The Spark of Rebellion: A Card Carrying Spy
On April 4, 2004, the Marines attacked Fallujah in the Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad. Taking advantage of America’s distraction in that area, militants loyal to Moqtada as Sadr rose up against the occupation in predominantly Shia areas in Baghdad and the South and South Central regions of the country. With most of America’s occupation government, the Coalition Provisional Authority or “CPA,” safe “behind the wire” of military installations, Sadr’s Mahdi Army attacked the “soft targets” of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Local Governance Program. LGP had expats resident in communities in 17 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. But by midnight of April 4th, most of the LGP teams working in the South Central region had abandoned their houses and offices for the security of their nearest military base.
By April 8th, the Mahdi Army would have effective control over most of the South Central region. Yet as late as April 7th, with expatriates remaining in Hillah being sent to headquarters by convoy, the LGP regional Finance Officer, evidently on instructions from the RTI Home Office, sent out a badly timed email entitled “Evacuation Checklist.” Fully four of the project’s five South Central teams had already been evacuated and were hunkered down on military bases when the Finance Officer forwarded the advice of the Home Office on what to do before they evacuated. The Team Leader in Karbala, Vijaya ‘VJ’ Samaraweera reacted with disdain from his enforced confinement on the Polish Camp Juliette:
Surely, Finance jests! Has any Bean Counter faced evacuation under extreme conditions? I doubt it; otherwise, this 12 item plan would not be forthcoming, at least not in the form presented. There is nothing in the plan that reflects a genuine concern for the security and welfare of those from whom action is demanded. But, then, why should one expect human feelings from the Bean Counters?
Back in Najaf, however, Finance was taken seriously. Nabil, the Palestinian Operations Officer on the LGP team there, who had only started his job a week before (and was evidently worried whether he could keep it) took the ‘Evacuation Checklist’ message to heart and left Camp Duke to return to the project’s abandoned residence. In addition to the money left in the project safe, the team also had personal documents in the residence, including Nabil’s passport. No sooner had he arrived at the house, opened the safe and reclaimed its contents, however, he was kidnapped. With a hood placed over his head so he could not see where they were going and with his hands bound behind him, Nabil was stuffed in a car and driven across the city. He was dropped off at a house with a small, walled garden, in the corner of which stood an outhouse.
A Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem, Nabil was Arab but Christian, not Muslim. Nevertheless, he pretended to be Muslim in pleading with his captors for his release. Doubting him, the kidnappers tested him by insisting that he pray with them, watching expectantly for him to make a mistake in ritual or in the prescribed number of prostrations. More damning for Nabil, however, was the documentation he had reclaimed. In their haste to spirit away their captive, his kidnappers had not searched him thoroughly and did not discover that the passport he was carrying was Israeli. When he first arrived at the small house with a small garden, he begged leave to use the toilet. His captors allowed this, going so far as to untie his hands and – once he was alone inside the outhouse – to permit him to remove his hood. Sitting on his haunches, Nabil looked up. The outhouse had no roof. Above him he saw sky, and knowing the position of the outhouse in the far corner of the garden up against its back wall, for a moment he contemplated trying to climb out and run away. But when one of his captors wondered what was taking him so long, his reverie of escape ended. Nabil begged a few moments’ patience during which he was able to destroy his passport, leaving it behind before covering his head with the hood again and notifying his keeper that he was ready to come out.
As the weekend approached, excuses for violence accumulated. Wednesday the 7th was the anniversary of the founding of the Baath Party in 1947; Friday the 9th was the anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, what the Americans had dubbed “Liberation Day” after the statue of Saddam in Firdos Square had been torn down from its pedestal. Because Friday was a day off in Iraq, the CPA had moved observance of this day of liberation to Saturday the 10th, leaving Friday open to rabble-rousing sermons from the country’s mosques and declarations that the anniversary, far from being celebrated, should be condemned as the beginning of a foreign occupation. That appeal to militancy was growing each week as the anticipated return of Iraqi sovereignty from the CPA at the end of June drew closer, raising pressure among those jockeying for power. And in a coincidence of religious observations that, under better circumstances, might have formed the basis for ecumenical harmony, Saturday the 10th was also Arba’een – the 40th day following the 10th of the Islamic lunar month of Muharram, when the Imam Hussein was killed – while, to practitioners of Western Christianity, Sunday the 11th was Easter.
