The New York Times
By EDWARD WONG
Published: June 3, 2007
PERHAPS no fact is more revealing about Iraq’s history than this: The Iraqis have a word that means to utterly defeat and humiliate someone by dragging his corpse through the streets.
The word is “sahel,” and it helps explain much of what I have seen in three and a half years of covering the war.
It is a word unique to Iraq, my friend Razzaq explained over tea one afternoon on my final tour. Throughout Iraq’s history, he said, power has changed hands only through extreme violence, when a leader was vanquished absolutely, and his destruction was put on display for all to see.
Most famously it happened to a former prime minister, Nuri al-Said, who tried to flee after a military coup in 1958 by scurrying through eastern Baghdad dressed as a woman. He was shot dead. His body was disinterred and hacked apart, the bits dragged through the streets. In later years, Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party crushed their enemies with the same brand of brutality.
“Other Arabs say, ‘You are the country of sahel,’ ” Razzaq said. “It has always been that way in Iraq.”
But in this war, the moment of sahel has been elusive. No faction — not the Shiite Arabs or Sunni Arabs or Kurds — has been able to secure absolute power, and that has only sharpened the hunger for it.
Listen to Iraqis engaged in the fight, and you realize they are far from exhausted by the war. Many say this is only the beginning.
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“One day we’ll find that we’ve returned back to 1917,” said Sheik Muhammad Bakr Khamis al-Suhail, a respected Shiite neighborhood leader in Baghdad, referring to the installation here of a Sunni Arab monarchy by the British after World War I. “The pressure of the Arab countries on the American administration might push the Americans to choose the Sunni Arabs.”
Sitting in the cool recesses of his home, the white-robed sheik said he was a moderate, a supporter of democracy. It is for people like him that the Americans have fought this war. But the solution he proposes is not one the Americans would easily embrace.
“In the history of Iraq, more than 7,000 years, there have always been strong leaders,” he said. “We need strong rulers or dictators like Franco, Hitler, even Mubarak. We need a strong dictator, and a fair one at the same time, to kill all extremists, Sunni and Shiite.”
I was surprised to hear those words. But perhaps I was being naïve. Looking back on all I have seen of this war, it now seems that the Iraqis have been driving all along for the decisive victory, the act of sahel, the day the bodies will be dragged through the streets.
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