The Spark of Rebellion: Hunkering Down

April 11, 2014

Editor’s Note: War on the Rocks is proud to publish this series on the tenth anniversary of the events they describe in 2004. This is part three of five.  Read parts one and two.


April 4, 2004 was a deadline. Following a meeting of the Team Leaders of the USAID-funded, RTI International-implemented Local Governance Program (or ‘LGP’) in Baghdad on March 31 and April 1, the teams were supposed to submit work plans and staffing plans for the project’s second year. Few did, however, because on the same day that they were due, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force commenced what came to be known as the First Battle of Fallujah.  Taking advantage of America’s distraction in the Sunni Triangle north of the capital, Moqtada as Sadr, the nation’s staunchest opponent of the U.S. occupation,  launched his own grab for power in the Shia heartland. The expat teams resident in the South Central provinces of Hillah, Wasit, Diwaniyah, Najaf and Kut were the softest targets of that insurrection, as they lived and worked “outside the wire” in communities (instead of “behind the wire” from the security of military installations).

In Najaf, the Acting Team Leader, Bruce Hutchins, relocated his team to Camp Duke. Acting on the advice of an unfamiliar staff, he relocated them quickly, so quickly in fact that they complained of being forced to leave personal possessions behind. In their haste, they also left behind a large amount of cash in the project safe.

With reports that something was going to happen, the team of expats in Diwaniyah led by Arnoux Abraham consolidated into one location, the largest of three houses they had rented. Its large, fenced backyard prompted their French Legionnaire guard to dub it “Versailles.” The team consolidated at their faux chateau late in the afternoon of April 4. By 1900 hrs a mob of approximately 40 Sadrists appeared in front of the project’s original residence (which had been converted into something the team optimistically renamed the Diwaniyah Learning Center, where Iraqis could take free vocational education classes in management, accounting and computer usage). Facing a growing crowd, the Iraqi staff at the Learning Center radioed the team, informing them that the mob was demanding to know “where are ‘the Americans’?” (even though it was a multinational team with members from Peru, the Philippines, Jordan, Kuwait, Poland, France, and New Zealand, as well as the United States). Trashing the Learning Center, the mob then moved to the project’s offices, which they similarly destroyed. Ripping the hard drives from computers, they broke and completely obliterated the paper records of the city dating back to the 1920s – plats, blocks & lots, water lines & sewage lines – in short everything required for urban planning and service delivery improvement. Ironically, these records had been lent to the project by the city fathers to digitize and preserve them.

As the mayhem continued and the mob moved to a nearby and already abandoned residence, “Team Diwaniyah” contacted the security detail of the local representative of America’s occupation government, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). They requested extraction, and later that evening, a couple of pickup trucks driven by Dominican soldiers on their first international peacekeeping mission pulled up to “Versailles” to rescue the contractors holed up there. The Dominicans had “up armored” their trucks themselves, standing quarter-inch steel plates on edge in their payloads, enough to protect anyone riding in the back from small arms fire. In those pickups and in two of their own soft skin SUVs, the eight-man LGP team fled to the CPA camp, located on the site of the Diwaniyah Teaching Hospital. With wide spaces between its buildings and set back from a major road, the Teaching Hospital had attracted the Marines when they took the city the previous year, and they handed it over to the Spaniards who succeeded them. The CPA set up shop there in the fall of 2003, and the Teaching Hospital continued to be the office of the resident Governance Coordinator for the province when the Spaniards established the much larger Camp Espana south of town and delegated oversight of the CPA offices to the Dominicans, who now called the site of the Teaching Hospital Camp Santo Domingo.

As Team Diwaniyah settled into its new accommodations, Team Karbala was also facing the same difficult decision of whether to stay or go.

Following reports that the Spanish had fired on a crowd of protesters in Najaf, Ali, an Iraqi security officer with family ties in Karbala, informed the Team Leader there, Vijaya “VJ” Samaraweera, that Sadr’s militia was mustering in a small town called Hindiyah on the border where Babil and Karbala provinces met. In his estimation, Ali told Vijaya, the militia intended to attack Iraqi government and CPA positions in Karbala. Thinking it better to be safe than sorry, the team contacted the CPA, which dispatched a team of Blackwater operatives who gave Vijaya, along with his Bangladeshi operations officer, Firoz, and their two Australian guards a total of 20 minutes to gather their things and go. Without instructions from headquarters or guidance from the Regional Service Center and in the absence of a formal evacuation plan, the Karbala expats had made their own determination of how to notify staff and counterparts, how to distribute project equipment among trusted staff for safekeeping, where to lodge an additional two soft skin SUVs to prevent them from being stolen and where to hide a small stash of liquor that belonged to the expats (which, although legal to possess in Iraq, nevertheless might offend the sensibilities of formally tee-totaling Muslims). With all those decisions made and with responsibility for securing the premises, project files and equipment entrusted to Ali, Vijaya, Firoz and their two guards departed the villa, none of them imagining that they would never return. Reaching Camp Juliette just about midnight, Team Karbala settled down for what would be a 12-night ordeal.

Back at Camp Santo Domingo in Diwaniyah, the civilians on the team spent their first night on the floor of a dormitory in the Teaching Hospital, while Dominican soldiers ran in and out and the team’s expat guards, its Team Leader and Ops Officer ventured out to fire weapons into the darkness. As the streets of Diwaniyah rang with small arms fire, civil engineers Steve Blanchard and Ali Mas’ad, agriculturalist Juan Sevilla and public participation specialist Rudolfo Ticao contemplated their fate. Unable to sleep on the bare floor, they were offered a private room from an American reservist detailed to the Dominicans. Around 0200 hrs on the morning of the 5th the group relocated to this second floor room, where Steve taped cardboard over the windows to prevent light from seeping out and identifying their location as a potential target for an RPG. On the night of the 5th, they again slept in the reservist’s room, and on Tuesday the 6th they were moved again, eight men still sharing a single room.

