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Americans + Iraqi's getting along better than reported

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The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship?

From the July 21, 2003 issue: The Americans and the Iraqis are getting along better than we've heard.

by Reuel Marc Gerecht

07/21/2003, Volume 008, Issue 43

Najaf

"Iraq's chaos gives intervention a bad name," reads the International Herald Tribune headline above a Nicholas Kristof column. Traveling through Iraq in mid to late June, the New York Times writer found "looters" and "bandits" but, alas, no weapons of mass destruction. Trying to keep some Wilsonian idealism afloat, he feared the Bush administration's "mistakes and poor planning" were "miring America in Iraq . . . [and would] unfairly discredit humanitarian intervention" elsewhere. One old Middle East hand sees an Iraqi population increasingly "emasculated" and "patronized" by American power. The United States--under President George W. Bush, especially adolescent and hubristic--is thus rubbing raw an ancient people and culture, with its ill-managed and ill-planned democratic nation-building. Three months after the war's end the Economist, too, finds Iraq frightfully messy. Baghdad is "a city in thrall to fear and violent crime," the British weekly informs us. Indeed, in the entire country "none feels safe."

With rare exceptions, Western newspapers, magazines, TV news, and radio uniformly tell the story of increasingly effective guerrilla movements, random violence, theft, rape, rising religious extremism, Shiite clerical dissatisfaction, Sunni Arab bitterness, antidemocratic tribalism and nationalism, angry and despairing U.S. soldiers, and even more distressed congressmen and anonymous U.S. officials. Poor American administration of the country, per this reporting--as always, most trenchantly expressed by the BBC--is producing an ill-tempered, ever more anti-American Iraqi population whose thankfulness for the destruction of Saddam Hussein's rule is probably ending.

Indeed, in the opinion of CNN's Middle East correspondent Ben Wedeman, a "divorce" has already taken place between the Iraqis and the Americans. For those historically inclined, echoes of the 1920 rebellion against the post-World War I British administration of Mesopotamia can already be heard. The Americans may have fought a quick, nearly painless military campaign (though while it was happening, many of these same critics found the war quite rough), but the Bush administration is getting its comeuppance in postwar Iraq, for which it had so skimpily and belatedly planned. Even in pro-war neoconservative, conservative, and liberal circles, it isn't hard to find doom-and-gloom sentiments. Are we really teetering then on the edge of the "Big Mess"?

AS I WALKED the streets of Baghdad at night, which in most districts of the city isn't a particularly dangerous thing to do, as I visited mosques and clerics in the Sunni and Shiite lands to the north and south, I picked up a fairly acute case of cognitive dissonance. Reading too much of the Western press before and especially during a visit to Iraq is mentally unbalancing. Though the problems in Iraq are enormous and the isolation of many U.S. officials in the Jumhuriyah Palace headquarters in Baghdad is surreal, neither the country nor its American administrators appeared to be sliding downhill into chaos. In most of Iraq--in the key areas of the country, in the Shiite south, the Kurdish north, and in Baghdad--just the opposite is happening. Productive energy and commerce are slowly returning to the streets, which is impressive given how long it is taking to rebuild a functioning nationwide telephone system. In mid to late June, U.S. officials--for all their clumsiness, lack of language skills, and enthusiastic ethos of "force protection"--appeared to be drawing closer to the Iraqi population, not farther away. This was especially true in the Shiite regions of Iraq, which are essentially everything from Baghdad south.

The Arab Shiites, who represent at least 60 percent of the population, will either make us or break us in Iraq. And among them, the American administration is by no means cocking it up. With a very small staff--unquestionably too small--a handful of Arabic-speaking officials is successfully building ties to this community, which is slowly, fitfully, and still quite timidly developing political legs to stand on. At the American headquarters in the town of Hilla, which is where the front-line administrators reside for the southern Shiite zone, a small cadre is learning the ABCs of the Shiite community. This isn't at all an easy task, and could not have been done before the Anglo-American invasion, since the Shiites themselves are only beginning to understand their own post-Saddam identity. There is no reference work through which a U.S. official could have acquired the slimmest working knowledge of who the Iraqi Shiites really are. The American team at Hilla, led by an intrepid Arabic-speaking foreign service officer who operates wisely with minimum security, is doing the ground-breaking, democracy-building spadework of figuring out what is the real power-matrix among the Shiites. The team is slowly compiling a useful understanding of the Shiite tribes, which will inevitably produce, once the tribal leaders themselves determine the number and relative loyalties of their followers, more than a few of Iraq's future key parliamentarians.

