07 January 2004
Maybe my driver had a premonition. All the way back from Basra, he was nervous, anxious not to stop at villages - even petrol stations - for fear of thieves.
"Everywhere there are Ali Babas," he kept saying. And no sooner did we reach Baghdad than he went home to a house of tears and agony and mourning. His brother-in-law, Mohamed, had just become the latest victim of "New" Iraq, shot by car thieves and left to bleed to death for half an hour at a motorway intersection.
So yesterday afternoon, my driver and I met to pay our respects at the big tent the family of Mohamed Ali Nsaef al-Shimeri had erected in the street outside their tree-fronted villa. There was a photograph of Mohamed in gold-fringed tribal robes with a black tape over the top left corner, and a row of red-eyed men - father, uncles and cousins - sitting at the tent entrance, shaking my hand with both of theirs, inviting us to eat meat and rice and strawberries and drink smouldering coffee in honour of the businessman, construction engineer and father of three young children who had just been murdered.
His eight-year-old daughter, Nadeen, with long, plaited hair and wearing a brown calf-skin jacket, came to see the foreign reporter with an album of family photographs of her father: Mohamed with Nadeen and her brother Mustafa; Mohamed on holiday in the United Arab Emirates; Mohamed visiting the Chouf mountains in Lebanon. Nadeen said she wanted to be a pharmacist - her father had run a pharmaceuticals factory.
His cousin Qusai wanted to tell the story of Mohamed's death. So did my driver and his father, whose 33-year-old daughter, Mona - my driver's sister - married Mohamed 10 years ago. "He had come home to lunch here at the house," Qusai said. "He left after an hour in one of the company's cars, a white Mercedes, and was close to the mosque when an old Brazilian-made car deliberately crashed into him." I noted the contempt with which he said "Brazilian" - Mohamed had been killed by thieves who drove a third-world VW Passat - and the location: the Mosque of the Mother of All Battles, named in person by Saddam.
"Four men got out of the car and they had guns and Mohamed was very suspicious of them and so he apologised for the accident as if it was his fault. But they beat him on the face and the back of the head with their guns and then, when he fell to the ground, they fired two shots into his chest. I think they thought he would identify them if he lived. And there he lay on the roadside for half an hour, bleeding while hundreds of people drove past him. They saw him dying and did nothing.
"This is Baghdad now. You see? In the end a woman came and pulled him into her car, but as she was driving him to hospital, he died," Qusai said.
Although they ignored - or did not see - Mohamed, neighbours arrived with weapons after they heard shooting and one of the four men was captured and taken to the nearest police station. He came from the Ghazalia corner of the city and confessed at once to killing nine other men for their cars. Yes, he was a car thief - the area of the Mother of All Battles Mosque was what he and his three fellow gunmen called "the place of hunting", or so police told the family later.
Mohamed, a self-made man of money who left school after second grade and went on to create construction companies in four countries, was killed for a 14-year-old company car.
The family learnt that the killer, and his three comrades-in-murder, were all freed by Saddam in his great "forgiveness" prison release last November. Qusai and my driver's father and Mohamed's brother all wanted to talk at the same time: "This happened because of the security vacuum, the vacuum in the law which now exists here - it is anarchy."
"It's the occupation - the Americans could stop all this if they wanted."
"We prefer the previous regime comes back - this would never have happened then."
Revenge, they muttered, again and again. "They should bring back hanging," Mohamed's father-in-law said. "The thieves and killers know if they are caught they will be sent to Abu Ghurayb prison where they will have food, clothes, new soap. It was Bremer who cancelled hanging."
The name of the US proconsul, Paul Bremer, comes up repeatedly these days, personally condemned for the growing anarchy in Iraq. And the stories of Abu Ghurayb's prison facilities are - I can attest because I've seen them - all true.
Qusai spoke again: "This man won't be taken to court. So we will have to kill him. We will take our revenge. Mohamed's death cannot be allowed to pass like this. We will make these four men pay."
And all three men repeated the word revenge - "tha'ar", they hissed in Arabic - over and over again, as if its fulfilment would bring Mohamed al-Shimeri striding into the tent in his fine tribal robe, ready to resume his life on earth.