By that time, Sadr loyalists had succeeded in overrunning Iraqi positions in Najaf, Karbala, Kut and Diwaniyah, and that night the team suffered the most accurate mortar attack they had yet seen. At least five shells fell near them that night, three of them landing within 100 meters of their new residence and the closest only eight meters away. As that closest shell whirred in their direction, the team of civilians, all of them wearing Kevlar helmets and whatever body armor they had brought with them, dropped to the floor of their second-story apartment just before it exploded.

In his journal, a reflective Steve observed: “What a rapid change in just five days, from preparing to launch a broad new array of programs aimed at operating government, improving communication and public input, to living hunkered down in a military base, contemplating evacuation.”

Earlier that same morning, April 4th, the Team Leader of LGP’s Governance Team in Baghdad likewise contemplated his departure. A man of deep faith in an environment that tested faith regularly, Al had received an invitation from his church to lead a community outreach mission in the U.S. That Sunday morning, before the fighting broke out, Al wrestled with when he would tell his staff. He first learned about the troubles that would dominate the day when he was prevented from getting to a weekly church service inside the Green Zone due to what he described in his journal as “massive demonstrations.” Protestors loyal to Muqtada as Sadr rallied against the CPA. His militia, the Mahdi Army occupied three Iraqi police stations in the Shia slum in the capital, renamed after his father. The 1st Cavalry Division of the U.S. Army went into Sadr City to retake those police stations, but encountered fierce resistance that left eight soldiers dead and up to 50 injured before the stations could be reclaimed. Unable to travel, Al decided to tell his translator and his secretary about his new assignment and that because of his duty to his church (and not any disappointment with them) he would be leaving.

As he described the scene in his journal, “We all cried!” Al went on to record what other Team Leaders would have recognized as the true reward of their work:

I love those two like my own children and without sounding boastful because I am not, they both pointed out that they have never been happier nor had more hope than since they came to work here.

As the project had given so many of the Iraqis it employed hope for their future (and not merely a salary), Al recorded how one of the women took the news of his leaving:

She cried and told me that she is again losing hope because so many are returning to the States. She received a threat call last night. I think because of the terrible circumstances that they and so many others have had to live in, death is not something they fear.

Being abandoned, however, was.

The next day, an Iraqi-American on Al’s team, Imad Jonaby, met with Sadr City Council members in a “business as usual” visit to try and get basic services restored. By the 6th, however, with much of the Shia heartland under the control of the Mahdi Army, Al noted in his journal that one RTI employee in the predominantly Sunni province of Baquba had been killed. Following an incident at Baghdad University he suspended the continuation of activities under the project’s citizen participation component there, wishing to avoid any further confrontation and loss of life. Aware of what was happening across the rest of the country and concerned about what would happen to his Iraqi staff should it be discovered that they had been working for “the Americans,” Al also ordered all names and any and other identifying marks removed from project documentation so as to give the staff a chance at anonymity if they were stopped on the street or, worse, if the compound were overrun.

Camp Juliette in Karbala in the meantime was under the control of a detachment of Poles, and – in Vijaya’s view – a particularly imperious CPA Governance Coordinator John Berry, who acted like the viceroy of the province. The relationship between the State Department official and Vijaya, who led a project that both formally and practically was not under the direct control of the State Department, would have been difficult under any circumstances. In this case, however, different attitudes towards the reconstruction of the province and mutual and open contempt for one another only complicated matters.

For instance, one key source of tension between them involved the Provincial Council. One of LGP’s first tasks soon after its arrival in country was to establish a multitude of local councils, from the neighborhood to the district to the provincial levels.  By July 2003, the project (working alongside civil affairs brigades and involving the local community) had assisted in the formation of 88 neighborhood councils in Baghdad alone. But in November 2003, the CPA, ordered what it described as a “refreshment” process in response to complaints that these original councils lacked legitimacy because their members had not been elected. Throughout the country, CPA Governance Coordinators (often with the assistance of LGP) determined procedures to increase the inclusiveness of local councils in the absence of an electoral law or an accurate and up-to-date census. In Karbala, however, Berry just sacked the Provincial Council and appointed a new one of his choosing. Then, in February 2004, dissatisfied with his choices, he replaced them a second time, an act that led to a public outcry in Karbala and changed the counterparts with whom LGP worked for a second time in three months.

With the LGP team now dependent on the CPA for its housing, food service, communications and security, the already strained relationship grew even worse. Vijaya and his Ops Officer Firoz were allowed to camp on the floor of the CPA office, but only after the office staff had left for the night, and only until any of that staff returned the next morning. The security situation added to their discomfort. For example, one night shortly after their arrival, heavy artillery fire forced the team into a concrete “duck & cover” bunker. Named after the advice given to schoolchildren in the 1950s about how to survive a thermonuclear attack from the Soviet Union, the “duck & cover” bunkers were too low to stand up in. They also had no place to sit down, other than the sand, and leaning against the walls was strictly prohibited because while the thick concrete could protect occupants from the shrapnel of any shell that exploded nearby, the walls could also, ironically, amplify the shockwave of its concussion, causing internal bleeding to anyone unlucky enough to be in contact with them when the shell exploded.

With fighting going on outside the base between the Coalition and the Mahdi Army and passive aggressive fights going on inside the base between the project and the CPA, Vijaya wrote emails to the Regional Service Center in Hillah and to headquarters in which the only progress he could report was the progress of his despair.

Things would only get worse.


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: maysam pourghasemi