Without much regard to the calendar, LGP sent people out of country as security allowed. Careful to avoid use of the word “evacuation,” project leadership employed the less final-sounding euphemism, “relocation.” With four of their five teams in the South Central region stuck on military bases, “Ops” attended to moving the rest. Their security provider drove project staff yet to be attacked in the South region of the country across the border into Kuwait, an airline contracted to the CPA flew teams from the North region to Amman, Jordan, from where the project put them on commercial flights to Kuwait, and the LGP leadership ordered all but an unlucky 13 “essential” personnel out of the country. Those remaining 13 were mostly left to manage the project from its Green Zone headquarters (and to negotiate with the RTI Home Office and USAID whether the project was to be reorganized or closed). But project leadership was unable to do anything to help its teams on military bases. The armed forces would have to do that, when they could.
For instance, the Acting Team Leader in Najaf, Bruce Hutchins, would be flown by military helicopter from the base there to the helipad at the South Central headquarters of the CPA in Hillah. The headquarters was a small hotel on a tributary of the Euphrates River that overlooked the ruins at Babylon, which before the war had been a popular spot for local weddings. It was called “CPA-SC” at the time. Exiting the chopper, Bruce was met by LGP’s Hillah Team Leader, Don Seufert, and both would travel to Baghdad by convoy in the project’s vehicles. Howard Edwards, the LGP Team Leader in Kut, would also leave Wasit province by military helicopter, but he was flown to the Green Zone and dropped off at the T-wall barricaded landing zone or “LZ Washington.” With their departure from South Central (and subsequent transfer to Kuwait), only the teams in Diwaniyah and Karbala remained stranded, while the fate of Nabil was as yet unknown.
During the crisis, LGP project leadership convened 2 status check meetings a day. At 0800 and 1800 hrs the project’s senior managers and the Acting National Operations Director would gather in “the small conference room” and review progress made over the preceding half day. Those evening phone calls were always joined by the Chief of Staff of RTI, its Senior Vice President and Home Office Manager for the project, relevant staff and, not infrequently, the RTI President. During the 1800 hrs call on Thursday, April 8th, while the field reported the successful departure of several convoys of expats and their relocation to Kuwait city, the meeting was interrupted by an operations officer who ran into the room announcing that Qatar-based Al Jazeera television had just gone live with breaking news. Images first released on Iranian TV claimed that forces loyal to Moqtada as Sadr had captured an Israeli spy. The report included still pictures of Nabil’s driver’s license and a discount card from a grocery store in Jerusalem. Within minutes of the images of appearing on Al Jazeera, the same news broke on CNN, and when reported over the conference call line to the RTI Home Office, everyone on the call fell silent.
LGP had long suffered from the accusation that it was a front for Israeli intelligence. In part due to the level of paranoia stoked by Saddam to keep his potential opponents off-balance and keep them from forming alliances, and in part due to deeply ingrained cultural prejudices, LGP had worked hard to earn the trust of its suspicious beneficiaries. On more than one occasion, when introducing themselves and their activities into a new community, staff and Team Leaders had been asked, “What does that ‘I’ in RTI stand for?” With Nabil’s kidnapping and the revelation of his nationality, leadership both in Baghdad and in North Carolina assumed that all was lost. Their pessimism only deepened when calls to the Regional Service Center in Hillah revealed what the Iraqi staff were hearing: after the Al Jazeera broadcast, a mob had seized Nabil and was carrying him down to the city square in Najaf to appear before a hastily assembled Islamic court. Knowing how the insurgents who attacked the project’s offices in Kut and Diwaniyah had rifled through records and stolen hard drives, Ops ordered that the hard drives from the computers left in Hillah be pulled and destroyed, and that project staff abandon the premises. The Bulgarian security guard left on site after the expats departed and Dr. Mayfield’s Iraqi deputy both ultimately defied the order, preserving the RSC. Unable to know that their order would be countermanded, LGP’s leadership knew that the death of one expat would be the death of the project, and concluding that end was inevitable, ordered that all of the project’s international staff (even those in provinces unaffected by the fighting) be sent out of country as swiftly as possible. In their haste to avoid risk they ironically increased it.
