Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Combat Archaeology


One might well ask what fighting in Sadr City and Najaf has to do with archaeology. Nothing. Everything.

Nothing, at the moment, in that it is physically happening far from where we are. Sometimes we hear gunships flying overhead. Sometimes, if the mortar fire and counter-fire is really intense, we here a distant rumble, mostly drowned out by traffic noise.

Everything, over the past few days, because of Sadr’s calls for, and threats of, violence. No doubt you see in the news interviews with locals, righteously (and rightfully) indignant at the prospect of American troops entering the 3-square-mile cemetery to root out insurgents. But there is more to that story.

First, the reaction against American troops continuing the fray is merely a part of a reaction against all foreign adventurism here. A quote: “We tell them all: why are you coming here to fight Americans? Go fight them in your own country. This is our country. Everyone should just go home. Do not come here and kill us because you wish to kill Americans.” But, above that, beyond that, is a resurrection of fear regarding Iran and Hezbollah. Here, the “first” Gulf War refers to the Iran-Iraq war—and it is still etched in memory. There’s a strong conviction that Iranian factions are sponsoring a good deal of the violence. Shia from Basra, formerly sympathetic to Shia from Iran, now see the latter as spoilers who wish only to take over control of holy sites in Iraq. Another quote: “They care nothing for this country. It is not their country. They wish only to push us aside and take what they want. But this is my country, not theirs. It is my country first. That comes before any religion.”

Second—and here’s the bit that has more to do with archaeology at the moment—are the afore-mentioned calls to violence. Earlier in the week, flyers appeared, circulated to Christian-owned shops. Convert to Islam, they say, and you will no longer be in danger. Yesterday, Sadr declared a “curfew” on all ministries, police forces, military, emergency services, and government offices, warning employees to stay home “for their own safety.” His “supporters” (are they his? Are they Iranian-backed “organizers? Who knows?) then attacked ambulances and water-delivery trucks serving his own neighborhoods.

So although nothing overt has happened outside Sadr City, it casts a pall and slows street-level commerce. Some businesses closed up for the day; some just closed early; others are opening late this morning. While this did cut down on traffic, making a certain amount of running around and purchasing that much easier, it also meant that yet again the university was closed, and no work done. As the uni is normally closed Thursday and Friday (the local weekend), we will not finish this week after all.

There’s no general upwelling of support for all this. Sadr’s fighters, in the local view, are a bunch of hired thugs, and he is himself the worst kind of political opportunist. I have now heard this universally from people of all religious stripes: Christian, Sunni, Shia. A chilling quote from a man normally most kind and gentle: “They should just kill him. We are sick of this. He cares nothing for his people. He cares nothing for this country. He’s just a thug pretending to be a religious man.” And from his wife: “This is not Islam. I’ve read through the Quran, line by line. There is nothing there that says what this man does is right.”

A rumor is circulating, supposedly corroborated by several witnesses: on the day of the church bombings, before the bombs went off, al-Arabiya and al-Jazira reporters were already on hand, cameras trained on the doorways on the sheltered side of the church, just in time to catch the screaming victims burst out. How, it is asked, could they have known to be there? Who knows. Maybe it was coincidence. Maybe they were not in fact there at all. But in this climate, Sadr’s calls to random violence certainly do not need any more media outlets. That sort of publicity is its own kind of adventurism. It merely pours gasoline on the fire. Violence ends—by ending. By everyone—everyone—laying down their arms. His community would be better served by wiser elders teaching its young men some traditional negotiating skills.

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