I always wondered what this country would be like if the Democrats listened instead of spoke. Last week in during the Petraus hearings it was simply an opportunity for senators to make speeches. There was no listening going on….just pontification. If the Pelosi side of Congress and the Reid side of the Senate actually listened to the Iraqi citizens they might find both Sunnis and Shiites talking about progress and not Civil War.

‘You Have Liberated a People’

Sunday, September 16, 2007

BAGHDAD–“We liberated the Anbar, we defeated al Qaeda by denying it religious cover,” Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Reisha said with a touch of pride and impatience. This was the dashing tribal leader who emerged as the face of the new Sunni accommodation with American power, and who was assassinated by al Qaeda last week. I had not been ready for his youth (born in 1971), nor for his flamboyance. Sir David Lean, the legendary director of “Lawrence of Arabia,” would have savored encountering this man. There was style, and an awareness of it, in Abu Reisha: his brown abaya bordered with gold thread, a neat white dishdasha, and a matching headdress. “Our American friends had not understood us when they came, they were proud, stubborn people and so were we. They worked with the opportunists, now they have turned to the tribes, and this is as it should be. The tribes hate religious parties and religious fakers.” We were in Baghdad, and the sheikh gave me his narrative. There was both candor and evasion in the story he told. Al Qaeda and its Arab jihadists had found sanctuary and support in the Anbar; they had recruited the “criminal elements” and the “lowly,” they had brought zeal and bigotry unknown to the Iraqis. Initially welcomed, they began to impose their own tyranny. They declared haram (impermissible) the normal range of social life. They banned cigarettes, they married the daughters of decent families without the permission of their elders. They violated the great code of decent society by “shedding the blood of travelers on routine voyages.” The prayer leaders of mosques were bullied, then murdered. Abu Reisha and a small group of like-minded men, he said, came together to challenge al Qaeda. “We fought with our own weapons. I myself fought al Qaeda with my own funds. The Americans were slow to understand our sahwa, our awakening. But they have come around of late. The Americans are innocent; they don’t know Iraq. But all this is in the past, and now the Americans have a wise and able military commander on the scene, and the people of the Anbar have found their way. In the Anbar, they now know that the menace comes from Iran, not from the Americans.” Abu Reisha spoke of the guile of the Iranians: They have schemes over the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, he said. He said the Anbar was in need of money, that its infrastructure was shattered. He welcomed a grant of $70 million given the Anbar by the government, and was sure that more was on the way. An Iraqi in the know, unsentimental about his country’s ways, sought to play down the cult of Abu Reisha. American soldiers, he said, won the war for the Anbar, but it was better to put an Iraq kafiyyah than an American helmet on the victory. He dismissed Abu Reisha. He was useful, he said, but should not be romanticized. “No doubt he was shooting at Americans not so long ago, but the tide has turned, and Abu Reisha knew how to reach an accommodation with the real order of power. The truth is that the Sunnis launched this war four years ago, and have been defeated. The tribes never win wars, they only join the winners.” Four months ago, I had seen the Sunni despondency, their recognition of the tragedy that had befallen them in Baghdad. That despondency had deepened in the intervening period. No Arab cavalry had ridden to their rescue, no brigades had turned up from the Arabian Peninsula or from Jordan, and the Egyptians were far away. Reality in Iraq had not waited on the Arabs. The Sunnis of Iraq must now fully grasp that they are on their own. They had relied on the dictatorship, and on the Baath, and these are now gone; there had, of course, been that brief bet on al Qaeda and on the Arab regimes, and it had come to naught. The one Baghdad politician with the authority, and the place in the pecking order, who could pull the Sunnis back from the precipice is Vice President Tariq Hashemi. There is a parlor game in the Green Zone, and back in Washington, that focuses on Mr. Hashemi. He is at once in the circle of power, and outside of it, simultaneously a man of authority and of the opposition to this new order. He is a leader of the Islamic Party, and a former colonel in the armed forces. He flirts with the government, promising to stand by it, then steps back form it. His caution is understandable: Three of his siblings have been lost to the terror. He is a man of great polish, his English impeccable. There is an aristocratic bearing to him. He would not