At half an hour past midnight, the Team Leader in Baghdad, Al Haines received a call, instructing him to send the next group of expats on the Baghdad Local Governance Team to the airport later that morning. By 0130, he had contacted them all and at 0800 on Friday, April 9th, he sent them down the seven mile stretch of highway from the Green Zone to the airport that was rightly described as the “World’s Most Dangerous Road.”
That Friday, insurgents turned the always treacherous Baghdad International Airport (or “BIAP”) road into a shooting gallery. A 26-vehicle fuel convoy was attacked and two soldiers, seven U.S. truckers and three Iraqi truck drivers were all killed. Another soldier, Keith Matthew Maupin, and an American trucker, Thomas Hamill, were also kidnapped. Although Pfc. Maupin was eventually murdered, the trucker escaped on May 2nd and made it back to the United States, where he appeared on national television recounting his harrowing tale. Al Haines’ team members were luckier, but just barely. The six-car convoy they were riding in also came under attack, and the car the Baghdad Team’s experts were riding in was hit by an Improvised Explosive Device, the armoring of the vehicle being the only thing that kept its occupants alive. Had it been a soft skinned vehicle, all surely would have died. So all who made it to the airport that morning, even those who were not Christian, had reason to think of that Friday as “Good” Friday.
At noon the same day, CPA Administrator Paul Bremer held a press conference. An hour or so before imams across the country would deliver their weekly sermons during Friday prayers, Bremer announced a cease-fire of the Marines’ assault on Fallujah. The murder and mutilation of the Blackwater security detail on the 31st had generated a good deal of sympathy for the Americans amongst those Iraqis who hoped for the reconstruction of their country, but much of that initial sympathy had been lost in what many Iraqis considered to be a disproportionate response by the U.S. military to the atrocities. The Iraqi Governing Council had made such an argument to Bremer, pointing out the numbers of civilians trapped by the fight, ultimately persuading him to agree to the cease-fire that permitted up to 70,000 women, children, aged and infirm to evacuate the city. The next day, Saturday the 10th, the Marines extended their unilateral truce to permit humanitarian aid into Fallujah and secured the city’s hospital to ensure that the assistance was used as intended.
Coincidentally, Sadr too called off his militants to permit Shia pilgrims to walk to the shrines in Karbala for the commemoration of Arba’aeen, which also fell on the 10th.
From Karbala, Vijaya reported what he heard from his Iraqi staff in an email to headquarters, turning on his caps lock for emphasis:
SADR LEADERSHIP HAS DIRECTED MILITIA/KARBALA FOLLOWERS TO “CEASEFIRE” FOR 48 HOURS FOR RELIGIOUS ACTIVITIES TO BE CONDUCTED BY PILGRIMS SAFELY. THEY ARE TO ATTACK ONLY IF THE C[oalition] F[orces] ATTACKS THEM.
THE “CEASEFIRE” EXPIRES IN 48 HOURS AND THEY WILL HIT ‘HARD,’ ACCORDING TO THIS INTEL. IF THIS IS INDEED CORRECT YOU WILL HAVE A 48 HR WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY TO TAKE US OUT OF HERE.
Unfortunately, for Team Karbala, by the terms of USAID’s contract with RTI, the Local Governance Program was to be self-sustaining in every respect – housing, food service and security – and even a personal appeal by headquarters to the Blackwater command center in Baghdad to extract the Karbala expats by private helicopter had been refused. No one would accept liability for the civilian development workers. Their confinement would continue.
And though no one knew it at the time, so would Nabil’s. In the end, no kangaroo court was convened in Najaf, perhaps because the propaganda value of an alleged spy was considered greater than the consequences of executing another Arab. Whatever the reason, Razouk survived and inquiries starting filtering back to the preserved Regional Service Center in Hillah as to whether they might like him back. Asking price? $1 million dollars.
An attorney specializing in development in the Muslim world, Lamar Cravens has spent the majority of the last 20 years in countries in transition. He spent six and a half years in Iraq, holding several positions on the Local Governance Program, and has also worked in Yemen and Egypt (after the Arab Spring revolutions in each), South Asia and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
Photo credit: Expert Infantry