Go ahead, count the Iraq ghosts

a blog photo 1649 photo00This is one of those GetReligion topics that I struggle not to write about day after day after day. I'm talking about the role of religion in the Iraq disaster. The Washington Post had a page one report the other day by Joshua Partlow that offered some perfect examples of the kinds of religion-shaped holes that we are seeing in the coverage, places where one extra sentence or even a well-crafted phrase would have given readers a much better chance to understand what is happening.

The headline simply used the usual vague word -- "sectarian." The two-decker said: "'I Don't Think This Place Is Worth Another Soldier's Life' -- After 14 months in a Baghdad district torn by mounting sectarian violence, members of one U.S. unit are tired, bitter and skeptical."

This kind of news feature is all about the details, and there are many. For example, here is how it opens:

Their line of tan Humvees and Bradley Fighting Vehicles creeps through another Baghdad afternoon. At this pace, an excruciating slowness, they strain to see everything, hoping the next manhole cover, the next rusted barrel, does not hide another bomb. A few bullets pass overhead, but they don't worry much about those.

"I hate this road," someone says over the radio.

They stop, look around. The streets of Sadiyah are deserted again. To the right, power lines slump down into the dirt. To the left, what was a soccer field is now a pasture of trash, combusting and smoking in the sun. Packs of skinny wild dogs trot past walls painted with slogans of sectarian hate.

Now, I assume that if the reporter knows the slogans on the walls are messages of "sectarian hate," then that means someone at the scene can read them.

So I, for one, am curious. What do they say? Are they Sunni vs. Shiite? If so, does one side accuse the other of something specific? Heresy? Cooperating with Jews or Christians? What? In other words, what is the killing about in the minds of the people doing the killing?

Let's keep reading:

A bomb crater blocks one lane, so they cross to the other side, where houses are blackened by fire, shops crumbled into bricks. The remains of a car bomb serve as hideous public art. Sgt. Victor Alarcon's Humvee rolls into a vast pool of knee-high brown sewage water -- the soldiers call it Lake Havasu, after the Arizona spring-break party spot -- that seeps in the doors of the vehicle and wets his boots.

"When we first got here, all the shops were open. There were women and children walking out on the street," Alarcon said this week. "The women were in Western clothing. It was our favorite street to go down because of all the hot chicks."

iraq graffitiThis was before the Sunni vs. Shiite warfare in this area dominated life there, in other words. But the reference to changes in the dress of the local women is interesting. Has there been an actual change here in the enforcement of sharia law?

I could go on and on, because there are plenty of other examples. But again I ask: If this sectarian war is rooted in clashes about religion, for the people who are fighting and dying, would it help for American citizens and politicians to understand some of the content of that? Is ignorance a good thing, in this case?

Here's one more quote:

"It's just a slow, somewhat government-supported sectarian cleansing," said Maj. Eric Timmerman, the battalion's operations officer.

Really? Government supported? That sounds important.

Photos: Can anyone read the graffiti in these photos from the Web?

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