Politics & Policy

Iraqis’ Frustration

Problems with the American presence in Iraq.

–Headlines across the United States and Great Britain scream doom, Vietnam, and quagmire as Shia and Sunni allegedly unite to throw out American “occupiers.” Commentators on popular Arabic satellite stations al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya–not to mention the BBC–insist that the events of the last week show that Iraqis do not want the Americans. Few if any of those commentators are actually Iraqis, and they speak for us no more than Jacques Chirac speaks for Americans. There is inherent racism in the belief that Arabs from Morocco to the border of Iran think alike. Iraqis have a unique historical experience. As I survey the views of people around my country, there is a lot more nuance than is transmitted by your journalists and pundits. While Iraqis do not want the United States to abandon us, it would be a mistake to believe that we are not frustrated with the incompetence and condescension which characterizes the American presence.

Basically, Iraqis see the American presence as wasted potential. With the exception of a single individual since departed, all are shuttered behind the high walls of the Green Zone. Last week’s events have shown how ineffective American money has been, largely because American officials continue to believe that they know the situation better than ordinary Iraqis. We hear with disbelief that the U.S. has budgeted $1.2 billion for the new police force. But they then assembled it from elements of the hated old police and army without significant screening. How can the Americans think that two or three weeks’ training will change the mentality of 35-years of dictatorship? The Americans did send perhaps 500 Iraqis for police training in Jordan, but arrogantly refuse to give the Governing Council details of the operation or its content.

The recent events show the failure of the American security policy. In Kut, police surrendered their stations and governments to Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi militia without any resistance. In Diwaniya, only the quick action of the governor, Shaykh Hazem al-Saalan, saved us from bloodshed. The police force for the entire governorate is just over 4,000 men, but they had only six cars and six radios. On March 12, a Jaysh al-Mahdi mob attacked a small gypsy village outside Diwaniya city using mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and AK-47s. Eight people died, and the militia looted and burned the village to the ground. Shakyh Hazan asked the police to intervene and stop the massacre, but the U.S.-recruited police refused, claiming they did not have the weapons to confront the mob. Shakyh Hazan, a liberal who leads the Khizail tribe, the largest tribe in the Middle Euphrates area, went to both the CPA and Spanish forces, but they also refused to interfere. Every American life lost is a tragedy, and Iraqis thank American everyday for saving us from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, but it is this sort of inaction that has caused frustration with the Coalition to crescendo.

The office of L. Paul Bremer, the administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, later said the CPA headquarters did not hear of the massacre for 12 days. That neither Diwaniyah police nor Coalition forces took immediate action signaled Muqtada al-Sadr that the United States was impotent. It gets worse. On April 4, just as I entered the center of the Diwaniyah city, I saw a police-patrol vehicle with pictures of Muqtada al-Sadr glued to the back window. I went straight to the governor’s office, where I met both the governor and Henry Ensher, the U.S. diplomat who heads the local branch of the Coalition Provisional Authority. The governor complained that the Coalition would allow him no authority over the police, a fact that Ensher confirmed. When I asked Ensher for an explanation, he just said, “The police chief is weak.” It was hard to be surprised when violence erupted and almost the entire police force abandoned their posts. The only policemen who stayed loyal were 250 member recruited from local tribes who wanted to protect their territory from looting. Shaykh Hazem deputized 1,000 additional members of the tribe to protect government building. We were able to save Diwaniya from further violence.

Ensher has now allowed the governor to nominate his own police chief, and we are in the process of recruiting new police officers who have no alliance or affiliation with the Islamist parties the U.S. State Department has been so eager to engage.

I have had a unique perspective on the American occupation in Iraq over the past year. As a former businessman, I maintain contacts Iraq’s many ethnic and religious communities. As an aide to Governing Council member Raja al-Khuzai, I was privy to goings-on inside the Green Zone. Fluent in English, I did not have a problem communicating with American and British CPA staff. Knowledge could be frustrating, though, because I saw how many CPA officials seemed intent on engaging Islamists. Senior ambassadors surrounding L. Paul Bremer, as well as their hangers-on, assumed that Dawa and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq represented the majority of Iraq’s Shia. Yes, they were loud and well-funded, but they were not representative.

Iraqi democrats were especially upset when Bremer allowed the militant Islamist Dawa party to take the health and communications portfolios in the new cabinet. Both managed major service-oriented institutions and so were fertile ground for forced recruitment. Want a job as a doctor? Show proof that you are a Dawa member. Bremer has sat idly by as radical parties force membership upon unemployed job seekers. I estimate that Dawa has increased its membership twenty-fold because your diplomats allowed them an almost unlimited source of patronage. The analogy I would make is if you went to your HMO and was told, “We’d love to treat you. But we didn’t see you in mosque on Friday. If you’re there next week, we’ll give you your prescription.”

As CPA prepares to expand the Governing Council, we pray that we will not be victims of your mantra of engagement and outreach to the Islamists. Do not reward Fallujah. Do not reward Muqtada al-Sadr. Listen to us. We know Iraqi politics better than you do. There are so many Iraqi liberals and democrats, Sunni and Shia, Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen, but it seems that only squeaky wheels get grease. Do not appease. Do not send the signal that the murder of American boys brings political reward.

Mashal Sarraf is a deputy to Governing Council member Raja al-Khuzai.

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