Iraqis and the Occupation

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Posted by Tiglath from ( on Wednesday, September 10, 2003 at 6:18AM :

Whether They Have Ulterior Motives or Not,
US Forces Must Stay

By Firas Al-Atraqchi
Columnist – Canada

President Bush during his address to the nation Sunday, September 7, 2003

“So, who do you think is behind this attack?” I asked a depressed-looking Thargham Allawi in Montreal.

Three Muslim worshippers were wounded in an attack on a Sunni Mosque after Friday dawn prayers in Baghdad last week. I wanted to pick Thargham’s brain – his views would help me in understanding whether sectarian conflict would engulf an already debilitated Iraq.

He didn’t look up from his meal of chicken shawerma, but did seem to think his answer through. After a short pause, “The Americans, Israelis, somewhere there,” he mumbled, and went back to finishing his Middle-Eastern dish.

“Did you watch President Bush’s speech on Iraq tonight?” I asked him.

Thargham didn’t bother to answer. And that pretty much explains Iraqis’ reaction to the much-hyped Presidential address on Iraq and “the war on terror.” Bush did not recite anything the Iraqis wanted to hear. Nor, for that matter, what the Europeans (and US military) wanted to hear – a timetable.

“We are transforming a place of torture chambers and mass graves into a nation of laws and free institutions,” he said in his 20-minute address. I wonder what the Iraqis who cannot leave their homes after 7 pm have to say about that. Or the women that are raped and accosted, kidnapped, killed every day in Iraq. Human rights organizations as well as some journalists claim that 20 Iraqis are killed every day in Iraq.

No, this speech was as convoluted and as fictitious as the Private Lynch rescue which the media touted as spectacular. Bush started and ended his speech with inferences and allusions to Iraq’s involvement in the tragic September 11th terrorist attacks. I found it to be deplorable and shameful that the leader of the most industrialized, most weaponized and most prosperous nation on earth would continue to regurgitate every speech since September 11th and leading up to the Iraq invasion. I heard absolutely nothing new, and worse, nothing to allay Iraqis’ fears and tribulations.

And that got me thinking about Thargham.

Two things struck me about my conversation with him. The first is that Thargham seemed almost defeated in his demeanor; almost resigned to what he would later confess as hopelessness about Iraq’s future.

The second, and perhaps, far more alarming, is that he so matter-of-factly accused the US administration of undermining stability in Iraq. What happened to the liberated Iraqi spirit that I had read so much about in the New York Times and Washington Post, or the cheering, flower-dousing Iraqis that would greet the great liberators? Isn’t that what every Iraq expert on CNN, FOX, MSNBC, CBC, NBC and countless others had predicted would happen? What about the Iraqi opposition groups who had painted a rosy picture? Where were they now?

The questions troubled me, so I decided to check into Thargham’s sincere, yet unfair allegation. After all, he had no proof to back up his speculation (and that’s all it really was), but followed the cultural and historical norm of the Arab rumor mill.

I thought of trying something different for a change. I decided to stop being an Arab, a Muslim, or someone affiliated with the region. I wanted to be reborn in my ignorance of Iraqi topics and instead be informed of them by my peers and the very people of the region. In essence, I wanted to see if my position on the matter, which I reflected in hundred-plus articles, television and radio interviews, was biased. Or, even worse; whether I was misinformed.

A few days before Bush’s address, I met up with an Arab journalist friend of mine and we discussed the Middle East and Iraq at length. I discussed the future of Iraq with a few Iraqi professionals; one, a nuclear scientist, another, a biomedical engineer, another, a medical doctor. I talked to a few Iraqi friends from Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, in Canada; New York, and Los Angeles, in the US, friends in London, England, and in Holland, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. (The Iraqis ran the gamut: from Shiites to Sunnis and Christians, students to career professionals, men, women, and teens.)

The responses I got from various Arabs differed from those of the Iraqis. Most of the Arabs quickly blamed an Israeli-US alliance bent on destroying Iraq’s potential and reaping all the oil wealth benefits.

