To the east of the Alamo, the tall blue and green minaret of the Shia mosque is lit up with a single string of white lights. The mosque, standing alone in "no-mans land," has only been partially completed, and the unfinished sections of brick wall look ominously down over the crumbling city in the falling light.
Across from the mosque, in a small woodworking shop, a man has just been murdered.
An hour ago, three insurgents entered his shop and shot him in the head. The weapon was held so close to his head, that the muzzle blast burned and blackened his ear.
Only 300 meters from the Alamo, he was left to die, four AK-47 shell casings lying next to his body.
He is the second man to be executed within sight of the Alamo in as many days.
The city is restless tonight.
In front of the Alamo, in the falling darkness, a squad of soldiers work to improve the fixed defenses. A single HUMMWV sits on the road, it’s hood stacked high with concertina wire, and a soldier crouched low in the turret, scanning the surrounding darkness with his night vision.
The soldiers work quietly in the darkness. Triple strands of razor sharp wire are stretched across the road, and weighed down with sandbags. Concrete barriers are maneuvered into place. Spike strips are laid across avenues of approach.
All designed to stop a suicide car bomb.
As I walk out from between the concrete barriers and onto the main street in front of the Alamo, I can see a soldier with a flashlight waving at oncoming traffic. As his squad erects the barrier, he is signalling cars to turn off onto a side street.
Every one of those cars is a threat.
Further out in the dark, a blue van stops for a second, it’s driver confused by the roadblock.
The soldier with the flashlight tenses, and he raises his rifle up to cover the driver of the blue van.
On the corner sits a white and orange taxi, its lights turned off. The taxicab driver shouts helpful directions at the driver of the blue van, and the blue van pulls down the side street.
I can see the soldier relax, his shoulders slumping beneath his heavy body armor.
It is a Thursday night, and this type of traffic is normal. In the falling night, men walk from house to house for a cigarette or a cup of tea with their neighbors. Cheap tobacco smoke permeates the air as the men cluster on doorsteps smoking French Gallouises.
Across from the Alamo, a small convenience shop is doing a brisk business, and a crowd of men are gathered outside. Signaling two soldiers to accompany me, I walk across the street and up to the group of men standing out front of the small shop.
In front of the shop is an older man with a careworn face and a full white beard. He is wearing a flowing white robe, which contrasts sharply with the darkness of his skin.
The man's eyes are dark and shadowed in the harsh light of the fluorescent bulb hanging from the wall of the shop.
Touching my hand to my chest, I give him the traditional greeting.
The old man returns the greeting with a slight smile. Beside him, a young man gets up from a worn wooden bench. He is strangely pale and overweight, and his hand nervously grips plastic prayer beads.
The small red beads click together quietly as he methodically counts them.
The old man begins to speak in Arabic, and my interpreter, Tornado, listens to him politely before turning to me to translate.
“He is asking about the hurricane Katrina.”
This was the last thing that I had expected to hear.
“Really? What does he know about Katrina?”
The old mans face grows solemn.
“We heard that 10,000 people have been killed, and that the city is destroyed. We have heard that there is disease and fighting.”
Behind him, the younger man smiles at me. In the shop behind him, I can hear the muted sound of a strident Arabic voice on the radio.
“And how did you hear about this?”
“We have a satellite. It told us all about the hurricane Katrina.”
“Do you have such hurricanes here in Iraq?”
The younger man’s smile widens. It seems that he wants to tell me something, and as he leans forward, his hands briefly touch as he makes a dusting motion.
“No, we do not have such things as hurricanes in Iraq. We do not have them because we are protected by Allah. We have the shrines of the Prophet, and Allah does not permit such tragedies here.”
He leans back as if he has gotten something important off of his chest.
This is the point he wanted to make.
It sounds like a theory out of the dark ages.
As if on cue, the sound of automatic weapons fire erupts in the northern sector of town. It is a series of sharp reports, one after the other. In response, another automatic weapon opens up, its higher pitched whine audible over the lower, more guttural single shots.
Turning around I scan the low hulking shadows of the houses across no mans land for any sudden muzzle flashes that would indicate the shooters position.
There is a gun battle going on, no more than 400 meters from the Alamo.
The sky and the buildings to the north remain dark.
To my left, one of the soldiers, a young private, flips down his night vision and scans the darkness of an alleyway for movement. He is fidgeting nervously from foot to foot.
Anybody could be out there tonight.
Turning back, I face the younger man.
“Are you saying that America had a hurricane because there are no shrines in America to the prophet? Because most Americans do not follow Islam?”
He nods his head, pleased that I understand him.
“Yes, it is God’s will. In America there are no shrines so Allah does not protect Americans. Here there are no tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes or hurricanes. If there were more of Islam in America, such things as hurricanes would not happen.”
The gunfire in the north sounds as if it has doubled in intensity.
This man is telling me that Iraqis are protected by God because of their faith in Allah, and that America, because of a lack of faith, deserves to be hit by a hurricane.
With the gunfire in the background, the irony of this has not escaped me.
The comment has also pissed me off.
I take a step forward.
He takes a step back.
“So God protects Iraqis from hurricanes? What about the violence? The fighting? The murders and executions? The poverty? Look around you! A man was murdered a few hundred meters away tonight! If God is protecting Iraq, why does God permit such violence here?”
Tornado hears the passion and anger in my voice, and he echoes my harsh language in his translation.
The young man goes pale in the fluorescent light. He begins to speak, falters, and then goes quiet.
He looks as if he has swallowed something unpleasant.
To the north, the gunfire has tapered quickly off. The stillness is only broken by single, sporadic shots in the distance.
We stare at each other in the darkness.
The old man, pulling contemplatively on his white beard, takes a hesitant step forward and gently pushes the younger man back. Then the old man turns towards me and smiles apologetically, revealing rotten, yellow teeth.
“In’Shallah. All of that is in God’s hands. It is for Allah to know who lives and who dies. It is not for us to question or explain the will of Allah. He gives help to those that ask, but in the end all of our fate is in his hands.”
He touches his right hand to his chest, turns, and without looking back, quickly ushers the younger man back inside the shop. The young man, still pale, turns and enters the shop, his prayer beads clicking in his right hand.
Taking a deep breath, I turn and stand quietly in the darkness, watching the armored HUMMWV slowly roll past in the shadowed street.
I need a second to cool down.
The hood of the HUMMWV has been emptied of concertina wire, and the two soldiers escorting it are taking off their tough, rawhide gloves. To the west, I can see that the wire roadblock has been stacked three strands high, and tied tightly into the rusted steel bars of a power line.
Any vehicle trying to drive thru that is going to come to a sudden stop, tangled up in a mass of steel razor wire.
At least it is something.
Turning away from the now quiet shop, I walk over to the roadblock to finish inspecting the reinforced obstacles. A few feet behind me, I hear the young private that was pulling security during my conversation mutter quietly under his breath.
“Well I’ll take his help if he is offering it, but I am not leaving anything that I don’t have to in Allah’s hands.”
Pulling on the concertina wire and checking for any gaps in the defenses, I can’t help but smile at the young private in the darkness.
Those are my thoughts exactly.