Note: I'm bumping this post, originally published on the 7th, because it got stuck in the middle of a pile of other posting, and it's one that I would like people to know about, particularly leading up to elections in Iraq.
A year ago I was just weeks past a meeting with some Iraqis. They were from Fallujah, Ramadi, and Baghdad. We were discussing a number of things, but one of them was the upcoming election.
There was a man there from Ramadi that said “what election, you are crazy, it will be just as it always has been, they will tell us what to vote.” An argument ensued, and he looked in shock at people from Baghdad who were frustrated trying to explain to him, “if you go and put your name on the list, I will vote for you, it’s not the same now, you can join a party and you can vote for whom you like!”
I heard then about the corruption that was still rife in these areas, how people couldn’t learn much but rumor, how covering anything less innocuous than a soccer game could get you killed.
Since that time, I’ve seen amazing progress. What we are doing in Iraq is not in vain. And the reasons I believe that are due to what I’ve seen and experienced, so I’d like to share them.
In March, I was in Iraq for the second anniversary of OIF. I was traveling that day, both in and out of the ‘green line’ that separates Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq, with Iraqis. On that day, I saw the American flag raised with the Iraqi and the Kurdish flags. At every checkpoint, out came my US passport, and I got “Americhi” and enthusiastic smiles and thumbs up and “thank you”. The smiles and the eyes say a lot in Iraq. I was not in a convoy. I was not with military. There was no reason for any of these people to fear me, or to think for even a moment that they would need to pretend something they didn’t feel.
When I got back to the hotel I was staying in that evening, I watched in what I am not honestly able to call disbelief, but was dismay as the news broadcast protests against the “war with Iraq”. I had spent the entire day experiencing Iraqis thanking us for what we had done, and yet here was London and Washington with people marching against what I had spent the day collecting smiles for.
In March, riding high off elections, the feeling in Iraq was hopeful. On Radio Sawa, we listened to an Iraqi song that played often that was about national unity, from Dohuk to Basra, (north to south) and naming all Iraqis as brothers and sisters, Kurds, Shia, Sunni. Certainly that has been my experience in Iraq in the past year. I’ve seen far more cooperation between different sects than I have self-segregation.
In July I had the opportunity to go back to Iraq and jumped at the chance. I stayed in an Iraqi friend’s home in Kirkuk. I drove through the country with my Iraqi guides. I saw Iraq, not from inside the green zone, not from inside a tank or a convoy, and not only from the beauty and safety of Kurdistan. This was scorching July heat. And it was not what I expected. It was so much better. Most Iraqis love to talk. And I love to listen. Here are some of the things that I heard that show the changing mindset in Iraq:
“No more Mortal Gods.” (In reference to, of course, Saddam, but the discussion was centered on the pictures of Clerics and Politicians that are abundant in Iraq, that the people discussing felt that it encouraged too much idolatry of one person.)
“Sorry madam, we were only looking to your safety. Good luck to you, and thank you.” (From checkpoint guards as I was leaving the checkpoint with my Iraqi guides, all male. They had made my guides step away from the car and interrogated me separately to be certain I was not being held against my will. In other words, they were ready to take a bomb or be jumped by cornered terrorists in order to uphold their duty, and not to an Iraqi, but an American.)
“Elections will be different next time. In January, elections were very emotional. The Shia, they never held power, and so in some areas they went to the extreme by electing some of the elements that they did (the Basra area in particular we were discussing). Now, many people there are displeased with the way things turned out, and they have said that they wouldn’t vote the same again if they knew how radical some of the clerics would be when given political power on top of their clerical power. As well, many Sunni were provided more education under the old regime, and exposed as thus to Western thought (even as it was not allowed by the regime, to try and keep the mind from searching for more knowledge once it is given is an impossible task), which they share with the Kurds. All of this will change the election next time. People saw how over 100 parties can’t get a good number of seats and have learned to compromise and form alliances within certain frameworks. Because of what we’ve learned in the past year with the transitional government, you will see a different kind of voting this time.” (From Iraqi friends, most interestingly echoed by the people under age 40, in Baghdad, Basra, and Erbil.)
But here we come to the best news about Iraq. In the past few months, we have seen some things happening that when looked at past the surface, show an underlying trend of enormous changes that are can only be read as positive.
The first case involves an Iraqi who got pulled over on a hot day not too long ago by the Iraqi Police. They insisted that his vehicle didn’t meet current standards. They got to the police station and he was prepared to have to pay them, as this was the normal way of doing things. But, not only did they not ask for payment, when he offered it as a fine, they refused it. Not refusing just big corruption, but normal, everyday, accepted practice! Refusing easy money. In Baghdad. The IP. The same organization that three years ago was in charge of terrorizing was now asking politely for paperwork to be completed. Progress?
The next case involves some artists in Basra. Art was restricted to what the authorities allowed or commissioned during Saddam’s reign. Artists are shy in nature, particularly in this culture. Yet these artists broke all traditions to show their work. They wanted to hold a gallery showing to show their work to people in Basra, but they couldn’t yet afford a hall’s rent. So, they decided to have a “sidewalk show”. While this is normal in Europe, in Iraq this is a completely unheard of thing. (In fact many good Iraqi musicians and artists are always showing their talents in Amman when I am there, for just this reason of so many years of being oppressed.) Artists, breaking chains of over 30 years in under three. Progress?
Another case involves a group of people in Diwaniyah, that has taken up animal rights causes. They are creating a reservation for animals threatened with extinction or endangerment in Iraq. Now, people that feel the “luxury” to worry about things such as this, are clearly acting as part of their communities, they are taking personal responsibility for their country in some way, and they are not walking around daily barely surviving. Progress?
The reality in Iraq is this. All but three of the provinces are reasonably safe and controlled for the average Iraqi. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. But the trusty wheel, it just keeps rolling forward. We’ve got more trusty wheels than squeaky ones in Iraq now, but the squeaky ones need to be replaced or maintained so that the entire vehicle can move on.
One of my most treasured memories is from my trip in March. Everyone still had the faintest touch of ink still left on their fingernails from elections, not wanting to see it fade. My Iraqi friends were commenting on how they felt a good deal of gratitude our soldiers for making that day come to fruition, how close they felt to Americans because of it. We entwined our fingers and took a photo. My American hand, entwined with an Iraqi hand, and the stain of ink visible…it was the embodiment of what has been done between these two countries. And continues to be, if only we have patience and resolve. Iraq is full of good news. One only needs know where to look.