Nearly all of the Iraqis I spoke with had a dislike for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein – some professed neutrality, while others cursed the man. However, when it came to whether a war should have been initiated in the first place, the opinions were split down the middle; those for the war claimed it was the only way to end Saddam’s reign. Those against the war feared not for Saddam, but for the plight of the Iraqi people.

The Iraqis were united, however, in voicing their resentment of US bungling in managing Iraq and handing it back to the Iraqi people. Those who had initially been for the war admitted that they were somewhat optimistic back in April and May, but as the summer months wore on and news from families in Iraq turned ever grim, their hopes turned to frustration, their dreams to a broken egg sizzling on a Baghdad pavement in July. They cited security concerns, rampant crime, drug trafficking, lack of food, water and services. One woman I spoke with cried because her brother was now a jobless pauper, forced out of his rented home by an irate landlord and the mercenaries he hired. Her brother always pleaded for money to be sent to him.

But Iraq is showing progress, I said, following the official Bush administration statement du jour. The Bush administration, including US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, recently claimed that much progress was being made. The progress was personified in the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), which had just named 25 ministers to various ministries.

What did normal Iraqis, who had no political affiliation with either the Baath or exiled opposition parties, have to say about the IGC?

“I don’t know anyone of them. Maybe Chalabi, I know him and the two Kurds because they fought Saddam for years, but the others, I have no idea,” said one Iraqi Vancouverite studying at the University of British Columbia.

Many other young Iraqis shared similar sentiments. When it came to the older generation of Iraqis, however, many found the IGC to be a continuing insult to Iraqis.

“This is all rubbish,” said an Iraqi historian residing in Sussex, England. “Why do we have a rollover presidency for each ethnicity? And why are all the ministries divided so evenly between ethnicities? What about the Turkomen and the Christians, and the Sabeans, and the Yazidis? Shouldn’t they be represented?”

The question of ethnicity is a scary one to most Iraqis. On a popular Canadian live television talk show I recently appeared on, a Canadian Kurd called the show and criticized me for saying that most Iraqis consider themselves Iraqis first, ethnicity second. However, a few days later, another Kurd wrote me an email saying that all Iraqis must come together in realizing that they are Iraqis and as such can look forward to building a future together, united.

But that was nothing. On that same Canadian show, an Assyrian man said that Iraq belonged to the Assyrians and that all Arabs and Kurds should get out.

Come on. Seriously? Are we to now to begin dividing ourselves up among Phoenicians, Babylonians, Sumerians, Akkadians, Persians, and God knows what else? Iraq will forevermore remain at a standstill.

Despite the above detour, all Iraqis I spoke with want so desperately to ensure that Iraq remains cohesive and united.

The murder of Ayatollah Baqer Al-Hakim last week and the various assassination attempts on other Shiite clerics since then have pushed Iraqis to the edge of the precipice. The specter of sectarian conflict is now a feared reality to contend with; I understand that there is much dialogue behind the scenes in Iraq to ensure that it does not erupt into open civil war. In such a case, Lebanon circa 1970-1990 would seem like a Sunday Church picnic.

Is the US behind the recent attacks in Iraq?

Most think there is a likelihood that either the US or some other power is secretly working to undermine Iraqi stability. Recent Arab press reports accuse Israel and its secret service, the Mossad, of operating freely in Iraq. They claim that Israel has the most to gain from Iraqi instability. They cite recent reports by Israeli officials of Iraqi oil flowing to the Israeli port of Haifa and the covert relationship between Iraqi opposition figures and Israeli interest groups in the US

“Iraq has always been Israel’s nemesis,” a former Iraqi diplomat to the United Nations tells me. “They love every minute of this; of course, they couldn’t wait to get their hands on it [Iraq and its wealth].”

After a few days of talking to Iraqis, I feel drenched in Iraqi paralysis. Iraq, or what it meant as a nation to the many people I spoke with, is lost. Many have no idea of what the future holds for them, but are beginning to grow restless, frustrated and angry.

Personally, I was against this war from the beginning because I saw no strategy, no planning, and honestly, no evidence that there was any effort put into a post-war stage. I argued incessantly that the Bush and Blair governments had exhausted their energies into convincing the world (the world remains unconvinced, eh!) of the merits of invading Iraq.

