Zelie Pollon

The Veil of Freedom

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Two years after the invasion of Iraq and just weeks before the country's first free election, "Amina" began wearing a headscarf for the first time in her life. Her father insisted upon it.

"I don't like this and I don't see the danger. No one ever bothered me before," Amina says, sitting in her office located in the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Khadimiya, her long brown hair streaming down her back. At first the 27-year-old professor at the engineering college resisted, arguing that her students will lose respect for her for caving in to the fundamentalists. But her father would not be moved: Amina didn't have a choice; the extremists were far too dangerous to be defied.

She is already making plans to leave the country to pursue a Ph.D. in Europe.

Life wasn't always this dangerous for women like Amina. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was a secular country where women could freely walk the busy streets without a scarf or a male escort, and stay out late at outdoor cafes with their families, sometimes until two or three in the morning. While women suffered as much as any other Iraqi under Saddam's tyranny, Baathist laws were noteworthy for their commitment to gender equality. Unlike their peers in the Arab world, Iraqi women enjoyed equal employment and educational opportunities and equal pay.

But the U.S. invasion in March, 2003, changed everything. With the departure of Saddam, women became a target for both fundamentalist Islamists and U.S. soldiers. According to a new report released by Amnesty International early this week, "Women and girls in Iraq live in fear of violence as the conflict intensifies and insecurity spirals."

The fear of armed groups who terrorize anyone who defies their religious edicts has made many Iraqi women prisoners within their own home. "The lawlessness and increased killings, abductions and rapes that followed the overthrow of the government of Saddam Hussein have restricted women's freedom of movement and their ability to go to school or to work," the human rights organization reports.

Then there is the added threat of abuse posed by U.S. soldiers: "Women have been subjected to sexual threats by members of the U.S.-led forces and some women detained by U.S. forces have been sexually abused, possibly raped."

With the Shiite victory in the January elections, the future for Iraqi women looks no less bleak. Shiites make up 60 percent of Iraq's population and consider Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as their spiritual leader. Their electoral triumph underscored and legitimized the Shiite majority's immense political power, and will ensure a dominant role in crafting the future Iraqi constitution. While many Shiites say they don't support a theocratic state and Sistani has proven to be a moderate leader, women's rights activists like Yanar Mohammed are less optimistic.

"Shiite political groups want to impose Islamic sharia and let it override the civil code that we've had for 30 years. This will turn women not into second class citizens but into third and fourth class citizens," says Mohammed, who heads The Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, which opened the first domestic violence shelter for women escaping abuse or "honor killings" from their families.

"In other words, the thief will have the hand cut off, the criminal will be beheaded and women will be stoned to death. Divorce will not be a woman's right," she says. Where Baathist laws prohibited a woman under 18 from marrying, Islamic law imposes no such minimum age of consent. Mohammed points out that without such protection a girl who is six can be married to a 70-year-old man, who is also free to have four wives. "This is a dark page in the history of Iraq. Women are being kidnapped, there is trafficking and now it will be written into the constitution that we will be denied equal rights."

Mohammed worries that a large number of the seats set aside for women (25 percent) in the National Assembly will be filled by members handpicked by the Islamic parties – women who embrace the religious edicts of leadership.

To offset this threat, she is working on bringing together a secular coalition of educated, professional women and members of other political parties. They often meet in her office in a small and well-hidden residential house located off a side street in downtown Baghdad. The doors are guarded and the entry obscured. Security is important for any woman who intends to take on the fundamentalists, especially Mohammed, who always travels with two armed bodyguards.

Not all Iraqi women are as unhappy with the Shiite victory in the elections as Mohammed. Samira Hillmi, a 57-year-old educator in Iraq, willingly shrouds herself from head to toe in black as she strolls through a crowded market-place in Baghdad. She wears her veil as a choice, she says, for God, and it is to Him she is grateful for the recent turn of events.

"The election was so good. Finally we will move forward now that the Shiites are no longer under the foot of Saddam," she says. Hillmi is not too worried about the possibility of the leadership establishing a theocratic state similar to Iran: "No, it will be OK. What we need is just for Iraq to be safe."

Like Hillmi, most Iraqi men are not very worried about the threat of fundamentalism. "I wouldn't be forced to wear an abaya," says Esam Pasha, a 29-year old artist. Pasha is confident that he will find ways to express his art under an Islamic regime – much in the same way as he did under Saddam. Besides, he is sure that the United States will not let his country become Islamic, regardless of the sovereign status of Iraq. "Donald Rumsfeld says Iraq can choose any system we want as long as it isn't Islamic or Communist. That's the democracy we're allowed," he says sarcastically.

