KIRKUK–Along with the one-year anniversary of the Coalition’s invasion of Iraq has come the media’s “summing-up” of the war and its aftermath. One overview I found particularly interesting appeared in the Financial Times’s March 20-21 Weekend section. Below a year-old photograph of a terrified Iraqi infant, the paper ran a timeline entitled “Iraq: A Year On,” listing such high points of Iraq’s liberation as car bombs, civilian deaths, and the fruitless search for WMDs. You’d think it might have mentioned the discovery of mass graves–a major event to Iraqis–but never mind. The FT also printed a chart registering military fatalities to date (671), although more edifying statistics might have included Iraq’s daily oil production (2.5 million barrels, nearly at the pre-war level of 2.8 million), electricity generation (4,200 megawatts, just short of the prewar level of 4,500), or the 200 neighborhood and tribal councils created by the CPA. But that would contradict the negative assessments of the war favored by the press.
What really captured my attention, however, was an accompanying article headlined, “A year after the invasion the spectre of murderous civil war still hangs over Iraq”. Aside from the word “murderous” (is there another kind of civil war?), I was surprised by the FT’s narrow conception of present-day Iraq. Yes, civil war is a possibility here. The current elbowing for power among the country’s constituencies–particularly the Kurdish and Shiite populations–may escalate into fisticuffs once the CPA dissolves on June 30. And it is troubling that many government ministries have become virtual fiefdoms for ethnic and confessional groups. But like many other articles on this same topic, the FT’s piece ignored Iraqis who maintain a tenacious optimism about the future and are working in countless ways, large and small, to defeat the forces seeking to tear their nation apart. Where are the voices of these people in the discussion about the potential for harb ahlea–civil war?
Take, for instance, Kirkuk, where a multiethnic population of 700,000 is a microcosm of Iraq as a whole. In the one-story headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)–which, along with the Kurdistan Democratic party (KDP), is the main political group in northern Iraq–I met Sabah Mohammad. “Everyone wants peace and democracy–Kurds, Shiites, Turkmen, Arabs, we work as one,” he said, rubbing his index fingers together in the Iraqi sign for cooperation. Down the street from the PUK’s office is the Islamic Union of Kurdistan. There, director Abdul Kharder said, “Our purpose is to foster justice and brotherhood among the people of Iraq. Under Islam, there is no difference between Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, or Arabs.”
To be sure, these expressions of comity mask tensions that periodically erupt into violence–in the mid-1990s, for example, the PUK and KDP fought a brief war, while over the last year Kurdish gunmen have killed numerous Arabs and Turkmen protesting Kurdish demands for autonomy in northern Iraq. And although the population of this region is overwhelmingly Muslim, many people reject an Islamic state. Over tea at the Women’s Freedom Center, office manager Parrween Ahmed commented, “We want freedom, even if we go against the Koran. The mixture of secular law and sharia is not good for women or democracy.”
Complicating matters, for nearly 40 years the Baathists displaced tens of thousands of Kurds, Turkmen, and Assyrians from Kirkuk and settled Arab families in their places, a process known as “Arabization.” How deep resentment runs against Arabs in Kirkuk can be measured by one cab driver’s comment, startling for anti-Semitic Iraq: “Kurds are better than Arabs, Turkmen are better than Arabs–even Jews are better than Arabs.”
Amidst this sociological maelstrom sits Farmid Hamid, director of the Office of Human Rights. Among his myriad tasks, Hamid helps adjudicate complaints among Kirkuk’s restive ethnic groups. “Right now the situation is stable, and will be as long as terrorists don’t stir up ethnic conflict,” he told me, our conversation interrupted by ringing phones and document-bearing assistants. “We know the world is watching–if we can’t manage our problems, what does this mean for the future of Iraq?” As for Kurdish demands for autonomy, he envisions instead a federal system in which “certain Kurdish laws would pertain to Kurdistan only”–laws, for example, granting women freedom from sharia. “The Iraqi people want to stay together,” he concluded. “We believe Kurds and Arabs should live together peacefully.”
Hamid is not the only Iraqi attempting to hold his nation together. In Baghdad, Abdul Mashtaq is also dedicated to uniting Iraq. “We need political parties that represent more than the interest of ethnic or religious groups,” said the genial 69-year-old man on a day I found him addressing a group of Arab and Kurdish tribal leaders about his plans for a new political party called “Building Democracy.” “We seek to unite all of Iraq, no matter what ethnic, social, or religious background.” When I asked him about the danger of harb ahlea, he shrugged. “There’s no danger of that. Kurds will not press for independence, and Shiites will agree to a federal-style government. Besides,” he noted, patting my knee, “in the Middle East, no force can oppose the United States. You will prevent civil war.”
Other proponents of unity and democracy include Iraq’s Communists. Unlike the scores of secular parties emerging across the country, the Communists possess name recognition, a legacy of resistance against Saddam Hussein, and experience in grassroots organizing. Plus, they are saying many of the right things these days. “We oppose religious and ethnic parties seeking to divide Iraq,” commented Samir Adil, head of Baghdad’s Worker-Communist party. “Our enemies are not Shia, Sunnis, or Kurds, but Islamic terrorists.” Seated in his tiny office just off Ferdowsi Square, where Saddam’s statue fell on April 9, Adil related how WCP members in Kirkuk assisted the American army in calming tensions after outbreaks of ethnic violence last May. “We also helped the Americans keep order in many Baghdad neighborhoods.”
In Basra, Communist-party head Ali Medhi sounds more like a Social Democrat than a to-the-ramparts Bolshevik. “We want an honest police force and an accountable government that represents all the people,” he said. “We favor capitalism, too. Capitalism can unite Iraq.” No wonder the director of a Basra-based NGO commented to me, “If the Americans really want to support democracy and help prevent civil strife, they should pour money into Iraq’s Communist parties.”
But even the best-funded group can do little in a society that, after 40 years of Baathist rule, has forgotten the concept of democracy. Quipped the same director, “We must remind Iraqis that just because you win 51 percent of the vote, you don’t go out and kill the other 49 percent.” Still, this lack of experience doesn’t trouble Juliana Yussef, editor of the Basra newspaper Al-Akhbaar. “The climate is poor for democracy now, but that doesn’t mean the country is heading for civil war. Iraqis will stay together because we have no other alternative.”
You hear that a lot these days. Despite their differences, Iraqis know that failure to stand together will bring unimaginable catastrophe–and this realization, combined with their innate common sense and distaste for fanaticism, might prevent the nation from splintering. While this attitude reflects some wishful thinking, it does have a historical basis: From its ancient desert kingdoms until the rise of the Baath party in the 1960s, Iraq’s multi-ethnic peoples lived together in relative harmony. Today in Karaada, the Baghdad neighborhood where my apartment is located, one finds Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Chaldean Christians, Sunni, and Shia forming a model of Iraqi integration.
This is why the March 17 car bomb that destroyed Karaada’s Mount Lebanon hotel was such a powerful reminder of the damage terrorists can inflict on Iraq’s psyche. By detonating 1,000 pounds of plastic explosives in this neighborhood, Islamofascists signaled that multicultural tolerance was no protection against the chaos they spread. How Iraqis interpret this message remains to be seen. For among the people these days, a counter-feeling is developing–one literally growing out of the ruins of the hotels and police stations shattered by terrorists. “Iraq is a divided country,” says poet Naseer Hasan. “But each terrorist attack joins our people in bonds of shared suffering. In the end, it may be the terrorists who make us one.”
–Steven Vincent is a freelance American writer currently living in Iraq. He most recently wrote for NRO here.