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Iraq’s chord of distrust

Times Staff Writer

I first noticed the shop nearly two years ago, because of the guitar and the spray of pink plastic flowers hanging on the wall outside. A yellow and red stairway led to the door.

It was a defiant display of color in a tense city of grays, blacks and browns. More remarkably, the store appeared to be selling musical instruments at a time when religious extremists were attacking anything that hinted at Western decadence. Several times a week I’d pass the corner shop, always peering upward to make sure the guitar and flowers were there, always vowing to visit.

The time was never right, until now. With violence at a relatively low ebb, I had a few free hours one day, and the simple outing no longer seemed to carry the risk of getting blown up or trailed and abducted on the way home

But as I learned from shop owner Faiz Khalil, he may be confident enough about the future to have added even more outdoor displays, but he’s not confident enough to call the shop by its original name. That would identify it as a Sunni-run business in a mainly Shiite city, where calm is spreading but where trust remains as rare as the French-made oboe on his store shelf.

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So the store named Khalil has become the store named Sadiq.

“It’s a common name,” Khalil, a short, stocky man, said with a shrug during a nearly two-hour conversation in the cramped store overlooking one of central Baghdad’s busiest streets.

His wide grin and friendly banter hide what he acknowledges is his deep sadness about the situation in his country. He soothes himself by listening to violin music, because it too is sad.

“It reflects life,” Khalil said.

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Call it distrust, fear, wariness or suspicion. Even now, with violence down about 80% in the last year, the sense of uncertainty is epidemic among Iraqis. That has not changed since I first spotted Khalil’s store, and it is proving one of the most stubborn challenges to Iraq’s recovery.

I thought back to February 2007, when the first of an additional 30,000 U.S. forces were arriving in Baghdad to quell sectarian bloodshed. I went on a patrol with some as they tried to coax information about neighborhood militiamen from residents. The people we met, both Shiite and Sunni, lived in terror and wanted protection, but they were afraid to give much information to the troops.

“Everybody has a weapon,” one man told us that night. “I don’t even trust my brother-in-law.”

That the distrust remains so firmly entrenched here was as jarring as the guitar and the pink flowers outside Khalil’s store. It comes through in conversations with ordinary people as well as with high-ranking officials. You even hear it from U.S. troops, who wonder aloud how Iraqis will ever believe things are so much better if American soldiers keep appearing in public in full battle gear.

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“If I was pressed to define Iraq, in a word that would be ‘fear’ -- another way of saying ‘distrust,’ ” U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said last month during an interview. Crocker repeated a phrase he has uttered before in describing the wariness among Shiites, Sunnis and minority ethnic Kurds here.

“The Shiite are afraid of the past,” Crocker said, referring to the repression of Shiites by previous regimes, including Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led government. “The Sunnis are afraid of the future -- a future in which they are no longer calling the shots. And the Kurds are afraid of both.”

Trust has grown somewhat. U.S. forces get tips on where to find weapons caches or suspected insurgents. Some people are moving back to homes they fled during the worst violence, banking on things remaining relatively stable.

But society isn’t letting down its collective guard, and most people here say that won’t happen until Iraqis have more than a graph showing declining death tolls to help them feel safe.

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“Trust and safety is the same thing. If there is no trust, there will be no security,” said Abd Kareem Jao Khalaf, a psychologist and social scientist at Baghdad’s Mustansiriya University. He said Iraqis had been let down by long-broken promises of basic services such as electricity and clean water, and had seen too much violence -- everything from neighborhood killings to bombs in the parliament building -- to have faith in the future.

In his music store, Khalil tries to have faith despite the Molotov cocktail hurled through his window last year. The firebomb hit a back room used to store his most expensive instruments. Items worth thousands of dollars were lost.

The walls remain charred, and a black splotch marks the spot on the floor where the explosive landed. He replaced the glass in the window with a piece of metal, to prevent anyone from seeing in.

Khalil is sure the attackers were people who had visited his store, because they knew where his most precious items were kept.

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The Iraqis who once came regularly to buy bows for violins, reeds for clarinets and traditional ouds to strum have fled. Either that, or they’re using their money to buy food, said Khalil, who has had his own store since 1979.

His new customers are ignorant of music but have money to spend, probably because they are involved in abductions, robberies or other crimes, he said.

“I see them wearing gold. It’s like the bottom of society has risen to the top,” he said, recalling two young men wearing expensive clothes and flashy jewelry who visited recently.

“I’m sure they’re kidnappers,” Khalil said. They told him they wanted to buy a piano. “I showed him an electric keyboard and he thought it was a piano,” he said.

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One of the young men said he wanted a violin. Khalil said the customer then pointed at a guitar hanging on the wall and said he’d take that one.

Khalil laughed, but the more he spoke, the more it became clear that even though his business had survived and was faring relatively well, he had deep doubts about the future, and frustrations about the present. He compared the Iraqi government to a bunch of convicts transplanted from Alcatraz and given suits and ties to wear.

The best thing he could find to say about life now was that killers no longer ruled the streets. “Maybe it’s temporary,” he said. “Maybe they’re committing other crimes now. But the killing is less.”

Back at the office, I described the irony of Khalil to Iraqi colleagues. On the one hand, he represented hope by facing down threats and keeping his business open. On the other, he represented the suspicion that courses through society by renaming his business and hiding his Sunni roots from the Shiites who dominate Baghdad.

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A member of our staff, Mohammed, said he could understand.

He told of being in a small store in a Shiite neighborhood, shopping for car parts with a friend. His son’s name is Omar, a Sunni name, and close friends often call the staffer Abu Omar, or “father of Omar.”

His companion in the shop was trying to get his attention and said loudly enough for everyone to hear, “Abu Omar! Abu Omar!”

Suddenly, the store fell silent. Everyone looked around, wanting to know who the Sunni in the crowd was. Mohammed quickly paid for his goods and left.

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tina.susman@latimes.com

Times staff writers Usama Redha and Saif Rasheed contributed to this report.


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