call the government sectarian, “I am a man of this government,” he said, when I called on him in a villa that reflected the elegance of the man himself. He questioned the government’s “performance” and its skill. He pointed to the isolation of the government in the region as evidence of its inability to rule. “I don’t question the right of this government to rule. I know I am in the minority in Parliament, I know that they have the largest bloc in our legislature. But ability is an altogether different matter. A more able government would reach an accommodation with Syria, with the other Arab governments and with Turkey. The Syrians may harbor fantasies about the return of the Baathists to power in Baghdad, but they are eager for the benefits of trade and commerce, and their enmity could be eased.” It is late in the hour for the Sunni Arabs, but the age of the supremacists among them has passed. There is realism in Mr. Hashemi, and a knowledge of the ways of the world. Baghdad’s Sunnis need him, if only because their crisis is deeper than that of the Sunnis of the Anbar. The loss of Iraq to the Persians is a scarecrow. A great, historic question has been raised by Iraq: Can the Shiite Arabs govern, or are they born and eternal oppositionists? For a man at the center of this great dispute, for the storm swirling around him and the endless predictions of his imminent ouster from power, there is an unhurried quality about Nouri al-Maliki. There is poise and deliberateness in him. The long years in exile must account for the patience. He had waited long for the deliverance of his people; the time in Syrian exile must have been dreary. The Daawa Party had been the quintessential movement of the underground, it had suffered grievously, and sons and brothers of “martyrs” fill its ranks. The men arrayed around Mr. Maliki are resigned to their isolation in the Arab constellation of power. They had been forged by a history of disinheritance. Mr. Maliki is not “America’s man in Iraq.” He had not been part of the American-sponsored opposition groups prior to the war of liberation. He is a man of the Shiite heartland; his peers in the Shiite political class are men of Baghdad, familiar with Western languages and ways. He is through and through a man of his culture, his Arabic exquisite and melodic. He takes in stride the sorts of things said about him by American officials and legislators. He is keenly aware of the debt owed America by his country–and by his own community, to be exact. “We may differ with our American friends about tactics, I might not see eye to eye with them on all matters. But my message to them is one of appreciation and gratitude,” he said. ” To them I say, you have liberated a people, brought them into the modern world. They used to live in fear and now they live in liberty. Iraqis were cut off from the modern world, and thanks to American intervention we now belong to the world around us. We used to be decimated and killed like locusts in Saddam’s endless wars, and we have now come into the light. A teacher used to work for $2 a month, now there is a living wage, and indeed in some sectors of our economy, we are suffering from labor shortages.” Though Mr. Maliki had come to power with the support of Moqtada al-Sadr’s bloc of deputies in the parliament, he has given a green light for major operations against the Mahdi Army. He walks a fine, thin line between the American military and civilian authorities, and the broad Shiite coalition that sustains him. There is stoicism in him about the dysfunctional cabinet over which he presides; its membership was dictated by the political parties that had picked the ministers. Three groups of ministers had suspended their participation in the work of the government. He would not be bullied, he said, he had lists of highly qualified technocrats eager to take part in a new cabinet; he would stick it out. “I don’t believe that there is a military solution for our conflicts; we have to rehabilitate the troublemakers. We don’t arrest Baathists solely because they are Baathists, and the same must hold for those who belong to the Mahdi Army,” Mr. Maliki said. He had courted the notables of the Anbar, he didn’t say, but I had been told that heavy subsidies had been made by his government to the Anbar tribal leaders; he had gone to the Anbar with substantial sums that had been paid to the sheikhs. But he looks with a jaundiced eye on arming Sunni “volunteers.” He dreads this, and says that this would be a disaster: “We will have come out of a hole only to descend into a deep well.” National reconciliation–the sword of Damocles held over his head by his American detractors–is not easy in a country “without a history of dialogue and give-and-take. This may require two or three years. Grant us time, and you will be proud of what you have helped bring forth here.” The historical dilemma of his country was there for everyone to see: “For the Kurds, this is the time of taking, for the Shiite, this