Thursday, September 06, 2007

Letter From Baghdad

Published: September 5, 2007


I saw many contradictory things on this visit to Iraq — too many to declare a definitive trend. So let me share three scenes that had an impact on me:

Scene 1: I went on a patrol that visited a U.S. Army platoon based in the Ameriya neighborhood of Baghdad, alongside the “Ameriya Knights,” who, as Gen. David Petraeus put it to me, “are not a rugby team.”

Ameriya is a Sunni neighborhood that had been home to doctors, lawyers and other professionals. Today it is a ghost town. It is chilling to see how much this city has been fragmented into little pieces. What were clearly upper-middle-class homes are almost all abandoned, and the streets are full of litter and rubble. This neighborhood first came under assault from Shiite militias, then from pro-Al Qaeda Iraqi Sunnis, who moved in on the pretext of protecting the Sunnis from the Shiites and then imposed a reign of Islamist terror on them.

The Ameriya Knights are predominantly secular Sunni boys from the neighborhood, who banded together to both drive out the pro-Al Qaeda forces — which took root here more deeply than I realized — and to protect their homes from Shiite death squads. They decided to work with the Americans because we threaten them — today — less than either the pro-Al Qaeda Iraqi Sunnis or the Shiites. Many looked like former Baathist army vets to me. They mostly wore jeans, each brandishing a different kind of weapon.

When I asked one of them, Omar Nassif, 32, why he had gone from shooting at Americans to working with them, he said, “I saw an Al Qaeda man behead an 8-year-old girl with my own eyes ... We want American support because we fought the most vicious organization in the world here ... I would rather work with the Americans than the Iraqi Army. The Americans are not sectarian people.”

At one point we took a walk around the neighborhood, trudging through the powdery dust in 126 degree heat. When I looked up, I saw a surreal scene — former Baathists insurgents, guns pointed in all directions, providing a security cordon around a senior U.S. officer. That is the good news and bad news from Iraq. Good news: the surge is tamping down violence. Bad news: the relative calm stems largely from a Sunni-Sunni war that has pushed mainstream Iraqi Sunnis into our camp to fight the jihadist Sunnis — rather than from any real Sunni-Shiite rapprochement.

Peace in Iraq has to be built on a Shiite-Sunni consensus, not a constant balancing act by us. So far, the surge has created nothing that is self-sustaining. That is, pull us out and this whole place still blows in 10 minutes. You’ll know there’s progress if Shiites or Sunnis do something that surprises you — actually reach out to the other. Up to now, though, all I’ve heard from them is either “I’m weak, how can I compromise?” or “I’m strong, why should I compromise?” No happy medium, no stable Iraq.

Scene 2: On my way into Iraq, I had a private chat with an Arab Gulf leader. He said something that still rings in my ear: “Thomas, everyone is keeping you busy in Iraq. The Russians are keeping you busy. The Chinese are keeping you busy. The Iranians are keeping you busy. The Saudis are keeping you busy. Egypt is keeping you busy. The Syrians are keeping you busy...”

He’s right. Everyone loves seeing us tied down here. One need only observe how Vladimir Putin is throwing his weight around Europe, how China is growing more influential by the day, how Iran has been emboldened and how all the Arab dictators are relieved that America is mired in Iraq so we can’t push any democracy on them to understand that there’s a huge “opportunity cost” for our staying here without either success or an exit strategy.

Scene 3: I’m visiting the new American field hospital in Balad, in central Iraq. The full madness that is Iraq is on display here: U.S. soldiers with blast wounds, insurgents with gunshots to the stomach and a 2-month-old baby with shrapnel wounds from an insurgent-planted I.E.D. scattered over her face. The hospital commander, Brig. Gen. Burt Field, looks at her and says to me: “There isn’t a 2-month-old on the planet who knows how to hate anybody. It’s all taught.”

Visiting Centcom commander, Adm. William Fallon, chats with the hospital staff, who are all here on different rotations — 30 days, 60 days, 180 days. He asks how they coordinate everyone. A voice from the back, an American nurse, says: “We’re all on the same team, sir.” I look around the room. I see African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans — the whole melting pot that is America — working together. Half are women, including mothers who have left their families for long stretches to serve here.

We don’t deserve such good people — neither do Iraqis if they continue to hate each other more than they love their own kids.


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