Iraqi Shiite politics are likely to be complex and contradictory, reflecting the diverse nature of the Shiites. This diversity will probably work in favor of democracy. Knowing how the Shiite equation will likely balance is certainly as important for America's future in the country as the reliability of Baghdad's poorly constructed electrical grid, on which many journalists seem to believe hinges America's fate in Mesopotamia. (As a rule, the lack of air conditioning makes Western journalists politically more cranky than it does Shiite clerics or young men living in Baghdad's Shiite slums.) Most critically, in the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, Arabic-speaking American officials from Baghdad and Hilla are slowly but surely improving their access and communication with Iraq's great clerical families, who compose the Howza, the seamless but hardly unified body of senior religious jurists resident in Najaf, Iraq's preeminent Shiite town.

This improved communication does not necessarily make the dialogue happier--the differences in style and objective between American officialdom and the various Shiite religious players are sometimes substantial--but it does ensure that grievances, preferences, and orders are understood more clearly. And it means that personal politics--the long, shoes-off, derrière-to-the-carpet conversations that give depth and honesty to professional relations--become stronger. After spending several days talking and dining with numerous clerics aligned with Najaf's two most influential grand ayatollahs, Ali al-Hoseini as-Sistani and Muhammad Said at-Tabatabai al-Hakim, I couldn't see at all a desire on their part for a divorce. Yes, some complained of American heavy-handedness and ignorance in the national and, more acutely, local administrations. Some but by no means all were worried about "street morality" in Najaf and Karbala, fearing that the American presence might provoke a little too much independence and sartorial free expression among Iraqi women. And some were worried that the Americans might develop a "British mentality," publicly embracing the idea of Iraqi democracy but privately working to undermine the right of the Shiite majority to gain the upper hand politically. But I didn't meet a single cleric in this crowd who really wanted the Americans to leave right away. Many clerics clearly understood that the United States needed to remain in Iraq at least for two or three years. Scratch through the nationalist pride and sense of Islamic honor--and the two are tightly welded together among the Shiite ulama--and there was often a real foreboding within the clergy that the United States wasn't going to interfere enough in postwar Iraq. That is, that the United States wasn't going to annihilate the old Arab Sunni Baathist order.

ONE CAN FIND in Washington Iraq analysts who believe that the Iraqi Shiites are quite content to lie back and let their Sunni Arab compatriots bloody the American occupiers, destroying patience and popular support back home. Yet on the ground in Iraq this view makes no sense. If the Bush administration has made one giant strategic error so far in Iraq, it was the decision by the Pentagon to ease up on the Sunni backbone of Saddam Hussein's regime once Baghdad fell in early April. (Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's decision to reduce the number of military police was unquestionably a serious mistake, but it is of much less significance than the Pentagon's failure to treat the Arab Sunni regions as hostile territory that needed to be thoroughly pacified by combat troops.)

Saddam's triangle--the Sunni Arab zone stretching from Baghdad west to Ramadi and north to Mosul--was not methodically invaded once Saddam's loyalists gave up and faded away in Baghdad. No serious attempt was made to march through the area, town by town, searching for Baathists and senior military, security, and intelligence officers. Having unwisely chosen not to equip the American military with a larger number of Iraqi auxiliaries--the Iraqi National Congress, among other exile groups, was urging this approach months before the invasion--the U.S. military didn't have the eyes and ears to move quickly and forcefully against the remnants of the regime. It also appears to have believed it just didn't need to. Baghdad fell with a whimper. The ruling Sunni cliques appeared to be exhausted. Contrary to so many left-wing and European depictions of the United States under George W. Bush, Americans in general, and military officers in particular, don't like using their power. Americans just don't like to thump on foreigners, even when they are palpably of the worst order. The Shiites, particularly Najaf's clerics, have been watching America's actions vis-à-vis the Sunnis closely. They emphatically understand that unless the old Sunni power structure is completely emasculated, the survivors from the ancien régime will inevitably try to kill their way back to power, leaving dead Shiites, as well as dead American soldiers, in their wake. The credibility of American power in the eyes of the Shiites hinges first and foremost on whether Washington is willing to sustain the causalities for as long as it takes to reduce the violent Sunni opposition to Washington's new order.

Throughout the Shiite regions of Iraq, there is probably not a single mosque that isn't plastered with dozens, often hundreds, of little notes about and pictures of still-missing loved ones. Add up the fatwas, the juridical decisions of Iraq's senior clerics, aimed at the "patronizing" Americans and they are very few compared with those that attempt to answer the awful, compelling questions about what to do religiously with mass graves and unidentified body parts. The Shiites will undoubtedly give us time to correct our "Sunni" mistake; the Shiite clergy have no desire to fight a battle themselves against the Sunni hard core, a battle they probably believe they'd lose, given the preeminence of military training among the Sunni Arabs. And they have so far shown no desire to cut any deal with the old Sunni order in an effort to remove the Americans from their soil sooner rather than later. The Shiites have no military power beyond the Badr Brigade of Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, the famous Iranian-aided wayward member of the al-Hakim family of Najaf. The four grand ayatollahs of Najaf have so far shown no intention of elevating the political capital of Muhammad Bakr or the potential power of the military wing of his Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Indeed, contemplating the future without the Americans is probably very unpleasant for the Howza. There are still numerous scenarios worse than a "lengthy" U.S. occupation.