While those who fear Islamic fundamentalism may also resent the occupation, they are counting on the U.S. presence – however despised by many Iraqis – to keep the extremists at bay. "No, they cannot leave," Amina says. "The Taliban would be here in two days."

The Vote Must Go On

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Despite more than 150 attacks against coalition forces, more than 40 people being killed (including at least eight suicide bombers), and dozens wounded on election day here, thousands of voters across this city made their way to the polls on Sunday, some walking more than 20 kilometers without shoes, to vote in the country's first free election in more than 50 years.

"I voted from the bottom of my heart and for all my family. I am so happy," said 57-year-old Rafidah Fatheh Shaab, who voted in her neighborhood of Shula in northern Baghdad. "I was not afraid. Today I even skipped breakfast so I could pray for all Iraqis — and even Americans — to have freedom and prosperity."

Then she held up her hand to show a blue-stained finger, the official mark that she had voted. "It has been black in Iraq since 1963 and today the sun is shining," she said.

On Old Abu Ghraib Highway, a stream of hundreds, maybe thousands, of Iraqis flooded eastward, walking from the town of Abu Ghraib, whose own polls were closed, 20 kilometers east to polls in Hooriya and Ghazaliya. Many were dancing as they walked and chanted "God is great” and “God prays for Mohammed.” Very few of them had any water; one held a wrinkled copy of his voter registration form in his hands. One man had no shoes; another carried a pigeon — a dove of peace, he said.

"We are walking all these miles because we are tired of the old regime and we want freedom and democracy," said 40-year-old Ali Masen, who said that many of these men from the town of White Gold in Abu Ghraib had organized ahead of time to walk together to the polls. "Our older people are in the back. They are slower, but they are coming."

The image was in stark contrast to the first of eight suicide bombers who detonated shortly after 8 a.m. outside a polling station in western Baghdad. The bombers primarily detonated outside the security cordons of polling stations — one outside a barricaded hospital that looked like a polling station — and were thought to be foreign nationals. More than 40 people were killed and up to 75 wounded at the time of this reporting with the long evening hours still ahead.

Explosions resounded across Baghdad most of the day; the results of “improvised explosive devices,” mortar rounds, grenades and small arms fire, including rockets.

By late Sunday afternoon, there were roughly 150 attacks against coalition forces, civilians and security forces. Given the ongoing firefights erupting around Baghdad in the evening hours, that number is sure to climb. Also a British C-130 crashed northwest of Baghdad, possibly due to small arms fire. The number of casualties was unknown by early evening.

Military officials predicted the evening attacks would specifically target ballots before they were secured in an effort to make election results illegitimate, said Col. Mark Milley of the Second Brigade Combat team, 10th Mountain Division, which is helping coordinate logistics for the elections.

Despite the violence, voters streamed to the polls in relatively small but consistent numbers throughout the day, with a turnout of up to 90 percent in some Shiite neighborhoods, and about 40-50 percent in some Sunni areas in western Baghdad, Milley said. U.S. forces made up a third cordon during the election, giving logistical and protective support, while polling stations were guarded by Iraqi police forces and managed by Iraq's Independent Electoral Commission.

As predicted, Shiite turnout was much higher than for the minority Sunni population, as Shiites make up nearly 60 percent of the country's 26 million people. They were expected to gain a significant powerbase in this vote for a 275-member National Assembly. Sunnis make up 20 percent of Iraq's population and had been told by some of their leaders not to vote. Both the Iraq Islamic Party and the Association of Muslim Scholars threatened to boycott the election, claiming it could not be legitimate and remains a tactic to extend the U.S. occupation.

But many Sunnis disregarded the “fatwa,” or edict, seeing a vote as the only clear way out of the past.

"My father was a general in the Iraqi Army and this is the first time for Iraqis to taste freedom," said 25-year-old Dr. Zeena Hassam, who helped her 80-year-old father drop his ballot into the voting box. Hassem said she and her father paid no attention to calls for a boycott. The day is too important and the waiting was too long, she said. "It is the duty of every Iraqi to vote. We are Sunni, and my relatives and my friends, we all know it is our duty, and it is our honor."

The Sunni boycott, and especially the threats and terrorism, may have frightened off some voters, but others weren't fazed.

Aerial imagery apparently caught voters spitting on and kicking the remains of a suicide bomber as they entered their polling station. Other Iraqis waiting in line in Sadr City came under a mortar attack that hit a man in his leg. They helped the injured man then got back in line to vote, election officials reported.

