Standing in front of 40 religious and academic leaders in Najaf, Iraq this summer, I wondered how they would react to the presentation I was about to give. I was an unarmed, Christian American spending five weeks in Iraq with the Muslim Peacemaker Teams (MPT). The topic of my presentation was the relationship between Iraqis and Americans and the possibility of “reconciliation.”
I lived for five weeks in June and July of 2011 at the home of my friend and colleague, Sami Rasouli, in Najaf, a city about two hours south of Baghdad. My country still occupied theirs, but the people I met were welcoming and warm. Most told me they were eager, if somewhat nervous, for the end of the American occupation, but also eager to build stronger relationships—professional and cultural—with the American people.
While in Iraq, not once did I enter the Green Zone or an American military base. Invited by Sami, I helped teach English classes in Najaf and visited families in Najaf, Karbala, Baghdad, and Basra. I met artists, business professionals, farmers, the owner of a small internet cafe, university professors, and others. All welcomed me with smiles and generous hospitality.
Sami and I know each other through our work at partner nonprofit organizations–Sami at MPT and I at the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project (IARP). The two organizations are based in the Sister Cities of Najaf and Minneapolis. They work together to organize civilian and humanitarian partnerships, such as an October, 2011 medical delegation from Najaf to Minneapolis, or a program that brings clean drinking water to schools in Iraq.
Recently, MPT began hosting Americans to live and work in Iraq, just as IARP has hosted dozens of Iraqis in American homes over the past few years. The project is small compared to the scope of the Iraq War, but it affirms our shared desire for peace and our common humanity, despite the war.
This coming March, IARP and MPT will help coordinate a delegation from Minneapolis to Najaf to attend opening ceremonies celebrating Najaf’s designation as the 2012 “Cultural Capital of the Islamic World.” Invited and hosted by the governor of Najaf Province, the delegation will include local government officials, academics, a journalist, medical professionals, students, and others. In April, a second group will travel from Minneapolis to Najaf for an interfaith conference.
The Iraqis who hosted me and who will welcome other American civilians demonstrate an amazing capacity to focus on the future. For them, the war is not over, and there is no time to dwell on the past: not for the millions who still lack reliable access to clean water and electricity, are living as refugees, or dealing with trauma-related disorders.
After my presentation in Najaf, a microphone was passed around the room for comments. Nearly all welcomed me warmly to Najaf, but nearly all also rejected the possibility of reconciliation with Americans until the US military left Iraq and Americans worked in long-term partnerships with Iraqis to help rebuild Iraq. With the US military now officially out of Iraq, will Americans forget about our war in Iraq and its consequences? Or will we work with Iraqis in the coming years and decades to support the recovery of a country we helped destroy?