A Fresh Start
Iraqis don't want us out, but they do want some changes.


Michael Rubin

Just outside the Convention Center in Baghdad’s Green Zone, Iraqis huddled smoking cigarettes in the damp January air. Above them, a huge Iraqi flag, symbol of Iraqi sovereignty, flapped in the wind. Another group of Iraqis smoked across the blocked street in front of the Rashid Hotel. Nicotine is one habit that unites Iraqis across the ethnic and sectarian divide. The smoking ban is out of place in Iraq and symbolizes the country’s lack of true sovereignty. American administrators and embassy officials regularly impose American regulations designed more for the comfort or social mores of Americans than for those of liberated Iraqis.

The U.S. embassy’s deaf ear to Iraqi sovereignty extends to more serious issues as well. Among the success stories of Iraqi politics has been the peaceful politicking that has united Iraqis of diverse political views into coalitions and candidacy lists for the January 30 elections. After careful negotiation, more than 200 mostly Shia candidates joined together in the Iraqi National Alliance (al-Ittilaf al-Watani al-Iraqi), the so-called united Shia list endorsed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. After agreeing on both faction proportions and the relative placement of each member, the Iraqi National Alliance spokesman telephoned the convention center to reserve a room for the press conference. The Iraqi receptionist passed the call to an American official who explained that room reservations could not be made without embassy approval. After being bounced around the U.S. embassy, a junior officer demanded to know exactly which candidates would speak at the press conference and what they would say before he would sign off on the room request. The experience left a bad taste in the politicians’ mouths not because they are anti-American or pro-Iranian–although some are both–but rather because so many are Iraqi nationalists and took offense at the embassy’s attitude.

A member of the Independent Election Commission of Iraq voiced a similar complaint over lunch at his Baghdad home. Junior American diplomats regularly accost him and demand the minutes of meetings; he refuses them on the grounds that the Independent Election Commission is just that. He would no sooner share its private deliberations with the Americans than with the Iranian, Turks, or any Iraqi politician. If the Americans respected the commission’s integrity, they would ask once and respect the answer.

Earlier this month, I spent several days with the Iraqi National Alliance as they discussed their campaign and the post-election order. Discussing violations of sovereignty, one aide waved his hand and said, “All this will change.” While looking forward to rectifying problems, no member–Islamist or secular–wanted the Americans to leave. Rather, across the board, their concerns centered on style.

What do Iraqis want?

The Green Zone is prime real estate in the center of Baghdad, now blocked off for ordinary Iraqis by concrete blast walls, military checkpoints, and American tanks. Few Americans leave the Green Zone anymore. Most enjoy the palace complex, with its marble corridors and swimming pool. But the Iraqis seethe. Closing the 14th of July Bridge in Baghdad had the same impact on Baghdad traffic that blocking the 14th Street Bridge would have in Washington. One member only half jokingly suggested the campaign slogan, “Vote 169 [the Sistani list's ballot position] and traffic will flow.” “We could even win Haifa Street,” an area of Sunni insurgency, “with that platform,” he explained.

Another candidate explained, “Perhaps they [the Americans] should get ready to go to the airport,” where Camp Victory, essentially a large American cantonment, is situated far out of the way of ordinary Iraqis. The Iraqis suggested that the Americans might maintain a small embassy in the Green Zone, perhaps taking over the Convention Center, but they should abandon the vast marble palace, with its crystal chandeliers and gold-plated engravings. Not only politicians, but also ordinary Baghdadis argued that diplomats and contractors who do not leave the security zone have no need to live in the center of town.

Some American officials may balk at the suggestion that they move. This would be a serious policy mistake. There is a fine line between liberation and occupation. The embassy might run roughshod over Iraqi sovereignty now, largely because interim government officials like Ayad Allawi and Interior Minister Falah Hasan Naqib owe their positions and campaign funds to American patronage. But the newly elected Iraqi politicians will have every reason to bolster their legitimacy by positioning themselves against the Americans in a symbolic battle for sovereignty. Many Iraqi politicians remember that Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer promised them the palace upon the transfer of sovereignty. Bremer was sincere, but was vetoed by State Department and Office of Management and Budget bureaucrats who argued that Washington had already invested too much for Internet, communications, and air conditioning to justify a move. Too often, decisions made in Washington for strictly Washington reasons have adverse consequences on the Iraqi stage.