"Of course we are afraid, but we must do this,” said Suna Sharif as she left a voting station with her son and husband. “We walked for two miles and my husband is sick. We have been preparing to vote for a long time and my son made sure we were here before polls closed.”

A ban on all car traffic encouraged people in some Shiite neighborhoods in northwest Baghdad to pour into the streets to visit and celebrate. Children played soccer and men talked on door stoops.

By nightfall, reports of ongoing attacks were still pouring into the central command station of western Baghdad. Focus was turned to protecting ballots and the days ahead, and helping police forces who were to continue securing polling sites through the night. The police chief took a moment from his organizing to show off his stained finger. An officer with the Iraqi National Guard joined him, holding his blue index finger in the air. They all took photos to remember the moment.

In the background the radio crackled out reports of more IEDs and small arms fire attacks, polling stations being breached and more wounded and killed.

Wing And A Prayer

"Peace should be the object of your desire; war should be waged only as a necessity, and waged only that God may by it deliver men from the necessity and preserve them in peace. For peace is not sought in order to the kindling of war, but war is waged in order that peace be obtained. Therefore, even in waging war, cherish the spirit of the peacemaker, that, by conquering those whom you attack, you may lead them back to the advantages of peace; for as our Lord says: 'Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God.'"

— Excerpt of letter from Saint Augustine, included in a pamphlet called “On Just War” made available to soldiers on base.

LOG BASE SEITZ, IRAQ — Spirituality and religion may have been bedrock for some soldiers before they arrived in Iraq, but for many of the nearly 150,000 men and women at war, a near miss with a mortar or becoming intimate with the smell of death is the best conversation starter with God. As they say, there are no atheists in foxholes.

"I haven't ever tried to talk to God as much as I have here," said Spc. Greg Dill, a Texan with the 598th Maintenance Company. Dill attended church occasionally at home but never considered himself religious — until now. Within two weeks of his arrival in Iraq, and on the day of his 24th birthday, his base suffered four separate mortar attacks.


Praying
Members of the 1544th Transportation Company from Paris, Ill., pray before each mission.


"You just don't think about your life so much or the way you're living it when you're at home," he said. "It's been one of the better life experiences being out here." But Dill distinguishes between God's presence over him and His creation of the situation in Iraq.

"I don't look at this situation as being God-made; I see it as being man-made," he said.

Regardless of denomination or belief, whether Southern Baptist, Wiccan or Roman Catholic, some of the closest calls can be explained only by way of a divine presence, soldiers say. Religion becomes the response to unanswerable questions and a crutch to help soldiers make it through difficult days.

"Soldiers in Iraq are scared, tired and lonely and they're away from their families and the comforts of home," said Maj. Nicholas Aranda, a New Mexico National Guardsman. Aranda, who came to Iraq with an already deeply-held belief in God, said that for people who already have faith, it just gets stronger. "Some put everything into God's hands, and even those casual believers or those who may have questioned their faith in the past will turn to prayer out here," he said.

Asked how a man of God reconciles living in and supporting a state of war where innocent people are killed, he gets very quiet. "That's a very difficult question. I'll have to pray on that, take it to God."

Religion also gains importance as it's a crucial time period for the majority of young men and women. For many it's their first time leaving home or traveling outside of the country; it's their first time meeting people of other races and cultures, and also the first time they will grapple with their own mortality.

Spc. Derrick Thigpen is a 21-year-old from Mississippi, and the youngest in his circle of friends. His faith took root in Iraq and during his deployment he leaned on others in his unit — who became his family — for knowledge, support and strength as he "searched his soul for answers" to questions about his future, his life and about God.

"This was such an important time in my life, so it really pushed me closer to God," said Thigpen. He saw Iraq as a matter of survival and simply doing one's job; it was all he could do to finish his work, stay alive and watch out for his buddies. "I always comfort myself knowing that God didn't bring me here to die. He brought me here to do a job."

Sgt. Michael Robinson read the Bible cover to cover during his deployment in Iraq. It's a goal the Mississippi native with the 850th Transportation Company set before he even arrived in the theatre of war. "So many of these towns and cities are in the Bible," said Robinson, who was able to see Jordan, Babylon, and the Euphrates and Tigris rivers among other sites. "This is the Mecca of religion."

For Aranda, the historic significance is also important: that this land being occupied is the land of the Bible.

"This is where everything began: Mesopotamia," Aranda said. "The roots of Islam speak of Abraham. We come from the same source, and yet here we are in the 21st century ... " The fight today is against militants who have turned the words of the Koran into a tool to fight Westerners, Aranda said. "I don't believe the Koran promotes violence. It is an interpretation by militants ... and if we don't get a hold of the militants, it will spread like a cancer."

