The night sky hangs low over London, Baghdad feels far away. Akeel steps from the black cab dressed in a suit, dark shirt and silk tie. He opens his long arms as if to say: can you believe this?
It’s been a year since we last met and that was in the cold, polluted, fear-spiked stew of wintertime Baghdad. Since then Akeel, my friend, colleague and translator in Iraq, managed to escape the war for London, marry a rich British Pakistani woman whom he had met in Baghdad, and they have a baby girl on the way. Our reunion feels like the improbable Hollywood-style happy ending.
Since Akeel and I last met I had gone back to Iraq without him, then off to Afghanistan, and we had been in only sporadic contact, a few calls and emails. All the while I had worried that Akeel’s demons would catch him and draw him back to the Iraqi furnace.
Akeel, in fact, returned to Iraq in October 2004, not to fight but to visit his family, obtain a passport from the new Iraqi government, and try to get his mother and drunken sentimental father to leave. Or maybe he knew they wouldn’t leave and went to say goodbye to both his parents and his native land. Whatever the case, Akeel made the trip and after that he’d never want to make another.
Akeel’s accent has gone from slightly American, thanks to a high school year with relatives in Michigan, to very British. But his speech is still laden with blunted t’s, long vowels and theatrical sounding Iraqi sentence constructions. Over pints of stout in a cozy, Holborn pub our talk immediately turns to Iraq. Outside, the pale winter light slips away.
“Now I will tell you a story. And when I tell you, you will just freak out. You will be like ‘I cannot believe this.’ And it’s about the Sheikh, the one in Ramadi who we met with Rob. Do you recall?”
He never used to say stuff like “do you recall.” That’s the queen’s influence. Of course I recall the Sheikh. When talk about him there in the pub we omit his name; we’re stuck in some paranoid war-zone habit of avoiding specifics.
“I was kidnapped by the resistance,” blurts Akeel.
David Martinez and Jo Wilding had been kidnapped in April 2004, but at the time that seemed like a freak event. Akeel and I had interviewed two different resistance cells shortly before the kidnapping and killing of journalists began. But by October 2004, getting caught by the resistance meant almost certain death.
By the time Akeel flew to Jordan for his last visit home, Iraq was in free fall, so far down in the pit of anarchy and chaos that many of his buddies back in the heavily Sunni and Baathist neighborhood of Adamyia were urging Akeel not to return. A few of the guys he used to play video games with, guys I had met, guys who helped us find the resistance, had gone to Falluja in April to be killed as martyrs in the Jihad while American Marines methodically bombed away two-thirds of the city. They told Akeel that everything was bad and dangerous; they told him to stay away. But he didn’t listen.
From Amman, Akeel got a ride in one of the GMC taxis that shuttle people across the desert to Baghdad. His troubles began at the border.
“At the border the top guard saw that I was traveling on old CPA documents and he was like, ‘Mr. Akeel come have some tea with me.’ And he was just, like, asking me all these questions. Who is your family? Were you in the military? Why were you in England? Why are you coming back? And he took down all the information about the car and everything. But he was always really nice.”
Eventually the new border patrol—trained, equipped and funded by the occupying US—allowed Akeel to continue on, and the heavy GMC sped off into the flat desert of Anbar province.
At this point the road in from Jordan was very, very hot: It was plied openly by looters and the site of constant combat between insurgents and US patrols, and due to all this only sparsely traveled. The drive from Amman to Baghdad can be made at speeds of up to 100 miles an hour and at that speed takes 12 hours.
About three hours from the border on an empty stretch of highway Akeel’s GMC was stopped by two SUVs full of armed men. “They had Kalashnikovs and RPGs and they looked right at me and were like, ‘Are you Akeel? Step out of the car.’ They were like soldiers or police the way the talked. I knew immediately that they were the resistance,” says Akeel, taking a long drink of Guinness.
Clearly the chief of the border crossing was in league with the Iraqi underground and had called ahead to tell this cell that a suspicious Iraqi with British travel documents was headed in.