However, in April, I decided to give the US administration the benefit of the doubt. This angered many people in the anti-war camp, but I held steadfast in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, the Americans could really swing a little miracle in Iraq.

The killing of Hakim all but buried my hopes… I was visiting with some Iraqi friends, former international civil servants in various organizations around the world, the day Hakim was assassinated. I could see in their glum, angst-ridden faces the fear they now had. One of them kept exclaiming that the “American’s can’t be that stupid” for underestimating the challenges in Iraq.

I don’t want the US forces to leave Iraq. Yep, that’s right, they have to stay, loathe as I am to admit it, and they do actually have a job to do – to ensure Iraq doesn’t fragment into Balkanized cantons continuously at war with one another. This is the responsibility any foreign occupier has in Iraq – it comes with the territory, as they say. I never wanted them there in the first place because I knew the dangers a “free” Iraq would pose to its own people and the region. But that’s in the past as there is a new reality in Iraq now. One that is being forged in the pit of sectarian distrust.

The US is obliged to provide security, not the Iraqi people as Bush administration officials remind us again and again. They are seriously beginning to sound like playground ruffians who are trying to pass the buck.

What is the solution, a South African radio broadcaster asked me, to the quagmire shaping in Iraq? I personally believe that former Baathists must be reinstated into the mainstream of Iraqi politics. Most Iraqis were Baathists at one time or another (they had to be to get anywhere in vocational life), although most did not support Saddam or his numerous bungled adventures. To distance them from a political future will only alienate and anger a large segment of Iraqi civil society that owes its allegiance to Iraq, not Saddam.

Dissolve the IGC, because they are an insult to the Iraqis that suffered for years under Saddam. The appointment of these “foreigners,” as one Iraqi put it, effectively tells an Iraqi population of 25 million that there is none among them competent enough to partake in leading Iraq. Hold municipal elections in three months and watch grassroots democracy take hold. Then take that to the next level of parliamentary representation in six months. When Iraqis feel they have a stake in plotting their own future, the dynamic in Iraq will change for the better.

Did the French install a new government in 1776 America? Did Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin spend 40 years in Austria or France before taking hold of the reins in the former British colonies? No. So why is Iraq any different?

Ask former Iraqi generals to take command again and reduce the number of US patrols in Iraqi streets. Several factions in Iraq have already started to defy US orders and set up their own, heavily-armed militias. That is to be expected as there is a military vacuum in Iraq, which needs to be filled by and with Iraqis. To Iraqis, a US presence is not a legitimate military power.

Come clean with the world – present the challenges that face Iraq and discard the empty rhetoric of “Iraq is making progress.” Tell us how much it will cost the Iraqi people, because it is they, and only they, that sacrifice their lives every day. It is they that suffer; it is they that are without jobs and proper medical facilities. It is they that face a still-born future. Tell them, and us, what awaits. Sugar coating a dilemma leaves the dilemma intact.

Hand reconstruction efforts completely over to the United Nations and international agencies once municipal elections have been completed. The wrangling we see in the Security Council right now isn’t over who serves under what flag. It is all about which companies get to rebuild Iraq. US companies want to hog everything. They have appointed themselves the de facto rebuilders of Iraq. They have ensured that a corrupt oil minister will award all oil contracts to American companies. A UN effort will remain an elusive dream as long as the Bush administration, and its superiors Bechtel, Halliburton, Texaco (among many others), consider Iraq a goldmine of opportunity.

These are just some steps that can ensure a brighter future for Iraq. But they won’t happen despite the urging of many in the region.

As for Thargham’s assertion at the beginning of this article, I am inclined to suspect foreign powers at work in Iraq. I am reminded of Caesar’s campaigns against the Helvetii and other Gaulish tribes. Something about divide and conquer…

That fate waits Iraq, I’m afraid…

Firas Al-Atraqchi is a Canadian journalist of Iraqi heritage. Holding an MA in Journalism and Mass Communication, he has eleven years of experience covering Middle East issues, oil and gas markets, and the telecom industry. You can reach him at

-- Tiglath
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