Three Times the Charm
Three times now—three times this year—millions of Iraqis have come out swinging and voting. Hearing the news about the high turnout (as high as 75% in some regions) and low incidence of violence during the elections in Iraq yesterday, I have to wonder how many times Iraqis have to demonstrate their commitment to freedom and democracy before the world starts to believe it.
I can understand the skepticism that attended that first election almost a year ago. I had just arrived in Iraq, and was with the 1st Infantry Division in Baquba and the fear of a bloody debacle was palpable. Writing about it at the time, I said:
With the ever-more-bellicose threats of the terrorists to kill anyone who tries to vote, and the clear intentions of the Americans to kill anyone who tries to harm or threaten voters, there will be no surprises in the coming days when blood flows down the streets of Baquba. (Tuesday in Baquba)
A lot was at stake and very little was known or being told about what Iraqi people really wanted. The press had gone missing in action, leaving the “news” up to the propagandists on both sides. And, true to form, they painted very different but equally dire endings to that Election Day:
Nobody knows which direction the elections will lead Iraq, the region and, by extension, the world. If the painful journey to democracy eventually works, the implications for civilization might be as profound as those precipitated by the “unimaginable” fall of the Soviet Union. But if Iraq disintegrates into full-scale civil war, the future of the region will be less predictable than next year’s rainfall. (7 days to forever)
I shared the amazement of millions of people around the world as I watched from my perch atop the roof of one of the most dangerous places in Baquba, which was one of the most dangerous places in Iraq, and which also was one of the few places yesterday to see soldiers killed in battle with insurgents.
I also departed from the US Army and spent time that day without guards at a Baquba polling station. Long lines of voters formed early and continued steadily throughout the day. As each voter completed the ritual of dipping their index finger in purple ink, marking their ballot and folding it to insert it into the ballot box, I became more and more convinced that the soldiers were right in their belief that these Iraqi people were hungry for democracy and eager to get about the business of running their country.
Today I saw a thousand smiles on a thousand faces of Iraqis who were unable to contain their joy and pride. The act of voting spread elation through the crowds the way the sounds of explosions have so often spread fear and despair. Today, I witnessed history of global proportions unfold in the small country of Iraq. (Election Day: Iraqi Courage)
Leading up to the October constitutional referendum voting, many people remained convinced that the elections would be violence marred and poorly attended in much of the country. But as I gathered my gear up and prepared I reflected on what I’d seen the last time Iraqis had the chance to vote.
The courage of the Iraqi people that January day planted a seed of confidence in my mind. These were not timid or cowering souls. There I was: an American in a dangerous Iraqi city, at the very polling site that soldiers were wagering would be bombed. I was weaponless and alone. One after another, Iraqis came and shook my hand, showing me their children, laughing, smiling, saying over and over, Thank you, thank you, thank you. I felt like an honored guest, and I felt a twinge of shame that I’d held less confidence in the Iraqis than they’d mustered for themselves. (Purple Fingers)
Once I returned to the US, the primary question for most people seemed to be who are the Iraqi people? Many Americans seem genuinely surprised to hear that Iraq is a country of educated people who are accustomed to modern conveniences and who know how to run a modern country. Iraqis love their kids, educate their women, and they will fight, but they are up against determined enemies. They are also up against the relentless tide of history. Whether Iraq might split into two or three countries remains to unfold. There has always been a serious question about whether there could ever be an “Iraq” without the force of a dictator fusing centuries old tribal lines into blurs. We’ve seen something similar in the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union.
In Iraq, this political uncertainty is not the result of poor post-war planning or protracted insurgency, although, clearly both have exacerbated the problem. The fault lines were there long before Saddam rose to power, and they threatened to give under the pressure of the economic sanctions in the decade leading up to our invasion. They were on the minds of Iraqis I met when I first arrived nearly a year ago and they were the subject of several of my earliest dispatches.
Nobody knows what the future will bring for Iraq. In my opinion, it's already in a civil war, though many people seem afraid to say it. Actually, the reluctance is more likely ordinal in nature–-no one wants to be the first to say what many know to be true. Many now-stable democracies have suffered civil wars. Democracy, despite its inherent nobility, is seldom easy or pretty. At its best, democracy is a reflection of the "people," and we all know what "they" are like. (Mission Impossible: Mission Complete)
This latest election will reveal these ethnic, tribal and religious differences in the clearest picture to date because all indications are that the Sunnis have finally come out in strong numbers to participate in a peaceful exercise of their opinions. In 10 months, this picture did not change and these differences may end up carving what we now know as Iraq into two, perhaps three different countries. Some people equate that with mission failure, but I never got that sense from the people I talked to whether they were Coalition soldiers or Iraqi citizens. Some seemed impatient for an outcome that they saw as inevitable, while others sensed the value in making every effort to maintain a unified nation, whether or not it succeeded.
