Vendettas

A tale of revenge within the Shiite community in Iraq, from Jon Lee Anderson’s “Inside the Surge“:

Amar was a lifelong friend of Karim’s. Three months earlier, Amar and his older brother, Jafaar, had been riding in the van of a friend, Sayeed, when a group of gunmen hailed them. Amar recognized them as Mahdi Army men, and assumed that they were coming to say hello. As Sayeed braked, the car was riddled with gunfire. Amar crouched as low as he could, as the Mahdi Army men emptied their Kalashnikovs. He was unhurt, but Jafaar and Sayeed were dead.

That night, Amar told Karim that, at the morgue, he had sworn over his brother’s body to take revenge. He had vowed to kill a hundred Mahdi men—ten for each of Jafaar’s fingers. His mother, Um Jafaar, supported him, and begged Karim to help her son. He agreed.

Their first concern was to make sure that the Mahdi militiamen didn’t suspect them. During Jafaar’s funeral procession, they shouted angry denunciations of a Sunni tribe that lived nearby. Word soon spread that Jafaar’s family and friends blamed the Sunnis for his death.

Karim and Amar also decided that it would be easier to carry out the killings if they won the Americans’ trust. Karim went to a nearby U.S. military base, and spoke to a captain. “I told the captain, ‘You help me, I help you. I love my country, my neighbors. The Mahdi have killed many of my friends, and American soldiers, too. I want to coöperate.’ ” Karim gave the captain the names of two of the men who had killed Jafaar. The captain said that, if they were detained, Karim would get some money. He refused: “If I take it, it makes me a spy, and I am a gentleman, not a spy.’ ”

Karim put the captain in touch with Amar, who directed American soldiers to the houses where the two gunmen were staying. The operation was a success. “They found many guns and pistols,” Karim said. “They took them, investigated, and they were convinced about what they were—killers. One was young, fifteen or sixteen, and had killed five or six people. He was just starting out. He is now in Bucca”—a U.S. prison camp in southern Iraq.

“Then the killing started,” Karim told me. Their first victim was the father of the younger gunman. When I asked him whether the father had anything to do with Jafaar’s killing, he looked nonplussed, and said no, but that the man had been an intelligence officer under Saddam, and had probably killed people, too. (In Iraq’s tribal vendettas, male relatives are often seen as legitimate targets.) The father was now working as a taxi-driver. Karim told Amar’s sister to wave him down as he left his house, and ask to be dropped off at a warehouse on the outskirts of a Sunni district. “Amar and I followed,” he said. “She got out, and crossed the street. I told Amar, ‘Do it now.’ ”

Amar drove in front of the taxi-driver, cutting him off. “Amar got out of the car and he shot him in the face. I had put five dumdums and four normal bullets in the gun, a SIG Sauer. One dumdum is enough to kill one man. I told him to shoot only four and keep some back, just in case, but he shot them all.” (Afterward, according to Karim, Amar apologized. “He said, ‘I couldn’t help it. I became crazy.”)

Next, they went to a Sunni sheikh whom Karim knew, whose brother was in the insurgency. The brother and his men kidnapped six Mahdi militiamen, including four who had been in the group that killed Jafaar. They took them to a house in Mansour, a Sunni district, where Karim and Amar met them. “They were tied up and their heads were covered. Amar beat them too much—not me,” Karim said. “We were pretending to be Sunni mujahideen. We told them, ‘If you tell the truth we release you, but if not we will kill you.’ Of course, this was not the truth.”

The men said that Sayeed had been their target; Jafaar just happened to be in the car. “They said they had killed Sayeed because he was a member of Badr”—the military wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a major rival of the Mahdi Army—“and worked with Americans. But this is not true. They killed him because he was rich and didn’t respect the Mahdi Army. They were jealous.”

Karim told me that he left before the interrogation was over, and didn’t talk to Amar until the next day. “When I saw him, he kissed me. He said, ‘I left three bodies near the train track, and two in Canal Street, to be taken to the morgue.’

“I said, ‘No. 6, where is he?’ Amar said, ‘The sheikh’s brother took him, because he thinks he killed his cousin.’ ”

The killing continued. After fifteen days, they went to Um Jafaar, Amar’s mother. “I told her who was dead and who was in jail. She was very happy,” Karim said. “Then she said, ‘Do you want me to be completely comforted?’ ” Um Jafaar asked them to bring her parts of the dead men’s bodies. Amar did what she asked.

“One man, he cut off his ear when he was still alive,” Karim said. “But I swear that Amar has never killed anyone who was innocent.”

Karim said that Amar had killed eighteen or twenty men. “After a while, I told Amar to stop this. My wife, also, was angry with me. I didn’t like to do this, either, but we had to. We had to kill these guys, because they were killing too many people. When some of them were killed, my neighbors celebrated—sometimes even the Mahdi Army guys did.”

Karim mentioned the American captain with whom Amar worked. “Amar is a friend of the captain, but he doesn’t know about this.” He added, “Amar was friends of the Mahdi—real friends. I have to be honest with you. If not for Jafaar’s killing, he still would be.”

Amar told Karim that he would not stop killing until he reached his goal of a hundred victims. “He is hungry for killing now,” Karim said. “Sometimes I think maybe he has gone a little crazy.”

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