I’ll be upfront. I was against the Iraq war before it started and have spent considerable time and effort over the past few years looking for a way to end the violence. My activities eventually led to two trips to Jordan last year to meet with and listen to Iraqis, and a trip last month to both Amman and Baghdad.
I must admit that recent journey changed some of my perspectives.
Let me backtrack a bit. My first trip to Amman Jordan was in August 2006, when I was invited to accompany the Code Pink/GLOBAL EXCHANGE group. Later, I accompanied Representative Jim McDermott and we met with and listened to some members of Iraq’s Parliament. In April, I helped produce a live videoconference between members of the U.S. Congress and Iraq’s Parliament. Then, in May of this year, I hosted Mohammed al-Dynee, one of the Parliamentarians we met, in my home and worked with him to arrange for meetings with the press and Congress so they could hear an Iraqi perspective often absent in the current Administration’s spin.
Mohammed stayed for three weeks. I felt a connection with him; he was young and impassioned and seemed a sincere sort who appeared just as intent on discovering solutions as I. We had several good meetings with members of Congress, but not one really big meeting that could serve as a catalyst for change. Although that was rather disappointing, we were determined to continue our work. Thus, we decided I would go to Jordan and he would introduce me to the “players” over there. Then we would head to Baghdad.
Some pieces fall into place
I spent two weeks in the Middle East in June–two weeks during which I heard constant conversations expressing a need for better security for government officials in Iraq; a growing distaste for al-Qaeda and terrorism; a yearning to return to life as convivial people–Shia, Sunni, and Kurd–able to get along; dissatisfaction with Iraq President Maliki; and a desire to reach agreement among nationalist, Resistance, and Coalition forces.
But what was reiterated most often was the need to hear Americans say they would not stay forever.
In Jordan on the Way to Baghdad
Although Mohammed has a place in Baghdad, he also has a wife and infant daughter. After the occupation began, concerned for the safety of his family, he moved them to Amman, which is where I met up with him at the beginning of my trip.
Mohammed considers himself an Iraqi nationalist; many of the meetings he had arranged for me were also with nationalists, most of whom now lived in Jordan because they feared assassination attempts in Iraq because of their outspokenness against the Maliki government. We spent several days in meetings there and then went to Iraq.
The need for security
A constant concern to many Iraqis I met was the issue of security. Violence in Iraq is multi-layered. It can be perpetrated by al-Qaeda, the death squads, the Iraqi Resistance, the Coalition Forces, any one of thousands of prisoners released soon after the troops arrived, or a new realization for me, members of “organized crime.”
One of the Iraqi Parliament members I met was Taha al-Lihabi, a member of the Independent Islamic Party. He was in the cafeteria adjacent to the Parliament building during the bombing and was injured. Another member died in Mohammed al-Dynee’s arms.
I also met a Kurdish man who says he is forming a new Kurdish party whose goal is the unity of Iraq. He asked me not to reveal his name, fearing that his family would be attacked.
I met Ali Awad, a school teacher whose school was taken over by the Safawids. They threatened him because he was against their religious teaching. One day his home was broken into and his nine-month old son was killed in his lap. And, I met 18-year old Haidar al-Dynee who had been kidnapped.
I listened to Mohammed’s stories about the trashing of his house, and met several Parliament members now living in Jordan because they fear for their lives.
General Lamb suggested that some of the security issues were the responsibility of Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior, who is responsible for issuing security badges that dictate who can access within the Green Zone. He suggested that the Parliamentarians work through the ministry–or among themselves to challenge the ministry–to deal with specific security concerns of Parliament members.
But, there is a dilemma here. The Iraq Ministry of the Interior is responsible for protecting Parliament members. However, some Parliament members who oppose the Maliki government fear reprisal or assassination attempts emanating from within the ministry itself which is charged with their protection. It brings to mind the well-known quote: “We have a problem Houston.”
When we met with Ambassador Margaret Scobey, she said that she felt all Parliament members and government officials were at risk and emphasized her respect for those who have stepped up to be part of the process in the face of so much risk, calling them very courageous. She also suggested that Parliament form a Housing committee to look into ways that safe housing within the Green Zone could be made available for all Parliament members.
Some Iraqis make a definite distinction between resistance against what they see as occupying forces and terror, such as that perpetrated by al-Qaeda.
Asma al- Haidari, my interpreter while in Jordan, said:
“The violence that is being committed by Al Qaeda is terrorism; the violence that is being committed by all the militia is terrorism; the violence being committed by the mafias and the criminal gangs is both criminal and terrorism. All this violence is being committed against innocent civilians.”
Others repeated this throughout my trip, and I noticed a growing outspokenness by many against the terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda.
Sheik Khalaf Al-Olayan, a Parliamentarian and the General Secretary for the National Dialogue Council spoke to me of a time he met with Americans, telling them he was more than willing to fight in Baghdad, Ramadi, and the Anbar Province to clean up al-Qaeda. All he asked in return was that the American and Iraqi forces not interfere with his actions and that they give him full authority.
As if to demonstrate his sincerity, he also explained that he had told the Americans that his group had killed 20 al-Qaeda members and turned over a list of their names and the areas and dates where they were killed.
