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What About the Iraqis?


Sometimes there is nothing more gripping than the mundane. Consider “Baghdad Burning,” the online diary of a young Baghdad woman who goes by the pseudonym of Riverbend. Her story begins in the summer of 2003, almost five months after the American invasion, and by the end of the book version, compiled here in two volumes, she has provided us with the most comprehensive Iraqi view of the war to date. In one entry she describes her tragicomic efforts to battle boredom as she accompanies her brother and cousin on a mission to fill up the family car at the local gas station. (She gives up, she tells us, after the first six hours; the two young men will be forced to stay for another seven.) She documents shopping expeditions on which she takes note of the growing number of women who are covering themselves in hijab, or catalogs the travails involved in coping with daily power outages, such as setting up a bucket brigade to fill the family’s rooftop water tank. She offers a primer on how to react when you notice that soldiers are cordoning off your street:

My aunt went into a tirade against raids, troops, and looting, then calmed down and decided that she wouldn’t hide her gold tonight: her daughter and I would wear it. I stood there with my mouth hanging open—who is to stop anyone from taking it off of us? Was she crazy? No, she wasn’t crazy. We would wear the necklaces, tucking them in under our shirts and the rest would go in our pockets….

We went on with our usual evening activities—well, almost. My aunt wanted to bathe, but was worried they’d suddenly decide to raid us while she was in the bathroom. In the end, she decided that she would bathe, but that E. would have to stand on the roof, diligently watching the road, and the moment an armored car or tank found itself on our street, he’d have to give the warning so my aunt would have time to dress….

Here we were, 10 p.m., no electricity and all fully clothed because no one wanted to be caught in a raid in their pajamas. I haven’t worn pajamas for the last…6 months.

Americans, by now, can be forgiven for believing that we know something about the situation in Iraq; we hear about it, after all, every day, in what seems like benumbing detail. And yet, in reality, what we know about the lives of individual Iraqis rarely goes beyond the fleeting opinion quote or the civilian casualty statistics. We have little impression of Iraqis as people trying to live lives that are larger and more complex than the war that engulfs them, and more often than not we end up viewing them merely as appendages of conflict. The language of foreign policy abstraction and a misplaced sense of decorum on the part of the press and television also conspire to sanitize the fantastically disgusting realities of everyday death. One of Riverbend’s neighbors has been missing ever since he drove off one day in April as American troops were entering the city. His family has spent the past five months trying to determine his final fate:

…They traced his route from his home to Al-Jami’a Quarter, where his parents lived, pausing at every burnt vehicle to examine it and asking the people in the surrounding areas whether they had seen a white 1985 Toyota being driven by a 40-year-old man? Maybe it had been fired at by a tank? Maybe it was hit by an Apache? People were sympathetic, but helpless. No white Toyota—a blue Kia with 6 passengers, a red Volkswagen with a mother, father, and two kids…but no white Toyota. Every single time, they were referred to the makeshift graves along the main roads and highways….

Some of the graves had little cardboard placards stuck carefully under a pile of stones to help family members: adult male, adult female, 2 children in black Mercedes. Adult male, small boy in a white pick-up….

They finally found him, this morning, in an area outside his expected course. One of the several burnt cars, dragged into a dusty field, was a white 1985 Toyota with the skeleton of a car-seat in the back. Not far off were the graves. They located the “adult male in the white Toyota” and with the help of some sympathetic men in the neighborhood, unearthed Abu Ra’ad for identification.

To be sure, there is plenty of politics in Riverbend’s work as well. She is a passionate opponent of the occupation, and her writing sparks with rage and indignation. An avid consumer of the press and the Internet, she is well aware of the range of American attitudes about the war; she has her own.1 When she hears that US forces in Iraq are fighting “terrorists,” she notes that the American-installed Iraqi government includes several prominent members of the Islamist Dawa Party, which was behind a string of bombings that killed Iraqi civilians in the 1980s.2 When she hears that Washington aspires to implant democracy in Iraq, she responds by showing how her rights as a woman are being steadily curtailed by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism sponsored by the very same political parties that the Americans have brought to power. And when the talk turns to “collateral damage,” she asserts that “American long-term memory is exclusive to American traumas. The rest of the world should simply ‘put the past behind,’ ‘move forward,’ ‘be pragmatic,’ and ‘get over it.’”

A harsh verdict, to be sure, but perhaps it needs to be heard. The underlying irony of all this should be obvious. The writer of these words is a young female computer programmer (now twenty-seven), whose resourceful English (acquired during a long stay abroad in her childhood) would put many Americans to shame. Her familiarity with American culture and principles repeatedly comes to the fore; indeed, it is her intense awareness of American political discourse and reporting that infuses her writing. If any Iraqi can be receptive to America’s grand democratic design for Iraq, surely it ought to be someone like her. And yet, as her book dramatically demonstrates, she and her occupiers may temporarily inhabit the same country, but they continue to live in different worlds.