Another issue with populist appeal that the Iraqis want resolved is the question of the American military presence. No one likes American convoys. Signs in Arabic hanging from front and rear bumpers warn Iraqis that deadly force will be used should they approach within 100 meters of an American vehicle. They drive down highways and major thoroughfares at 20 miles per hour, forcing traffic to grind to a halt. Iraqis nickname the resulting gridlock “American wedding parties.” While Iraqis want to reclaim their highways, they recognize the security function American troops play. Far more Iraqis have died in terrorist violence than Americans. While news-agency stringers can always find an Iraqi who will play to the cameras and demand the Yankees go home, the majority want the Americans to stay. Most pundits and academics who suggest the Iraqis will demand an immediate withdrawal have likely never been to Iraq and are more often than not voicing their own prejudices or basing their informed comment on rote repetition of Arabic newspapers. Most Iraqi politicians quite specifically say they would welcome a continued American presence subject to a Status of Forces Agreement such as the Pentagon retains with countries like Turkey, South Korea, the Philippines, and Germany. The issue is less American troop presence than respect.

Private security contractors are another issue entirely. Even staunchly pro-American Kurds say something has to change. Whereas the U.S. military vehicles are clearly marked, private contractors assume the same privileges but often act recklessly. Driving within the Green Zone, I was threatened by an automatic weapon-wielding security contractor who thought my vehicle too closely approached his. When U.S. military officials accidentally shoot a civilian, they pay compensation–usually a lump sum payment of $2,000, although Iraqis suggest a $200/month pension for the mother or spouse would be more appropriate. When security contractors kill civilians, they do not. More infuriating to Iraqis, when security contractors shoot an Iraqi, they do not stop to render medical assistance. Iraqi politicians have reached consensus that security details will no longer enjoy immunity from prosecution.

A new security policy

The newly elected government will also challenge the Americans with regard to security policy. General David Petraeus continues to take charge of reconstructing the Iraqi military. But a January 18, 2005, State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research poll showed that few Iraqis have any faith in their army or police. Across the ethnic and sectarian spectrum, Iraqis are critical of American insistence that Americans, rather than the Iraqis, vet potential candidates. Petraeus may want to apply his own theories of reconciliation, but Iraqis are tired of paying the price in blood. They seek reconciliation, but do not endorse a system of empowering their oppressors. While Iraqi politicians earlier jockeyed for the high-profile foreign-affairs and defense portfolios, the real fight during this round will be for the interior ministry, which will carry out the transitional government’s new security policy.

What will that policy be? Iraqi Kurds, Arab Shia, and even many Arab Sunnis–many of whom were equally victims of the Baath party–have quietly agreed to re-implement de-Baathification. Not only would this be a popular move–the rehiring of Baathist school teachers meant firing recently hired non-Baathists, for example–but Iraqis trace the downturn in the security situation to the April 2004 Coalition Provisional Authority reversal of de-Baathification. Many American diplomats will be tempted to resist such changes. One senior embassy official confided that reintegration of former Baathists has become a mantra among Green Zone diplomats. Many of these embassy employees stake out positions without having to face the consequence of their actions. If they travel outside the Green Zone, they do so in armored cars amid military convoys. Ordinary people do suffer the consequence of unrealistic diplomatic theory. While living in Baghdad last year, I seldom carried weapons. That Iraqi associates had concealed weapons was enough. When stopped at police checkpoints, I might need to show identification, but would not expect harm. But driving the streets of Baghdad earlier this month, I took my cue from Iraqis and would clutch my weapon with the safety off when approaching an Iraqi police checkpoint because of uncertainty about whether the police were loyal to the government, the insurgents, or whichever paid more on any particular day.

Iraqi politicians say they are eyeing far more sweeping de-Baathification. Rather than limit the purge to the top four levels of the party–perhaps 40,000 individuals total–they are considering a policy that would affect all two million party members. These members might continue to receive their pension, and they might also still work in government, but they will not be able to assume positions of command authority–colonel or above in the Iraqi military, or director-general or above in civilian service. Former Baathists like the defense minister, interior minister, and intelligence director would lose their positions. American diplomats and intelligence officers may not want to see their contacts lose their jobs or suffer demotion, but such may be the price of security, sovereignty, and democracy.

Washington should celebrate the Iraqi elections, even if the poll is only the start of a long transitional process. While the European Union wrings its hands, engages autocrats, ridicules the idea that Arabs are capable of democracy, and spends vast amounts of money saying little of substance at lavish conferences, the United States has actually done something to bring liberty to those who suffered under tyrannical regimes. Sometimes, though, the American embrace can be suffocating. Iraqis do not want us to disengage but they do want us to honor their sovereignty. This election provides an opportunity for a fresh and, hopefully, more respectful start.

Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of Middle East Quarterly. Rubin previously worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.