The American administration in Iraq certainly realizes that it paid too little attention to the troublesome potential of the Sunni establishment behind Saddam's power. The American military is now much more aggressively searching for its enemies in Saddam's triangle. Though the Shiites, particularly the prickly mullahs of Najaf, may not publicly thank the Americans for these aggressive actions against the old order, they undoubtedly now view the occupation forces more fondly. Contrary to what has already become accepted wisdom, the increasing casualty rate among American soldiers is a sign, at least in the eyes of our sincere and de facto Shiite allies, that things are getting better, not worse. The ties that bind us and the Shiites are getting stronger, not weaker.

IRAQ WILL LIKELY continue to produce migraines for its American administrators and for Washington's foreign-policy officials who must track and ultimately approve U.S. actions in the country. The hardest test for them will be whether they can quickly learn from their errors, or accurately assess the pivotal sentiments of the Iraqi people. If U.S. officials see that, for example, an Iraqi town or city is functioning normally, without violence toward U.S. soldiers or local strife, there is no reason why curfews cannot be made more lenient. In most places in Iraq, outside of Saddam's triangle, things are calm. An 11P.M. curfew, which seems to be standard throughout much of the country, does not sit well with many in the summer months, when the heat induces rest in the afternoon, and evening prayers don't end until past 10 o'clock. Small changes by the American administration like lifting or modifying the curfew in peaceful areas can have enormously beneficial repercussions.

This self-correcting disposition appears to be present, if not always dominant, among Americans in Iraq. Among the few highly talented Arabic-speaking civilian administrators who are quite literally responsible for the United States' future in the Middle East, it appears to be the working creed.

Yet the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency have produced woefully few first-rate Arabists. The collapse of this profession parallels the deterioration of Islamic and Arabic studies in the American academy, which in any case often disdains government service for its graduates. The United States must now bear the price for this long-standing delinquency. The American administration in Iraq has already searched and depleted the benches of the Near East Bureau at the State Department in Washington. It would be a very good idea if the department and the CIA now stripped U.S. embassies and consulates of their fluent Arabic speakers for assignment to Iraq. As important as these individuals may be to the various missions in Yemen, Egypt, or Algeria, their presence in Iraq would be vastly more important to America's future in the region. The State Department ought to embrace this responsibility and start playing for keeps.

Despite an unsteady postwar beginning by the Bush administration, things in Iraq could be vastly worse. But we ought to prevent the worst case by crushing the hard-core Sunni Baathist opposition and transferring as soon as possible much-needed Arabic-speaking, culturally savvy personnel to Iraq. We and the Iraqis still have a better than decent chance of creating a functioning democracy within a few years. This process undoubtedly won't be pretty. For the Americans in Iraq, it may occasionally seem to be hell on earth. In the long run, however, the United States and the fractious, often peevish, "ungrateful" Iraqi people could give enormous hope to the politically retrograde Middle East. In the meantime, the BBC can be counted on to keep us apprised of all the little ways in which we are failing to fulfill our mission.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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This is nothing but wishful thinking from the war supporters. Already the so-called iron-clad 'reasons' for going to war are crumbling, and to justify the blunder, they try to paint a harmonious environ. Yeah right, tell that to the GIs' who get picked off on a daily basis.

And if you are thinking that those Iraqis will one day 'wake' up and see the occupation which really is nothing but a will to dominate and control them, as a good thing in the 'long run', then you better wake the hell up and smell the coffee. The palestinian issue should tell you something. But then again, what can you really tell bloodthirsty cowboys that the world thrives on diversity in all aspects of life.

Saddam has long been gone... where is the jubilation if he was the only bad element? Planning on lining up anyone who was for the regime and shooting them to rid the bad elements?

Dont even answer back,..I know its gonna be some ignorant shit.

Thanks:blown:

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Originally posted by magellanmax

This is nothing but wishful thinking from the war supporters. Already the so-called iron-clad 'reasons' for going to war are crumbling, and to justify the blunder, they try to paint a harmonious environ. Yeah right, tell that to the GIs' who get picked off on a daily basis.

And if you are thinking that those Iraqis will one day 'wake' up and see the occupation which really is nothing but a will to dominate and control them, as a good thing in the 'long run', then you better wake the hell up and smell the coffee. The palestinian issue should tell you something. But then again, what can you really tell bloodthirsty cowboys that the world thrives on diversity in all aspects of life.

Saddam has long been gone... where is the jubilation if he was the only bad element? Planning on lining up anyone who was for the regime and shooting them to rid the bad elements?

Dont even answer back,..I know its gonna be some ignorant shit.

Thanks:blown:

:laugh: :laugh: :laugh:

This was very funny...thanks for the laugh

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