Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Iraq's Conflict, Reflected in a Family Tragedy





July 19, 2010

Iraq’s Conflict, Reflected in a Family Tragedy



SAMARRA, Iraq — When the Americans arrived, Hamid Ahmad, a former air force warrant officer imprisoned under Saddam Hussein, imagined a new life for his family, freed from the burdens of tyranny. In seven hard years, nothing went as planned.


He spoke good English and believed in America. He got a job, his family says, with the United States military. Late last month, he wound up dead at the hands of his 32-year-old son, who had turned into an insurgent who sought money and purpose in fighting the Americans.


“I didn’t say anything to him,” the son, Abdul, said in an interview as he stood barefoot with a bruised left eye in a jailhouse here in the city, not long after he confessed to the killing. “I just pulled the trigger and shot six or seven bullets.”


He said, “Everybody hated him because he worked for the Americans.”


At a moment when the milestone of the American military’s troop reduction is spurring deep discussions of the legacy of the Iraqi conflict, one family’s story reads as an abridged version of the entire war, whose chapters synthesize why America found it so difficult to win.


In Mr. Ahmad’s family the major themes of America’s war collided: secularism versus religiosity, the compromises of a civil society versus violent extremism, conflicting views of the United States as a society to be emulated or a calculating imperial power to be resisted. The family’s story also reveals, at this late stage in the war, an insurgency much weakened but still alive and angry, now focused on assassinating those who worked with the departing Americans or were members of the Awakening, mostly former insurgents who switched sides to help the Americans.


The drama played out in Mr. Ahmad’s crowded, squat concrete house in a village on the outskirts of this ancient city. For seven years Iraqis have chosen sides, often along generational lines. For Mr. Ahmad, 52 when he was killed, the war could not have come soon enough. In the 1990s he was put in prison — for speaking out against the government, his family says — but he was released on the eve of the American invasion in 2003.


Two of his three sons and a nephew, who all lived under the same roof with Mr. Ahmad, joined the insurgency. In his own home, Mr. Ahmad was constantly hectored as a spy and a traitor. Samarra was a fertile place for unrest: it was here that the sectarian fighting escalated into civil war in February 2006 when the golden dome of the Askariya Mosque was blown up.


“I wanted to fight against the Americans, to kick them out,” the son said.


By his own account, he joined the Sunni insurgency at the urging of his cousin as a member of Ansar al Sunna, a militant group that fought the American occupation. A family member said he joined earlier this year after pressure from his cousin and older brother, both of whom joined the insurgency years ago and are being sought by the police.


“When Al Qaeda came to our areas it was easy to get the young people because they were religious and there were promises of paradise,” said Abd al-Hakim Ahmad, the victim’s brother, referring to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a Sunni extremist group.


Mr. Ahmad learned English well before the war, at an institution in Abu Ghraib, a Baghdad neighborhood whose name will forever be synonymous with American misconduct in Iraq because of the prison there.


“He thought if he worked for the Americans he could move to the U.S.A.,” said Abd al-Hakim Ahmad.


Any hope of emigrating shattered quickly.


His brother said Mr. Ahmad had worked for the United States Army, but after less than a year he found himself in an American detention center. According to his brother, he was accused of passing American military secrets to insurgents, and spent one year and 17 days in Camp Bucca, a detention center that since then has been turned over to the Iraqi government.


The accusations, according to the brother, were false, but he never went back to work. Still, he kept his enthusiasm for America.


“He was always happy with the Americans being here,” his brother said.


He took to wearing a Christian cross — not because he converted but because he saw it as an accessory of Americana.


“He’s not a religious guy,” his brother said. “He’d rather watch movies than pray.”


Out of a job, he became increasingly isolated in his own home — holing himself up in his room for hours with an air-conditioner to ward off the heat and movies to relieve the boredom. His family members waded deeper into the insurgency until the family strife reached a breaking point last month.


Mr. Ahmad was receiving threats by text message from his nephew. One read: “You are in my village and I can get you. And I will stomp on your head with my feet like an insect.”


A local sheik, Talal Hamdan Azzawi, said Mr. Ahmad had “said that his son said to him: ‘You wear the necklace of the cross. You were working for the Americans and you were a spy.’ ” Mr. Azzawi, the leader of an Awakening Council, could not protect him, amid a recent campaign of assassinations of Awakening members in the area.


Finally, after seven years of the family infighting, an order came down from the insurgent leadership to kill Mr. Ahmad. Late one night in June, Mr. Ahmad’s son entered his bedroom with an AK-47.


He described killing his father as the act of a hero.


It was also meant to be lucrative. He said the insurgents gave him $5,000 for the killing, money that he said his cousin — who by some accounts was a more active member of the insurgency and helped plan the murder — took from him.


As a face of the lingering insurgency here, the son hardly seems menacing now. Short and scrawny with sad, bulging eyes, he described his motivation as that of a dispossessed young man with no opportunities in the new Iraq.


“I was not working. I just sat in the house,” he said.


His family described him as being mentally ill. In Iraq psychiatric services that might have helped are virtually nonexistent. At one point in the interview he said he regretted the killing, and described his father as a “peaceful man.” He blamed the insurgents for forcing him to do it.


“They told me,” he said. “It was not my will.”


In Mr. Ahmad’s bedroom, bullet marks dot the wall under the windowsill, and on a shelf is a totem to the work he claimed to have done and a dream unrealized: a laminated memorandum under United States Army letterhead that attested to his good work.


An Iraqi employee of The New York Times contributed reporting.


·  Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

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