“Man, I am telling you, they knew every fucking detail like everything I had told the guy at the border or something.” Akeel looks at me with one eyebrow cocked. “The whole fucking thing is penetrated. If they are not Shia or Peshmerge,” he says using the term for Kurdish guerillas, “then they love Saddam and are with the resistance.”
Akeel was then told that he would be bound and blindfolded. From there he was loaded into one of the SUVs, forced to lay face down on the floor while the resistance fighters put their feet on him. “They were like don’t say anything. You are a British spy. If you make even one sound we’ll kill you right now.”
“What were you thinking?” I ask.
“I felt bad for my mother but really I was just like, I am ready to die,” he says. “Just kill me. Get it over with.”
Eventually the resistance caravan arrived at a building far out in the desert. Akeel was locked in what he describes as, “A room that was half sunken in the desert and there was nothing at all around. It was really weird—it was like a half-buried house. I didn’t even know where we were somewhere between Rabat and Ramadi but in da fucking desert. Just nowhere.” The resistance interrogated Akeel but did not beat him or torture him. “They were like just yelling at me all the time,” Akeel says quizzically, his head cocked. “They were saying: ‘You don’t love Iraq. You don’t love the people. You are a traitor.’ I was trying to tell them that I was resisting in my own way. That I worked with journalists and about my training.” He looks at me to make sure I get the reference. Which I do: he had been press ganged in the Fedayeen by one of Saddam’s special military terror forces. After a few months of brutal training that included preparation for a suicide attack, Akeel couldn’t take it anymore and shot himself in the fleshy area just above his knee. What followed was a month of imprisonment and beating.
“I didn’t tell them how I got out. But they would not believe me. I was telling them like all these names of Sheikhs and religious people I knew from Falluja, some people I had met working with Dahr.” But the names were no good. Some had been killed or were just gone. The resistance kept coming back to the same theme: ‘You’re a spy. We will cut your throat.’
“Then I told them that I know the Sheikh. You know, the young guy from Ramadi.” The days Akeel and I spent with him were some of my more memorable from Iraq. Sheikh Mokmuhd was a young and prominent scholar who we had meet in Ramadi in January 2004 before Ramadi became a no-go area for un-embedded western journalists. The Sheikh had made quite an impression in the U.S. and we both knew that he was close to the resistance. We also knew that visiting him in Ramadi was a sketchy, high-risk move. But despite one joke about taking “hostages,” all went well. The next time I went back to Iraq it was too dangerous to make the drive to Ramadi, and most of the town was, within months of our meeting the Sheikh, under the control of the resistance. So I stayed in Baghdad, save for a trip to Baquba where I got caught in a resistance uprising and U.S. siege. I never made it back to Ramadi and might never. But I had wondered about the Sheikh, who, without email or telephone in the broken-down war-torn deserts of Iraq, was unreachable.
Akeel said that when he mentioned the Sheikh, the resistance fighters took note. “They were like, ‘You better not be lying.’ They were very serious. The leader sat down and said, ‘Don’t think we can’t find out if you are lying.’ Man, I was really scared, I was so scared I said, ‘I know him really well. We are close friends.’ But I only met him those times with you. They asked about his family, how many children he had. I just pulled up every detail I could remember. I talked about his son, described his house, the street it was on in Ramadi, that painting. Anything. Some I got wrong but enough was right.”
The next day the fighters came back, and with them came the young Sheikh.
“They were like, ‘Do you know this guy?’” But I was blindfolded and my head had been shaved when we met the Sheikh. The Sheikh said ‘Take off his blindfold’ and for a moment he did not know me but then he was like, ‘Akeel, you came with the journalists.’”
Akeel was released to the custody of the Sheikh and taken to Ramadi.
“So you were home free?” I ask.
“No,” Akeel says. “This is where it gets really fucked up and scary.”
