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Militant Islam Monitor > Articles > Emerson Vermaat: Zaqawi's men of evil strike in Khanaqin- a city of peace and harmony

Emerson Vermaat: Zaqawi's men of evil strike in Khanaqin- a city of peace and harmony

Dutch counter terrorism expert and journalist Emerson Vermaat explains why Zaqawi targetted a quite corner of Iraq
November 22, 2005

Zarqawi's men of evil strike in Khanaqin – a city of peace and harmony

By Emerson Vermaat

It was a place of peace and harmony. A perfect example of a multicultural society. Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis and Turkmenis, they all lived peacefully together. Their only enemy was Saddam Hussein, and virtually everyone in the city of Khanaqin, to the northeast of Baghdad and 8 miles from the Iranian border, was jubilant when the most hated dictator was driven from power. But then, on that fate fateful Friday afternoon of November 18, 2005, Zarqawi's suicide bombers struck in the city's two main shiite mosques. It all happened at the time of the Friday afternoon prayers, both mosques were packed with people, many of them were children. About 80 people were killed, and many others were wounded. Zarqawi's group claims to be responsible, and I have little doubt that they are.

I spent some time in Khanaqin in June 2003, not long after Saddam Hussein was driven out of Baghdad. I remember a copious lunch with an Iraqi familiy living just opposite the great mosque close to the city's entrance, one of the mosques destroyed on November 18, 2005. I well remember the kindness, the hospitality of these people. What little they had, they shared with their guests, and I was one of them. I was making a television newsreport about Emad, a quiet and friendly Iraqi refugee in Holland, born in Khanaqin. In Holland he became a Dutch citizen. He had to leave Iraq more than twenty years ago because Saddam's men of evil were after him. He left his sisters and his parents behind. But in May/June 2003 he went back to Iraq to see his parents and his sisters who miraculously had survived the horror years of Saddam.

I traveled with Emad to Iraq – together with a Dutch television team. First we went to Baghdad where we visited a documentation center seeing piles of documents from Iraq's notorious secret police – the Mukharabat. Emad learnt that a close friend of his had been killed by them. However, he met a lot of other friends who were still alive. After a few days we went to Khanaqin, a three hour's drive from Baghdad, most of it through remote desert. Arriving late in the afternoon one of the inhabitants told us about a mass grave just outside the city where victims of Saddam's execution squads had been buried about 20 years ago. The digging up of bodies had just started. My cameraman filmed it. There was a small hole. Somebody started digging a little deeper and suddenly a skull became visible. It was a horrible sight. Emad and others started crying. It was here, at this very spot, that some of their best friends had been killed and buried. I interviewed a man who had witnessed the executions – he had been hiding somewhere nearby and seen what happened. No wonder, Saddam Hussain was hated in Khanaqin, by most people at least.

Emad remembered the condition of city during his childhood there. Then it was like paradise Now it was a place of delapidation and neglect. The majority of Khanaqin's inhabitants are Kurds and Shiites, and Saddam had no interest in their well-being. The best houses were given to Sunni families arriving from other parts of Iraq. But there never was a violent uprising in Khanaqin, like in Basra and other parts of Iraq. And transition of power immediately after Saddam was quite peaceful. The Kurdish rulers were keen to mind the interests of the other ethnic and religious minorities. I witnessed how they visited their representatives and talked to them in a friendly manner. There was no tension at all in the town when I was there. The American military were quite happy, too. They left the day-to-day affairs to the local city government. The local spokesman for the US military looked very relaxed and told me: ‘We're very lucky to be here and not elsewhere in Iraq. There is no violence or security problem here.' I struck me that the police were still wearing Saddam's uniforms, yet they were all happy (and looking equally relaxed) that he was no longer in control of Iraq. It was only two months since Saddam's fall from power.

There was a huge palmforest just outside the city (I have never seen palmtrees that tall) where you could walk in the coolness of shadow, and imagine you were in paradise. Yes, Khanaqin was indeed a place of peace and harmony, eerily unsual compared to the the rest of Iraq. Until Zarqawi's suicidal hoodlums entered the city and bombed two peaceful mosques...

I have seen it before. Where? In Bosnia. It was in November 2002 when I was in Zvornik, a Bosnian Serb border town where the Bosnian Serbs blew up the big local mosque in the center, then removed the rubble as quickly as they could. Bulldozers subsequently flattened the area putting dark earth on top of it – no traces left of what had once been a mosque. Half a year later I paid second visit to the town of Banja Luka in northern Bosnia. I had made friends there. It was one of the rare places in Bosnia where Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslims lived together in relative peace and harmony. Until that fateful night when a huge bang woke me up in my room. Bosnian Serb extremists had just bombed the huge Ferhad Pasha mosque, a UNESCO monument. Other mosques in Banja Luka followed. I remember how both the local Catholic and Serbian Orthodox church leaders showed their solidarity with the Mufti of Banja Luka. They surely had not institaged hatred, but evil Bosnian Serb fanatics had been responsible – claiming even that the Muslims themselves had blown up their own mosques! (I talked to Bosnian Serbs who believed this nonsense.) Fortunately most of the mosques were blown up at night (but one mosque just outside of Banja Luka had been shot at in day time, later it was also destroyed). Nobody was killed. In Iraq, Zarqawi and his men of evil prefer to blow up peaceful mosques when as many people as possible are praying in them. Their fanaticism knows no bounds. And you know why they chose two mosques in a remote bordertown like Khanaqin? Because it was virtually the only place in Iraq where peace and harmony prevailed over the forces of darkness and doom.

Emerson Vermaat, M.A. (law), is a Dutch journalist who reported from war zones and crisis areas (1983-2003). He wrote a number of books on war reporting (1995), international organized crime (2000 and 2004) and terrorism (1997 and 2005).

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