is the time of restitution, for the Sunnis this is the time of loss. But ours is one country, and it will have to be shared.” Mr. Maliki recoils from the charge that his is a sectarian government; he notes with satisfaction that Gen. David Petraeus had exonerated the government of that charge. The Mahdi Army had won the war for Baghdad. This has had the paradoxical and beneficial outcome of making that militia unneeded and parasitical. It has given this government a measure of independence from the Sadrists. “Historically we are winning.” The words were those of Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi. This is a scion of Baghdad Shiite aristocracy, at ease with French and English, a man whose odyssey had taken him from Marxism to the Baath, then finally to the Islamism of the Supreme Islamic Council. “We came from under the ashes, and now the new order, this new Iraq, is taking hold. If we were losing, why would the insurgents be joining us?” He had nothing but praise for the effort that had secured the peace of Baghdad: “Petraeus can defend the surge,” he said. “He can show the ‘red zones’ of conflict receding, and the spread of the ‘blue zones’ of peace. Six months ago, you could not venture into the Anbar, now you can walk its streets in peace. There is a Sunni problem in the country which requires a Shiite initiative. The Sunni problem is power, plain and simple. Sunni society grew addicted to power, and now it has to make this painful adjustment.” Mr. Mahdi was not apologetic about what Iraq offers the United States by way of justification for the blood and treasure and the sacrifice: “Little more than two decades ago, in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution and the Lebanon War of 1982, the American position in this region was exposed and endangered. Look around you today: Everyone seeks American protection and patronage. The line was held in Iraq; perhaps America was overly sanguine about the course of things in Iraq. But that initial optimism now behind us, the war has been an American victory. All in the region are romancing the Americans, even Syria and Iran in their own way.” For the Sunni-ruled states in the region, he counseled an acceptance of the new Iraq. He looked with pride on his country, and on his city. He saw beyond Baghdad’s daily grief. “Baghdad is the heart of the Arab world, this was the hothouse of Arab philosophy and science and literature.” Peace has not come to Iraq, the feuds have not fully burned out, but the center holds. The best of Iraq’s technocrats, deputy prime minister Barham Saleh, spoke of the new economic vitality of the provinces, of the recovery of regions once lost to darkness and terror. I brought back with me from Iraq a reminder that life renews in that land. I attended the judicial tribunal that is investigating the crimes of Saddam Hussein’s cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, better know as Chemical Ali, and 14 other defendants being tried for deeds they committed back in 1991, in the aftermath of the first American war against Saddam Hussein. Chemical Ali had been one of the most dreaded “roosters” of the regime, a haughty killer. His attire was either Western suits or military uniforms. On the afternoon I went to watch his trial, he had shuffled in, leaning on a cane, all dressed in the traditional Arab way. The courtroom setting was one of immense decorum: a five-member panel of judges in their robes, the defense team on one side, the prosecutors on the other. A lone witness, his face hidden from view behind a simple curtain, told of the cruelty he had seen a generation ago. He told of Chemical Ali executing people point-blank, after three Baathist women singled them out; he told of the burial of the victims on the grounds of a vocational school. He stood firm, the simple witness, when Chemical Ali tried to bully and ridicule him. He had no doubt about the memory of that day. He recalled Chemical Ali, he said, in his olive military uniform, and he correctly identified the rank of Chemical Ali. A policeman distributed bottled water to the defendants who once literally owned and disposed of the fate of this country. They were now being given the justice denied their victims. In our fashion, we have our very American “metrics” and “benchmarks” with which we judge this war and the order in Iraq we had midwifed. For the war’s critics, there can be no redemption of this war, and no faith that Iraq’s soil could bring forth anything decent or humane. Today two men of extraordinary talent and devotion, our military commander and our ambassador, will tell of the country they know so well. Doubtless, they will tell of accomplishments and heartbreak. We should grant them–and that distant country–the hearing they deserve. Mr. Ajami teaches at Johns Hopkins University. He is author of “The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq,” and is the recipient of the Bradley Prize.

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