For too many soldiers, there is no time and perhaps not the education to examine the interpretations of the Bible, nor the similarities of belief between our warring people. The main focus is on staying alive, though this does not happen by luck, many soldiers will tell you; it is by the grace of God.

And for that grace there is a lot of prayer, particularly among the front line and transportation units, which travel the dangerous roads of Iraq and pray before each outing.

"We pray for wisdom and guidance, for our equipment to work — for there not to be any mechanical failures and for our weapons systems not to jam. We ask to see our aggressors and make them blind to us," said 1st Sgt Scott Lauher with the 1544th Transportation Company from Paris, Ill.

Five of the six soldiers killed at Log Base Seitz were from the 1544th and soldiers on a near daily basis experience mortars, IEDs (improvised explosive devices), rockets and small arms fire while on missions. Prayer, and the closeness with each other, has been their greatest solace.

"We depend on our knowledge that there's a will, God's will, and things that are meant to happen will happen," Lauher said.

How people, regardless of their religious background, reckon with a war thought by many to be unwarranted, illegal and even criminal, varies with each person.

"I don't know how anyone can justify killing Iraqis with their religious beliefs," said Capt. Daniel Stokes, a physician's assistant from Arizona who calls himself a secular humanist. "I can understand killing in self defense if you're Christian but some extremist Christians truly believe that God wants them [Iraqis] dead. They see themselves as right in a good-versus-evil war and they don't have a full understanding of the Arab culture and mind."

Chaplain Ryan Sarenpa, newly stationed at Log Base Seitz, says he — and all soldiers — must "realize that war is an unfortunate thing. And I have to believe that what I'm involved in is justified ... For the sake of the security of the United States, we must pray that this will ultimately be for the cause of peace and justice."

Coming from a small town in Kansas, Sarenpa is grappling with his own fears and adjustments and the excitement of a multicultural congregation, the first he's ever had. He sees his role as helping soldiers find their purpose, learning and maturing from their trials and "finding peace in the midst of a storm." Being surrounded by mortars, death and killing, though, is something he hopes never to become accustomed to. Nor does he want soldiers desensitized to the experience. "Every time you shoot someone it should hurt. It should bother the average soldier to have to do that," he said.

Generally there's been a shortage of chaplains volunteering for posts across Iraq, despite the need. The same need goes for medics who can become surrogate fathers, teachers and a soldier's greatest comfort. They are asked to answer questions, forgive the brutalities of war and ease pain, both physical and emotional.

It is the medical professionals in particular that is likely to see a soldier reach for religion as they're the ones who often witness a soldier's final moments, said Lt. Jeff Szymanski, a physician's assistant and non-denominational Christian. Of those he has seen and treated "about 80 to 90 percent of soldiers will equate their survival to some divine intervention. Someone upstairs was looking out for them," he said. "Soldiers have always used their faith as a grounding point. Even I had Bible verses going through my head as I was preparing to come out here. It's a super reflective time. You're scared because you don't know what to expect and you're asking for strength.”

Religion as well as church service is not only a personal pacifier but also a morale lifter, as it forms community, allows people a way to verbally express their thanks, and gives them a place to relax on the day of rest. There are both Christian and Catholic services, and on bases with much larger populations, meetings for people of Jewish, Islamic and other faiths.

The small chapel at Log Base Seitz fills on Sunday mornings with a congregation of mixed races and mixed backgrounds. An African-American choir sings gospel, following a guitar-strumming Christian from Missouri who does his part to praise Jesus.

"In the States it's easy to draw lines between denominations but here we come from so many different places and we seem to find common ground and unite under one belief in a higher being," Aranda said.

That common ground in no clearer than when soldiers gather to give thanks.

"I want to give thanks that with all the IEDs, VBIEDs and RPGs, I ain't never seen any of it and I praise God for that. Now I'm going home," says one.

Another calls out: "God is so merciful and however much we are trying to do right here, we are always falling short."

The final call receives the loudest response: "I pray for the soldiers trying to get better at Walter Reed Medical Center, that the families at home will be comforted, and that their sons and daughters did not die in vain."

"Amen!" shouts the crowd.

Those who came with strong faith will likely take it home, often strengthened. Others who began their relationship with God in the field hope to continue their practice after leaving Iraq, long after the memories of mortars and death have passed, and after the ties of friendship begin to weaken.

"This will always be a part of my life," says Thigpen of his newfound devotion to God. "When I go home, church is the first place I'll go." His friends start to joke with him and he admits to a few other cravings. "Well, I'll certainly hit a bar because it's been a while, but church, church will be first," he said.
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