At the end of May 2003, shortly after the occupation officially began, two Washington Post reporters embarked on a noteworthy experiment. While Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks, the author of the informative book Fiasco,3 accompanied a US patrol on its rounds through a middle-class Baghdad neighborhood, his Arabic-speaking colleague Anthony Shadid trailed behind, asking Iraqis what they thought of the American presence. “Everybody likes us,” a soldier from Louisiana confidently assures Ricks. Meanwhile, as Shadid recounts in his book Night Draws Near:

… Around the corner was a man named Mohammed Ibrahim, standing on the sidewalk as Tom and the ten-man patrol passed his gated house.

Despicable” was the way he described the US presence. In a white dishdasha, a long Arab robe, the thirty-four-year-old winced as the soldiers moved along his street, nine carrying automatic weapons slung across their chests, the tenth a medic. Ibrahim’s grimace was personal, the kind of contortion an insult brings. “We’re against the occupation, we refuse the occupation—not one hundred percent, but one thousand percent,” he told me. “They’re walking over my heart. I feel like they’re crushing my heart.”

As Shadid continues, he discovers that some of the residents welcome the Americans, “in the hope that they would provide a measure of security after the weeks of looting.” Others express relief about the removal of Saddam. It soon becomes clear that the split in views tracks sectarian differences: Shadid’s Sunni interlocutors are clearly inclined to reject the occupation, Shiites notably less so. One Shiite matron tells Shadid that she fears what will happen if the US troops depart: “‘If the Americans left,’ she said, ‘massacres would happen in Iraq—between the tribes, between the parties and between the Sunnis and Shiites, of course.’” She hastens to add that “no one who loves their country accepts an occupation. Everybody wants freedom.”

The Baghdadi woman on that street in Yarmuk knew something about her countrymen’s basic sentiments, and the underlying fragility of her society, that eluded not only the US Army soldiers walking down it but, evidently, the invasion’s planners as well. Considerable attention has been paid within the United States to the Bush administration’s failure, before the invasion, to understand the true state of Saddam’s programs for the development of weapons of mass destruction. Yet there has been far less in-depth analysis of the government’s equally scandalous inability to form a clear picture of Iraqi public opinion, and its reluctance to study the history and culture of the country where it was about to embark on the most ambitious nation-building experiment since World War II.

When Paul Bremer, the head of the occupation government for most of the period until nominal sovereignty was transferred to the Iraqis, summarily disbanded the Baath Party and the Iraqi army, dismantling at a stroke the machinery of the Iraqi state, many Iraqis immediately understood that a dramatic watershed had been reached; it took somewhat longer for Washington and the American public to figure this out. For a time Bremer flirted with the idea of watering down planned elections to allow for greater Sunni participation as a way of pacifying the insurgency, but then his advisers were caught completely off guard when the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, spiritual leader of most of Iraq’s majority Shiite population, called for nationwide protests that immediately rendered the idea moot. The Americans were similarly clueless about the rise of Moqtada al-Sadr, the young Shiite cleric who rose from obscurity to become the single greatest challenger to the success of the occupation to date. Anthony Shadid recounts how one of Washington’s leading Arab experts in Baghdad dismissed Sadr as “a young upstart and rabble-rouser” and a “distraction.”

The reasons for such misreadings are many. Surely one has to do with the self-selecting nature of the regional experts whom the administration consulted on its plans. Ambitious Iraqi exiles like Ahmad Chalabi and Ayad Allawi all too often told policymakers what they wanted or expected to hear in the entirely warranted hope of gaining political power in return later on. Critical outsiders never gained a comparable hearing. Government experts whose thinking somehow contradicted the administration’s ideology were ignored (the most famous case being the immense collection of planning documents compiled by a group of State Department analysts and Iraqi émigrés). A broader atmosphere of cultural indifference toward the Islamic world and the non-Israel Middle East undoubtedly had a part as well. As a recent editorial in The Washington Post observed, five years after September 11 the FBI still has a mere thirty-three experts who speak Arabic—and most of those are far from fluent.4 The CIA and the Pentagon are not much better off.5

  1. 1

    That the occupation has inspired an explosion of media pluralism from which she also benefits is one of many ironies that apply to her story.

  2. 2

    Many Western countries shared Riverbend’s assessment of the group in the early 1980s.

  3. 3

    Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (Penguin, 2006).

  4. 4

    What FBI Agents Don’t Know,” The Washington Post, October 16, 2006.

  5. 5

    See, for example, “Can You Tell a Sunni from a Shiite?,” Jeff Stein, The New York Times, October 17, 2006. The article cited examples of how US government officials and lawmakers in leadership positions of the war on terror are often ignorant of some of the most basic facts about Islam.

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