After the Feb. 22 shrine bombing in Samarra, killing Shiites became more important than killing Americans – or guarding Jill.
| Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor
(J.C.) Blind again under the black scarves – a now familiar routine after one and a half months in captivity – I was herded into a car, headed for yet another change of houses. I didn’t know who the two men in the front seat were until I heard a voice I barely recognized, due to the speaker’s exhaustion.
“Abu Rasha is very tired. It was a very busy day,” said Abu Nour’s No. 2, speaking in the third person, as night fell like its own black scarf on the world outside.
Abu Rasha was a large man, one of the organizers of my guards. His house in Baghdad – or what I took to be his house – was one of the first places I’d been taken after being kidnapped. I’d spent a lot of time in his presence. But I’d never encountered him in a state like this.
“Today was very, very bad,” he said. “All day, driving here, and driving there, with the PKC and the RPG,” he said, referring to Russian-made machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, which were among the insurgents’ most common weapons. It had been a day of hard fighting. But they hadn’t been confronting US or Iraqi soldiers. Today, they had had a different target: Shiites.
||SAMARRA: On February 22, 2006, a large explosion destroyed the golden dome shrine of Ali al-Hadi, one of Shiites’ holiest shrines.
Two days earlier, on Feb. 22, an important Shiite mosque in Samarra, Iraq, had been blown up. Shiites had attacked Sunni mosques in retaliation – the result being a vicious cycle of attack-and-response that had altered the world of my Sunni Islamist kidnappers.
We arrived back at the place I called the “clubhouse,” near Abu Ghraib, later that night. Slumped in a plastic chair in a room lit by the stark half-light of a fluorescent camping lantern, another mujahid told me their new bottom line.
“Aisha,” he said, calling me by the Sunni nickname they’d given me, “now our No. 1 enemy are the Shias. Americans are No. 2.”
• • •
(P.G.) As editor of the Monitor, Richard Bergenheim was the person who spoke to contacts who required special handling. That meant, for instance, that if FBI Director Robert Mueller called, he answered. And Mr. Mueller did call, early on, to ask if the Monitor was getting the help it needed.
It also meant that as the Jill Carroll hostage crisis dragged on, Mr. Bergenheim found himself at the center of the strange case of Daphne Barak and Sheikh Sattam Hamid Farhan al-Gaood (also spelled Gaaod). The Monitor was simply pursuing every lead, but this would be quite a rabbit hole.
On her website, Daphne Barak describes herself as “one of the few leading A-list interviewers in the world.” An Israeli-American syndicated television journalist, her interviewees have included everyone from Hillary Clinton to members of pop star Michael Jackson’s family.
Mr. Gaood, to some US officials, isn’t so much a celebrity as he is notorious. “One of Saddam Hussein’s most trusted confidants in conducting clandestine business transactions,” according to the CIA’s 2004 report on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The same report said Gaood was once the director of El Eman, the “largest network of Iraqi front companies” that smuggled oil out of Iraq and foodstuffs into Iraq in violation of the UN oil-for-food program, but “he has stated that he believed this to be legitimate business.”
Sometime in late January, a source at a US television network told the Monitor that Ms. Barak was trying to sell an interview she’d conducted with Gaood – and that Gaood had mentioned helping get Jill Carroll out.
So Bergenheim called Barak. The story was true – or, at least, the part about the interview was.
Gaood had said, in an offhand way, that kidnapping was wrong, and Jill should be released. Pressed, he’d said something to the effect of, yes, he could arrange her freedom, he’d even use his own money, if needed – but so far, no one had asked him to.
(J.C.) The wave of sectarian violence which overtook Iraq following the destruction of Samarra’s Askariya Shrine had a huge impact on the nature of my captivity.
That was because the level of activity of the mujahideen group which had seized me greatly increased. Many of its members were out fighting their new war almost every day.
At first, I thought this was a bad thing for me. It was destabilizing the status quo – and under the status quo, at least I was still alive.
I didn’t want to be killed just because I was now a burden. And I certainly didn’t want to be caught in the middle of a Sunni-Shiite firefight.
But after a while it became clear that this conflict, despite its horrible effect on Iraq itself, might be a good thing for me. Their main mission was now something to which my presence was, politically speaking, only tangential. And they began running out of places to put me, because suddenly, American and Iraqi troops were everywhere, trying to keep the peace.