In Ramadi, Akeel ate with the Sheikh, but they didn’t talk much. The Sheikh was serious, busy, and distant. It seems that the Sheikh was not with the resistance but he was clearly respected by them; he was part of the Shurra council, an informal religious government that actually ran Ramadi in the absence of any other real authority. After the meal the Sheikh was called away to prepare for a Friday sermon and Akeel was handed over to a man who would put Akeel up for the night, then take him to Baghdad the next day.
But on the way to the man’s home he stopped and checked his watch. Then came an explosion. “He was like ‘Ah, the boys have hit a US patrol with one of our bombs.’” Akeel grew nervous.
“We didn’t go to his house—we went to a field and there was a camp of about 50 fighters. He was like, ‘Yeah, this is where I live.’” Akeel spent the rest of the day waiting for his ride to Baghdad. He tried not to talk to the fighters too much, although his journalistic impulses occasionally got the better of him. As he told the story, Akeel grew emphatic. “They were from everywhere—fucking foreign fighters!”
Most pro-resistance Sunni Iraqis mock the notion of a foreign fighter, particularly the alpha-terrorist Jihadist Abu al-Zarqawi. And foreign fighters are not in charge of even that significant a portion of the resistance. But here they were—lots of them.
“There were Yemenis, an Egyptian, some Afghans, some Africans and even some Iranian Shia. Isn’t that fucked up?” The Afghans told Akeel they were in Iraq to “pay back their brothers.” The Iranians said they had gone to fight with Sadr in Najaf during his uprising there. When Sadr made peace they went to Falluja. This is not inconceivable: one credible report placed an old Baathist officer from Falluja training Sadr militiamen.
“Now I got really scared. I was like, ‘Oh no the Americans will bomb us. I’ll die slowly. Or they will catch us and think I am resistance and torture and rape my Iraqi ass forever in Abu Ghraib.’ The resistance, they were just crazy. They were like ‘We want to die in Iraq. Don’t you want to join us and die for Jihad?’ Oh my god. Fuck that! Man I was scared. I was just praying to Allah to get me out of there,” Akeel says, reaching for his pint. That night, fighters sang and drummed old songs and prepared for an operation. The next day two fighters drove Akeel to Baghdad. He hit no checkpoints, arriving home without incident.
Akeel’s father had converted to Shia from Sunni because, as Akeel put it, “He likes all the rituals.” Akeel’s mother remained Sunni and the couple had moved from Adamiya, a middle-class Sunni neighborhood, to the edge of Thawra, a huge Shia slum, so that his mother, a doctor, could work in a community clinic.
Within a day, news of Akeel’s return from England had spread, and so too had rumors that he was not in England but, as a former member of Saddam’s special forces, had actually been with the resistance. On Akeel’s second night home the house was attacked, probably by Shia activists looking for payback against any Baathist, even lowly office workers. Akeel and his drunken father had to fight them off. Akeel’s father fired blindly into their courtyard hitting the wall, while Akeel raced to the roof with the family AK 47 and shot at the assailants.
Akeel visited family and got his passport, but his mother refused to leave with him to England. His father was sinking into drunken despair and too many of Akeel’s mates in Adamiya were dead from Jihad or looking to leave Iraq.
The last time I talked to Akeel, a few weeks ago, he had moved from London to Leeds to start a contracting business. “I don’t really following the news. I am a fucking Englishman now, just stupid and watching this crap TV that says nothing all the time.” His only real news came from phone calls home.
His parents had been run out of their house and forced back to Adamiya. Shia militia has assassinated five of his father’s friends. More of Akeel’s friends have died. Around Mosul where his uncle lives, pro-resistance clans are feuding with pro-government Shia clans.
“Don’t even think about trying to going back there,” says Akeel, his voice weary and echoing inside an empty Leeds jobsite where I’ve reached him. “Any foreigner they find, they will just kill. The people in Adamiya are saying it is the beginning of the end.”
“The beginning of the end of what, of Iraq?” I ask.
“Of the people—all of it.”
Christian Parenti’s The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq just came out in paperback from the New Press.