Letter from An Najaf: War and Poverty

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Two Iraqi men pray outside the Mosque of Ali.

An Najaf, one of the holiest cities in Islam, is a crumbling slum. Poverty is not a condition found on the fringe areas of the city. It is endemic to the entire society. War has only made the dire situation more acute. Lives have been overturned. Lack of water and electricity add new miseries to an already arduous existence. The U.S. would like to think that its presence as "liberators" will give them hope for better life here. For now, however, the power vacuum created by the elimination of the Baath party makes the effort futile — and it may even threaten the long-term chances of pulling this village from poverty.

There are some images of war that stick with you forever — even ones that have nothing to do with combat. For the first four days in and around An Najaf, I was constantly following the action, as firefights and pitched battles sprung up in different parts of town. Now, as the 1st Brigade awaits orders to move further north, there is time to stop following the warriors and think about the people of An Najaf.

At dawn, a woman in a black shawl with six little ones in tow sheepishly approached a small American outpost. She held out a ration form. It was her day to come to pick up rice and flour to feed her family. Controlling the distribution of food staples had been one of the ways the Baath Party had kept the population in check. With the party gone, she didn't know where to turn.

Army commanders here had already noted that Baath Headquarters and the homes of party leaders were liberally stocked with 100 pound bags of rice and flour. Hoping to relieve the pressing food shortage they relaxed the no looting rules and opened these locations for a local free for all. What ensued was dozens of miniature reenactments of the storming the Bastille. Hundreds of people rushed into the buildings, emptying them of foodstuffs, furniture, farm tools and even lighting fixtures. This largess improved the lives of the fast, the young and the strong. It did nothing to help the woman with six hungry children to feed.

For the moment, soldiers found her enough food to hold her over for a week or so. But what happens when the soldiers are gone?

Later in the morning the Brigade displaced its headquarters to the sight of some of the fiercest fighting on the 1st day. In one of the abandoned residences, now occupied by American soldiers, there are hundreds of photographs scattered about the floor. They show weddings, children playing, family gatherings and all of the happy moments that a family has shared. In the corner, there are children's toys piled in with most of the family wardrobe. From the room next-door soldiers carried out automatic weapons and mortars left by the paramilitary forces who had tossed out the family.

But the photographs stay in mind — photos of an innocent family that didn't deserve the upheaval and loss that comes with war.

In the doorway of what would charitably be described as a hovel stood an adorable five year-old girl. With giant black eyes she looked out shyly from behind a half open door to see what the soldiers were doing outside. A photographer noticed her and walked over to get a close up, but the girl darted indoors. He asked through an interpreter if the girl would come out for a picture, which she eventually did. He offered to show her the picture, but she shook her head. "What do you want?" the photographer asked through the interpreter. The girl immediately brought her hand to her mouth and mimicked eating. "When did you last eat?" the photographer asked. The girl paused and then held up three fingers. The photographer went to talk to some soldiers and in violation of policy they brought over a case of MREs and gave it to the girl's mother, who rushed inside with it.

Moments later the translator pointed at two Iraqi men walking into the household and said they are going to take the food away. As the men left the house with the food three heavily armed infantry men walked over to politely convince them to give the food back. But what happens to the girl when the soldiers aren't here to intervene on her behalf?

In war, the burdens fall hardest on those least able to cope. In this war, the burdens fall squarely on this town. The people here struggle day-to-day to survive — that's always been the case. But the brutal war might be justified if people here emerge with better lives. For that to happen, it will take a sustained American political presence and steady economic support until oil money and the miracle of capitalism begins to improve the general well being. It will also take the will to maintain a strong military force in Iraq — at least until a stable democratic government has formed and taken root at the institutional level.

There is no other way to keep strong men from stealing food out of the mouths of five year old girls.