From my first days in captivity I’d seen evidence that they weren’t just kidnappers but also insurgents actively conducting attacks. They didn’t much bother trying to hide their firearms and explosives.
For instance, one morning at the location I knew as the mujahideen clubhouse I awoke to find fresh dirt in the bathroom, dirt in the shower, and dirt in the washing machine. I didn’t think much of it. Maybe they were washing their shoes.
But I quickly learned that the appearance of dirt meant that someone in the house had been out planting bombs – IEDs, or Improvised Explosive Devices, the mujahideen weapon of choice. I knew from my reporting, and the time I spent embedded with US Marines, that IEDs were now responsible for about half of all US combat deaths in Iraq.
Not all their explosives were offensive weapons. At least one of my guards – Abu Hassan, a serious man – wore a suicide vest inside the clubhouse.
One night, he was leaning over a little gas-powered stove, cooking eggs and potatoes in oil, and then he sat back and pushed the open flame away, saying something like, “Oh, have to be careful!”
The suicide vest was under his shirt, sort of swinging back and forth. He was afraid the fire would ignite the explosives. And if it did, we’d all be dead.
He used to complain about how heavy it was. He’d wear it at night. He would mime for me what would happen if soldiers came, showing how he’d put it on, with shoulder straps, and then how two wires would connect. Then he would move his hands outward in a big motion indicating an explosion, look upward, and go, “BOOM!”
(P.G.) The prospect of help from Sheikh Gaood raised hopes at the Monitor’s offices in Boston at a time when other tracks of investigation seemed to be drying up. But it quickly became a serious source of tension at the paper and among the US agencies who were supposedly cooperating to find Jill.
The Monitor’s Baghdad correspondents Scott Peterson and Dan Murphy didn’t trust Gaood’s motives. Was Gaood trying to win favor with the US government – as it investigated violations of the UN oil-for-food sanctions program? And the FBI wasn’t happy about it either. They wanted to keep Gaood out of the picture.
US and foreign intelligence sources, on the other hand, said that Gaood had indeed been a powerful figure under Saddam Hussein. And, the CIA’s report on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction described Gaood as “linked” to an insurgent network near Fallujah that “actively sought chemical weapons for use against Coalition forces” in 2004. It was possible he had the contacts to release Jill, they said, but there were no guarantees.
Which government agency was right? How should the Monitor advise the Carroll family? And how much should the Monitor invest in pursuing this track?
According to intelligence sources, the CIA checked with the FBI, the lead agency in the Carroll case, before providing the Monitor with more background on Gaood. The FBI replied with a blistering e-mail: the CIA should stay in its own lane, and stop talking to the Monitor about the Carroll case. (Today, the FBI says no such message was sent. But Gaood “was assessed as a complete ‘X’ factor, which means undemonstrated credibility,” says FBI spokesman Richard Kolko.)
To try and settle this intergovernmental dispute, Bergenheim called Mr. Mueller, the head of the FBI. You asked if we were getting the help we needed, he said, in effect. Well, we aren’t.
||SATTAM AL-GAOOD: The former senior Iraqi Baath party official, shown here at his house in Amman, Jordan, Monday, Jan. 2, 2006, suggested that he could secure Jill’s release.
The FBI response? The Monitor was given two new, higher-level contacts within the bureau, but from then on the paper’s editor was given less information about the government’s efforts in the case.
Bergenheim decided to tell the Carroll family about the Barak/Gaood connection. Bad move, said the Baghdad Boys. But on Feb. 9, Jim and Mary Beth Carroll went on “Good Morning America” and asked for the help of the “powerful sheikh,” without naming him.
A few days later, Gaood issued a statement from his exile in Jordan, calling for Jill’s release to prove that the Iraqi insurgency “does not kill innocents.”
Nothing happened. And the days dragged on.
(J.C.) There was no mistaking that the mujahideen who held me hated America. “One day, hopefully, one day, America, all of America gone,” said one of my guards early in my captivity. He spread his hands out wide as if to wipe America off the map.
“I don’t quite understand,” I said. “All America?”
My female jailer Um Ali, listening in on the conversation, translated the sentiment into simpler Arabic for me. “No journalists, no people, no nothing,” she said.
