as he did. "Mutter ist nicht mehr. Vater ist fertig." He dragged the finger across his throat again. Rockets, he said. Racketen. His pale green eyes were rimmed in black. He did not ask for money; he wanted to clean my boots. Then he was gone, scampering down the muddy street with his tiny wooden box.

Kabul was full of orphans like Nasir, woebegone children who peddled little labors and fantastic tales of grief. You'd see them in packs of fifty and sometimes even a hundred, skittering in mismatched shoes and muddy faces. They'd thunder up to you like a herd of wild horses; you could hear the padding of so many tiny feet. Sometimes I'd wonder where all the parents had gone, why they'd let their children run around like that, and then I'd catch myself. The orphans would get out of control sometimes, especially when they saw a foreigner, grabbing and shoving one another, until they were scattered by one of the men with whips. They'd come out of nowhere, the whip wielders, like they'd been waiting offstage. The kids would squeal and scatter, then circle back again, grinning. If I raised a hand, they'd flinch like strays.

If a war went on long enough the men always died, and someone had to take their place. Once I found seven boy soldiers fighting for the Northern Alliance on a hilltop in a place called Bangi. The Taliban positions were just in view, a minefield in between. The boys were wolflike, monosyllabic with no attention spans. Eyes always darting. Laughing the whole time. Dark fuzz instead of beards. They wore oddly matched apparel like high-top tennis shoes and hammer-and-sickle belts, embroidered hajj caps and Russian rifles.

I tried to corner one of the boys on the hill. His face was half wrapped in a checkered scarf that covered his mouth. Abdul Wahdood. All I could see were his eyes. I kept asking him how old he was and he kept looking over at his brother. His father had been killed a year before, he said, but they fed him here and with the money he could take care of his whole family, $30 a month. "My mother is not weeping," Abdul said. I could see how bored he was, and his friends definitely noticed because one of them started firing his Kalashnikov over our heads. That really got them going, laughing hilariously and falling over each other. Two of them started wrestling. My photographer and I calmed them down and asked them to pose in a picture with us, and they lined up and grew very grave. After that they stood behind us in a semicircle and raised their guns, not like they were aiming at anything but more like they were saluting. Then a couple of men appeared on the hilltop bearing a kettle of rice and the boys descended on it. The Taliban came down the road a few months later. I've got the boys' picture on a bookcase in my apartment.

I drove in from the east. I rode in a little taxi, on a road mostly erased, moving slowly across the craters as the Big Dipper rose over the tops of the mountains that encircled the capital on its high plateau. The cars in front of us were disappearing into the craters as we were climbing out of ours, disappearing then reappearing, swimming upward and then out, like ships riding the swells.

I passed the overturned tanks of the departed army, the red stars faded on the upside-down turrets. I passed checkpoints manned by men who searched for music. I stopped halfway and drank cherry juice from Iran and watched the river run through the walls of the Kabul gorge. There was very little electricity then, so I couldn't see much of the city coming in, neither the people nor the landscape nor the ruined architecture, nothing much but the twinkling stars. From the car, I could make out the lighter shade of the blasted buildings, lighter gray against the darkness of everything else, the scree and the wash of the boulders and bricks, a shattered window here and there. A single turbaned man on a bicycle.

One morning I was standing amid the blown-up storefronts and the broken buildings of Jadi Maiwand, the main shopping street before it became a battlefield, and I was trying to take it in when I suddenly had the sensation one sometimes feels in the tropics, believing that a rock is moving, only to discover it is a living thing perfectly camouflaged. They were crawling out to greet me: legless men, armless boys, women in tents. Children without teeth. Hair stringy and matted.

Help us, they said.

Help us. A woman appeared. I guessed it was a woman but I couldn't see her through her burqa. "Twelve years of schooling," she said, and she kept repeating the phrase like some mantra, like it would get her a job.

For the first time I was talking to a woman I couldn't see. I could trace the words as they exited the vent, watch the fabric flutter as she breathed and spoke. But no face. No mouth. "Twelve years of schooling," she said. She had a name, Shah Khukhu, fifty, a mother of five, missing a finger and a leg. She was hiking up her burqa to show me.

Excerpted from The Forever War by Dexter Filkins. Copyright 2008 by Dexter Filkins. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Blunt Prose Lays Bare Nightmare Of 'Forever War'

'The Forever War',
The Forever War
By Dexter Filkins
Hardcover, 384 pages
Alfred A. Knopf
List Price: $25

Read an excerpt.

Dexter Filkins

Dexter Filkins was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his reports from Afghanistan for The New York Times. He has been reporting from Iraq for the newspaper since 2004. J.D. Sloan hide caption

itoggle caption J.D. Sloan

To classify The Forever War as a work of literature instead of, say, as a piece of "war correspondence," is not to denigrate its journalistic integrity. Dexter Filkins' reporting is as rigorous in this book's informal vignettes and essays as it was when he delivered the daily news from Afghanistan and Iraq for The New York Times.

The Forever War, though, deserves to be considered alongside long-praised and similarly structured modern literary classics such as Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street — books that achieved their raw force and nightmarish beauty by mixing elements of fiction and creative nonfiction. That The Forever War is, front to back, a true story, is a testament to Filkins' literary talent and extraordinary accomplishment.

Don't look here for an explanation of "How the war was lost" or even of "How the war reporter's innocence was lost." Filkins, as he notes in his epilogue, writes from the impossibly limiting perspective of one who's Been There. For those who haven't Been There, then, The Forever War's narrator can sometimes come across as inhumanly cold and unlikable. That's because Filkins is incapable of placing himself into a fake, pre-war personality in order to persuade his readers that he's not the Iceman but is, in fact, as outraged with things as they are.

But this is the point. Filkins' shell-shocked, haunting ennui carries readers through The Forever War and its slaughterhouse imagery with a matter-of-fact bluntness that's difficult to sentimentalize. He writes of one soldier: "His face was shredded like hamburger but he'd worn his goggles and his eyes were beaming bright and wide."

Though the politics of The Forever War are thoroughly ambiguous — Filkins' interviewees were murdered and miserable under Saddam, murdered and miserable under the Americans, and now the same under the Iraqis — the book is firm on one point. Beyond the beheadings and the bombings, the massacres and missed targets, are millions of Sunnis, Shiites and soldiers, all of whom are owed our acknowledgement and — for however long we can stomach looking (and then a little longer) — our attention.

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