The dichotomy of Sept. 11
Iraqis, Americans struggle to understand opposing views
BAGHDAD -- Thrown together by history in this sprawling capital, two 24-year-olds -- one Iraqi, one American -- might as well have been on different planets yesterday, as they expressed their emotions about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"I was very happy at the time that it happened," Jamil Muhi said, standing in his small nut store in Baghdad's Karrada shopping district, warily eyeing the two American tanks that had stopped outside his door.
"The United States was our enemy, they didn't want peace," Muhi said. "Frankly, I still feel happy about it."
On the sidewalk outside, Second Lieutenant John Kendall removed his helmet and grew quiet when asked how he remembered the moment he heard the news two years ago.
"It was terrible," said Kendall, who at the time had been a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. "I knew immediately that it would change my life. It would change my whole military career," said the platoon commander from the First Armored Division's Sixth Regiment, standing in the shade of his tank.
As the military occupation drags into its sixth month, Iraqis and Americans grappled yesterday to understand each other's vastly contrasting views about the attacks that have shaken this region for two years, and which ultimately led to the war in Iraq. For both sides, the outpouring of emotions and opinions in the media this week has allowed a rare glimpse across the chasm that divides them.
In interviews, several Iraqis said they felt some satisfaction that the suicide attacks had brought low an otherwise invincible power, which has twice pummeled them in war. Others said they firmly believed that the attacks were the work of Israeli or American intelligence agents, and had heard nothing to change their minds.
Both opinions confounded American soldiers yesterday.
"I'm so surprised when I hear things like that. I don't even know why people think that," said Specialist Hollis Williams, 26, of the Florida National Guard, who sat under a temporary shade cover yesterday with his Iraqi translator, guarding a checkpoint leading to the Baghdad Convention Center.
The translator, Raul Mohammed, 27, explained to Williams that Iraqis had been too scared to discuss the attacks two years ago, for fear of risking severe punishment if their views contradicted the ruling Ba'ath Party.
"We couldn't speak about anything. We only knew what I saw on government television," said Mohammed, an ethnic Turkmen, who was a foot soldier at the time in the Republican Guard, the elite forces in Hussein's military. "At first deep inside, I really thought Saddam did it, because he had already killed so many people."
Since Monday, Iraqis have watched hours of coverage about the attacks, on the popular Arabic satellite channels that now dominate the country's airwaves.
For many Iraqis, the feisty debates about the attacks and the gruesome footage of that day have been unsettling revelations. All satellite television and independent newspapers were banned under Saddam Hussein, and most Iraqis heard the news two years ago over Iraq's Youth Television, the mouthpiece tightly controlled by Hussein's son, Uday.
Iraqis said yesterday they remembered clearly the scenes of the planes slamming into the twin towers. They recalled as clearly, however, the message that went with it.
"There was a kind of happy feeling on television," said Rafiq Al Azawi, 60, who runs an auto paint store in Baghdad. "I remember them saying it was an act of justice from the sky." Rare among world leaders, Hussein did not condemn the attacks and sent no condolences to his nemesis in Washington.
Employed as a cartoonist at a government newspaper, Hammoudi Azab, 52, said he and a few close friends were horrified by the attacks. "We couldn't talk about this safely at all," Azab said.
Instead, he drew a cartoon that tempted a rebuke or worse from government censors: an unidentified man knifing an unarmed, apparently innocent United States in the back. "It was probably the most daring cartoon I ever did," Azab said.
Among about a dozen Iraqis interviewed yesterday, about half said they shared Azab's sorrow about the attacks. Several said they could not believe that the attacks were accomplished without the help of Western intelligence agencies. Having seen American military power up close, Iraqis said they found it impossible to believe that the United States could have been caught so off guard.
"Such incidents surely could not be missed easily by the FBI and the CIA," said Sheikh Hussein Al Fayez, 40, a tribal leader attending a political conference in Baghdad yesterday. "I just don't see how they didn't know about it before. At first, I believed [Al Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden did this alone. But now I'm not so sure."
In his nut store, Muhi cited a view often heard in the Middle East: "Israel did these attacks, because Israel is the mother of terrorism," he said. "It was a pretext for the Americans to attack Arab countries."
Listening to him, Taksim Ghaleb, 28, a customer in Muhi's store, shouted: "Israel didn't do this! Bin Laden did!"
Outside, Kendall said he had tried this week to talk to Iraqis he met about the attacks, in an effort to close the psychological gap between them.
"There are men in my platoon who were a block away from the twin towers that day," he added. "Usually when they hear that, I think it changes their outlook."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.