I could also see that Shiites were high on their list of enemies. Once, when attempting to explain the historical split between Sunnis and Shiites, Abu Nour, the leader of my captors, stopped himself after he referred to “Shiite Muslims.”
“No, they are not Muslims,” Ink Eyes said. “Anyone who asks for things from people that are dead, and not [from] Allah, he is not a Muslim.”
He was referring to Shiites appealing to long-dead Islamic leaders to intercede with God, asking for miracles such as curing the sick. It’s a practice similar to that of Catholics praying to saints.
But after the Feb. 22 bombing of the Askariya Shrine, and rampant Sunni-Shiite killing, nearly every captor I came into contact with would tell me about their hate for Shiites first. Abu Nour now simply referred to them as “dogs.”
• • •
(P.G.) The Monitor and the family still talked almost every day, but they had less to say to each other. There were fewer leads and less information to share.
In Baghdad, a new case officer from the British security consultants had arrived and was proving difficult to work with. Correspondents Murphy and Peterson were irritated by prodding from Boston to rotate out for a rest.
Neither Peterson nor Murphy considered themselves particularly religious. But as Peterson notes, “there are no atheists in foxholes.” From the beginning, he drew strength from the book of Psalms, and this passage: “Truth brings the elements of liberty. The power of God brings deliverance to the captive,” written by Mary Baker Eddy, who founded this paper.
Some nights, at the end of the last conference call with Boston, the pair would listen to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” performed by Jeff Buckley. It filled the apartment, and lifted their spirits, with a song that Murphy knew to be one of Jill’s favorites.
Eventually, reluctantly, Peterson took a two-week break with his family in Istanbul, Turkey.
In mid-February, Jim notified the Monitor that he had opened a new channel with someone claiming to be an intermediary for the kidnappers. Hopes rose again.
An Arabic interpreter was brought into his home. But under FBI advice, Jim refused to tell Team Jill in Boston or the Baghdad Boys any of the details. Even more frustrating to Murphy and Peterson, Jill’s father told them to shut down any other tracks they were pursuing, including talks with Jordanian officials who had just said they would try to help. The Monitor reporters didn’t want to be working at cross-purposes to Jim, so they reluctantly sat on their hands.
But after the bombing of the Askariya Shrine, fighting surged between Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents, prompting more curfews. Jim’s Iraqi contact stopped answering his phone. Days dragged into a week, two weeks.
Another dry hole.
Discouraged, Jim sent word that Murphy and Peterson could resume their efforts in Iraq. By now, Murphy needed a break and left for Cairo.
(J.C.) On the day in late February that an exhausted Abu Rasha had told me that Shiites were now the mujahideen’s top target, he’d told me something else, something chilling.
“We killed an Al Arabiya journalist,” he said, his face drawn, his eyes hard. “She said the mujahideen are bad.”
It was unclear if he meant that he himself had participated in the killing or if it had been done by men from the larger group of mujahideen.
They’d frequently assured me that I wasn’t going to be killed. But clearly there were times when their rules for jihad allowed them to kill women, and to kill women journalists.
As I learned after I was released, the well-known Al Arabiya newswoman Atwar Bahjat and two colleagues were abducted and killed by gunmen while they were interviewing Iraqis near the bombed Samarra shrine.
I bounced from house to house over the next few weeks – mostly between the clubhouse and a new house west of Fallujah – and the guards grew incredibly agitated. They would bitterly complain to me about being stuck with guard duty. Abu Hassan – the guard with the suicide vest – would sleep and eat little. He was always on edge. He would fiddle with his 9mm pistol obsessively and leap to his feet to peer out a window at the first sound of a helicopter or barking dog.
||ATWAR BAHJAT: Jill Carroll’s captors said they killed this TV journalist on Feb. 22.
He spent his time on the phone, checking in with others for the latest news on their campaign to kill Shiites. When anyone came to the house, he pumped them for stories about their “work,” as they all called it.
In his state of agitation and boredom, he began raising suspicions about the Shiite neighbors. They didn’t know I was there. They didn’t appear to know that the men at this house were mujahideen. They’d drop off fresh bread or yogurt, or stop to chat outside, just as Iraqis had done for generations.
They did not yet recognize that those days of amity were over.
Read Full Post »