It is not just the US military who are leaving Baghdad this week. Sheikh Mustafa Kamal is also packing his bags. However, his exit will not have the fanfare or media profile of that of the US military, which once upon a time had hailed him as the city’s savior.
Mustafa will be gone by tomorrow, just like the rump of the eight-year US presence in Iraq. He will leave for the Kurdish north, far from the al-Qaeda groups who continue to hunt him, having finally conceded that life in their crosshairs is untenable.
US forces, meanwhile, will leave after a trooping of the colors, saying that stability has been restored after eight grueling years. Iraq has readied itself this week for a moment big on symbolism, but, like so much of the war and subsequent occupation, what appears to be big in symbolism is subject to claims that it is lacking in substance.
Mustafa is a former general in former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s army who helped the US oust al-Qaeda from the southern half of the capital. He believes that he and thousands like him are being left in the lurch by the US. He was a prominent leader of the Awakening Council, a group supported and funded by the US in early 2007 to turn on al-Qaeda. The 2,000 men under his control — and the 130,000 nationwide who eventually formed a huge US-backed militia — were partly responsible for what is seen as one of the war’s turning points. Without them, US officers and White House officials have conceded, Iraq would have slipped further into an abyss.
“The Sahawa members haven’t got what they deserved,” Mustafa said, using the Arabic term for the group, which also became known as the Sons of Iraq.
“They deserve what they were promised, and [the US] did not deliver on their promise. They tell us there is an Iraqi government and we understand that. But there are Sahawa members who cannot defend themselves,” he said.
In four years, Mustafa has survived six explosions aimed at killing him. This year his personal guard has been literally cut down from 12 to seven, by five different attacks. His son has been poisoned, along with his animals and every carp in his fish farms. His wife and daughters never leave home for fear of attack. In the past three years every one of Mustafa’s senior colleagues in the surrounding area of Dora has been killed or wounded. Across Iraq, all Sahawa leaders have similar stories. What remains of the lauded band of rebels is being picked off by an enemy that is relentless and, according to men like Mustafa, undefeated.
“I wish I could put my head on a pillow and sleep comfortably,” he said.
“Is it better than before? Of course it isn’t,” he said, referring to life before the 2003 invasion. “Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with anyone, you just had to be careful not to go near his chair.”
As the US leaves Iraqis seem caught between pride and uncertainty, fear and hope. Many like Mustafa long for more certain times, tired of leaders who insist stability has been restored to a country that last month saw more than 350 violent incidents and has seen the deaths of many more than 100,000 civilians since 2003. In Baghdad on Wednesday there were three attacks: a suicide bombing, a bomb under a car and an assassination.
“I don’t fear al-Qaeda as much as the Iranian militias,” Mustafa said, echoing a refrain in Baghdad. “The East [Iran] won’t allow this country to stand up.”