The U.S. Army Goes to High School

Dispatches From Iraq

The U.S. Army Goes to High School

Dispatches From Iraq

The U.S. Army Goes to High School
Notes from different corners of the world.
Dec. 23 2003 1:13 PM

Dispatches From Iraq

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Ibrahim Ahmed Hakmet is 16, a cocky, engagingly arrogant kid; slim, with close-cropped hair, a little acne on his temples, and a tendency to giggle at me, because apparently I remind him of his aunt.

A few days after Saddam's capture, he was arrested by the Americans. About a hundred soldiers in armored Humvees and tanks surrounded the Amriyeh High School (a school for boys aged between 16 and 19). With the Iraqi police in attendance, they went from classroom to classroom matching faces to photographs and names to a list. They were looking for boys who had been at a pro-Saddam demonstration the day before.

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"It's against the law," explained Lt. Col. Leopoldo Quintas, commander of the 2-70 "Old Ironsides" Armored Battalion, which carried out the operation. "And they were displaying pictures of Saddam."

"It's subversive," added his public affairs officer.

Ibrahim said he was the first to be caught because he was on his way out of school to get a doctor's note; it was midmorning, and he was the only student on the front entrance path.

"An American officer shouted at me: 'Sit down! Sit down!' and indicated that I should kneel, pointing with his gun. Then he said, 'Get up!' I didn't understand what he wanted me to do, so I put my hands on the wall. He kicked me twice on the leg. He was very big. He checked me roughly, even behind my ears, and threw my English and Arabic books away. He cuffed my hands with wire, roughly. He sprained my wrist. And later, when he was taking the wire off, he cut me when he was cutting it with a knife."

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Ibrahim and several other detained boys (Ibrahim says nine or 10, the Americans say five or six) were put in the back of a truck. The truck broke down and had to be towed by a tank. An outraged crowd had gathered: parents, passers-by, kids from neighborhood schools, shouting and yelling.

Ibrahim was rather enamored of his adventure.

"We were laughing," he said, all tough and unconcerned, wearing his bandaged wrist like a trophy and using a single crutch to support the leg he said was kicked and beaten with a stick. "We knew we hadn't done anything. One of the Americans said in Arabic, 'Incheb!' Shut up!" Ibrahim was full of himself, laughing at the Americans to their faces, getting beaten for his defiance, and then asking for more. "The more I laughed, the more he hit me. It shows what kind of a weak man he was to hit a boy," he sneered.

The Americans, in their efforts at zero tolerance, intimidation, containment, detentions, night arrests, and operations to arrest high-school kids, provoke only frustration, outrage, and distrust.

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"The soldiers went through my class," said Mr. Karim, the math teacher, " 'What is your name? What is your name?' The children were afraid."

"They had no right, no right to come!" Mr. Hamza, the Arabic teacher, was indignant. "Is this American democracy?"

The headmaster, Mr. Fadhil, said he was angry. The boys in the school were angry with him. He had not protected them against the Americans; he had invited the Americans to arrest them. Spray-painted on the wall of the school were slogans: "Saddam's High School!" "Down Down USA!" and "Down With the Informer Principal Fadhil!" They were quickly painted over.

"Do you think Mr. Fadhil can keep his job after this unpleasantness?" I asked.

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Ibrahim hid his mouth behind his hand and giggled at such a silly question. "Oh we want him to stay! He's in our pocket now! Who else will pass us this year?"

Ibrahim does not go to school very regularly. He says he has observed that those with an education and those without end up earning the same amount. He has been learning English for five years and cannot speak a word, except to understand some of what the American soldiers shouted at him. School, for him, is more of a place to hang out with friends than an institution of discipline and educational standards. The Amriyeh High School is newly painted and has some old computers. The classrooms are very bare: cheap wooden desks, benches, blackboard, and chalk. The Americans have been refurbishing schools, but it's often just a paint job. It's the state of lassitude and corruption that is the problem. Pay the teachers—a few bribes, threats, whatever—and they will pass you. Ibrahim shrugged, "The principal is a moody guy. Sometimes you can give him some chocolates and he is all right. Other times he wants a million Iraqi dinars."

Amriyeh is a suburb with Sunni Triangle sensibilities, where a lot of families from Ramadi and Tikrit settled. It's also an area in which Saddam distributed land to Mukhabarat (intelligence) officers.

"These are their sons," explained Mr. Hamza, the Arabic teacher.

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"This was a real country to be proud of," said Ibrahim. "I am Iraqi. They are humiliating every Iraqi when they humiliate Saddam. Even if Hitler came here he would not fill our eyes [make us proud] as much as Saddam did." Ibrahim has read about Hitler.

When the Americans arrested him and his school friends, they took them to their base nearby (a former Republican Guard barracks) and held them in what Ibrahim described as "a cage," and what the colonel called "a temporary holding facility," although he wouldn't let me see it "for security reasons."

The soldiers let them out to use the washroom and to be questioned. They were fed chicken and macaroni and chocolate bars for lunch. Ibrahim said it was pretty good.

"They are civil in a way," Ibrahim said. "They are afraid of the situation here, and that's why they behave badly." But he is not intimidated by them. His family has seen plenty of American injustice. His father (something to do with the former government, though exactly what Ibrahim wouldn't say) has been detained three times, his uncle twice. His cousin was shot in the leg at an American checkpoint when he didn't understand what the soldier was shouting. His grandmother had three and a half kilos of gold and an heirloom diamond necklace taken during a nighttime raid on her house. All run-of-the-mill, unverifiable stories of the kind I have heard many times.

"A foreigner will always be the weaker one." observed Ibrahim. "This is my country: They came by force they will leave by force."

The Americans questioned Ibrahim and the others and determined that they were just schoolboys protesting; there had been no particular resistance involvement.

"I would have preferred not to have done it," said Lt. Col. Quintas, while acknowledging that the operation at the school had been undertaken on his initiative, "But they need to understand that they are not allowed to do this and that there are consequences."

The boys were released that evening and driven home. Ibrahim said that was the only time he was scared—he was worried the Humvee he was being taken in might get hit by the resistance.

They rang the doorbell. His father came out.

"It was funny," said Ibrahim. "He didn't know if they were going to return me or take him!"