Smoke and flame, and piles of trash and metal, mark the boundaries of the so-called Sunni Triangle, where civil war rages. Other areas, including the Kurdish zone where just a few hours earlier we had picnicked on grilled mutton, are peaceful and marked by progress—schools in session, roads being paved, houses being built, shops open for business. The Kurds are becoming stronger by the hour. But make no mistake about it: the Kurds are not getting stronger by the hour because the Americans like them. Americans like them because they are the kind of people who get stronger by the hour. (Hello, Ameriki)
I was able to spend a lot of time roaming around villages and cities under Kurdish control, because these are the most peaceful and secure areas of the country. They are also regions where Americans are very welcome. The more time I spent with the Kurds the more I came to respect and like them. I wrote of how Americans and Kurds “clicked” in our respective national characters. Spending time with Kurds is like spending time with Brits, or Poles or Aussies—for Americans, it’s like extended family.
I found myself talking with a Kurdish man who spoke German. We had a direct conversation; his German was fluent. His accent was clear and high. He was a businessman and had lived in exile in Germany. The Diaspora curse turned into a blessing for this man, which is true for many exiled Kurds. After they were pushed from Iraq, they settled in places like Munich, London and Nashville, where they went about the business of surviving, but never forgetting home. They learned new languages, laws, customs, and made connections. Kurdish survival skills rival their courage in battle. Many are now returning to their homeland, armed with ideas, inspired by the opportunity to rebuild their country. (Hello Ameriki)
Never again should we abandon the Kurds. We should always be prepared to defend the Iraqi Kurds with our own blood. An independent and strong Kurdistan in that dangerous region would be an oasis for democracy and a powerful ally for Americans. These people are not likely to welcome us just when their neighbors are suddenly getting greedy for land only to kick us out when our own interests are threatened. Kurds won’t be teaching anti-American rhetoric as a religion in any of their schools.
He fell somber and disappeared for a moment into memory. Emerging with a slight smile tinted by sadness in his eyes, he said, "The Kurds are so happy to see you. The Americans are like the angels from God." But his expression changed dramatically to one of hidden anger: "The Arabs accuse the Americans of being murderers and criminals," he said with finality, "but when Americans came, they brought justice."(Hello Ameriki)
Every day, in both small gestures and large scale efforts, American troops instill confidence and earn respect
If Iraq does split, it’s not the end of the world, but some re-arranging of the lines, as we see happen many times around the world. What’s important now is who makes that decision and on what grounds, and increasingly, this is something that only the immediate parties can determine. Coalition forces may have created the need to decide, and certainly they have paid a high price to secure a platform on which the Iraqis can make this determination, although no one has paid more dearly than the Iraqis themselves. But we need to complete the tasks at hand, namely finishing the training and deployment of the Iraqi Security Forces and rebuilding the infrastructure damaged by war and decades of neglect under Saddam.
Iraqi people have demonstrated three times now that they have the fortitude to fight terrorism and the commitment to participating in a political process to make their country the kind of place they want to live and work and raise their children in. They have met every milestone we've set for them. My own experience in Mosul with Iraqi police officers and soldiers gives me confidence that they will soon be up to the task before them, monumental though it is.
Amazingly, these Iraqis continue to load up in those little trucks and go to work, knowing the odds are that they will, sooner or later, get shot or blown up. In a previous dispatch I stated that the only true martyrs I've seen in Iraq are these men, ordinary in most respects, who step forward and put everything on the line, for the idea of Iraq. But they also have a powerful example to follow now: one that gives them the courage to face these odds. In West Mosul every one of their leaders has been wounded in combat, some more than once, but they get right back into the fight—taking up positions in front. (Battle for Mosul 4)
I was saddened to be unable to attend this third round of voting due to ongoing issues with US Army Public Affairs Office. The story of how the PAO confuses fly paper with welcome mats can wait, as much as I wish to be in Iraq now, bringing back news from the grit of battle, where Coalition and Iraqi people fight side by side against tyranny and terrorists. Lord knows they could use the coverage, but it’s Christmas, and it’s time to celebrate our heroes who have come home, and those who remain in harm’s way, and to acknowledge the great will to freedom of the Iraqi people.
Although scenes like this are as common as traffic jams all over Iraq, we never seem to see them beamed back here in America
In the coming year, I'm planning to send back more information about our allies in this fight, the Aussies, Danish, Brits, Romanians, and my special friends the Poles. Although it might have seemed at times that we were alone over there, we never were. As the combat and military phases of this effort become more focused and the civilian reconstruction phases accelerate, it is also time to focus on the non-governmental agencies and non-military organizations that have been on the ground, helping to rebuild the infrastructure and update and enhance educational and technological resources available to Iraqi children, insuring generations of people who only know a life of freedom and self determination.