Sheik Hareth al-Dhari, a renowned cleric who is also accused by the government of Iraq of inciting violence, explained that al-Qaeda are terrorists and do not represent the Iraqi National Resistance, saying that the Iraqi Resistance is temporary and its only aim is to liberate Iraq.
This was reiterated by Sheik Jawad Al-Khalisi who is the secretary general of the Iraqi National Foundation Congress, a national project aimed at uniting all the forces opposed to the occupation. They are proud of their country and their nationality, and are opposed to having their country run by non-Iraqis. They are not opposed to Iraqis and do not aim to harm their countrymen.
The Sunni/Shia, Shia/Sunni Picture
Everyone I met tried to explain that the sectarian strife perceived by Westerners is not sectarianism at all, but rather a political struggle within the country.
Al-Dhari explained that Iraq was experiencing violence fueled by the occupation, pushed by the American Administration and Zalmay Khalilzad as well as Maliki and former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari.
However, he was adamant that it was political strife not a civil war. As was Mohammed, who pointed out the chaos in Iraq, saying, “The people in Iraq are in chaos. The multinational forces are in chaos. And the political process might be going into chaos.”
There are innumerable stories from various Iraqis of being Shia, married to Shiite or Shiite being married to Shia, that are meant to serve as examples of having once lived in a world not ravaged by sectarianism. A Kurd we met focused on this as well. He told us that he and his associates believe in the unity of Iraq. He said that Kurds had lived for thousands of years with the Arabs. “We are intermarried,” he said. “Ten percent of my tribe are Christians. We have always lived together. We share one history with the Arabs.”
Although Americans may see the violence as a prelude to a sectarian civil war, Sheik al-Khalisi was adamant that such was not the case as were several others.
General Lamb agreed, saying that the terrorist acts were not about something where those doing the action felt that their voice was not heard but rather was done solely for effect, for “creating an enduring chaos in Iraq,” whether it is for financial, ideological, corrupt, criminal or angry reasons. He called such people “irreconcilables.”
The problem with Maliki
The Maliki government itself seemed to be at the heart of many of the issues I heard about. There seemed to be widespread distrust of him, even accompanied by accusations that he wasn’t working in the best interests of Iraq and was instead pro-Iranian, anti-Sunni, and anti an Iraq that remained a single country.
In fact, a refrain I heard countless times was that the Maliki government and the Ministry of the Interior were responsible for illegal violence against other Iraqis, starting from inside government prisons and extending to death squads operating inside the Ministry.
Mohammed said, “The most important thing is that we must understand that today there is a fight between the people of Iraq and the government.”
Yet no matter how often that refrain was heard, both General Lamb and Ambassador Scobey made it clear that the only way to change the government was through the existing political process, in other words through the Parliament.
Lamb said it was the responsibility of the Coalition forces to represent the current government and that if Iraqis wanted their government to be different, it was up to the Parliament members to figure out how to do it. Scobey even told Mohammed which part of the Constitution enabled Parliament members to make changes.
Even Sheik al-Dhari agreed. He said if the U.S. withdrew its support of the Maliki government there would still be “the militias and no solution. You must change the direction of the winds to stop the bloodshed. The Maliki government is not serious about changing American dependence or Iraqi reconciliation.” He also suggested that Parliament work on creating changes.
In particular he mentioned they could work on balancing the authority of the President and the Prime Minister, scaling down the authority of the government, and putting security in the hands of those who could create a National Army that would get rid of the militias.
“Will you stay or will you go now?”
Underpinning all these issues was the question of whether the Coalition Forces would withdraw.
Sheik al-Dhari got right to the point: The problem is the occupation, he said. According to him, the American Administration should have left as soon as they discovered there were no chemical weapons or weapons of mass destruction. But they continued and that has led to the losses suffered by both the Iraqis and the Americans, while Iran profited.
“Understand Iran interferes in Iraq economically, politically, and has aims in Iraq,” he said. “Iran claims that it wishes the occupation to end; in truth, it does not want it.”
A member of Parliament, Assad Ibrahim Hussein who is currently in Amman, said that reconciliation could begin if the Coalition began rebuilding the military and civilian institutions which would start to put an end to the “forced displacement” of some Iraqis. But he also said, “the most important solution, in my opinion is for the American Administration to announce its scheduled withdrawal from Iraq, immediately. After that the other steps should be started as a result of which the country will be stabilized and Iraq will build a good relationship with the United States based on mutual interests and respect–the same as with any other great power in the world.”
Yet, Ambassador Scobey said “Don’t they read the papers? It is very clear we aren’t staying here permanently.”
Clearly, there is a communication problem and the next step is to find a way to bridge that.
Baghdad was not what I expected.
The mortar attacks; the terribly oppressive heat that stifles; the inability to move without armored vehicles and security; the lack of food; the “duck and cover” cement mini-tunnels; the erratic electricity and water; the preponderance of checkpoints; the cement barriers; the never-ending crises and constant work of those to solve them; and the guns, rifles, helmets and flak jackets that are everywhere is sobering, to say the least.
But being there was a necessity if we were to meet face to face with Coalition leaders–to bring a different Iraqi perspective to them and search for solutions to end the war. And now, there are additional diplomatic events underway among some in Iraq to work on the security and communication issues. As these progress, I’ll write more.
DAL LaMAGNA is running for president in the Democratic Party primaries.