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What About the Iraqis?

Small wonder, then, that the American discourse about the war usually ends up saying far more about American domestic politics than Iraq itself. Within the United States, politicians and commentators are fervently debating the issue of whether what is happening there now constitutes a “civil war.” In Iraq there is no equivalent discussion that I am aware of. Such a discussion, one presumes, would be bizarrely misplaced when more than one hundred Iraqis (in a country of 29 million people) are dying each day from internecine violence. In a country of America’s population, the equivalent losses would be a little more than 1,000 per day—or roughly two September 11 massacres per week. Similarly, New York Timesjournalist Sabrina Tavernise, who has spent much of the past three years in Iraq tracking down the views and daily experiences of ordinary Iraqis, wrote shortly after the US midterm elections that many members of Baghdad’s present-day political class, though well aware of the elections, regarded them as irrelevant to the fate of their country.6


The simple statement—“we should listen to Iraqi voices”—poses a crucial question. In our search for authentically Iraqi viewpoints, whom should we be listening to? Who can claim to speak for the citizens of a country where the barriers to understanding—following differences in religious belief, ethnicity, class—are so forbiddingly complex? In the case of Riverbend, it happens, it is also the mistakes of the young Baghdad woman, her limitations, that make her narrative worth reading. The daughter of an upper-middle-class family, she is a progressive Muslim and an idealistic Iraqi nationalist, intent on demonstrating to her American readers the high level of Iraq’s cultural and economic development. And yet she is also distinctly oblivious to some of the darker sides of Saddam’s regime.7 “Some would say that they [the Kurds] had complete rights even before the war,” she notes at one point, in a characteristic moment of blindness (she has apparently never heard of the poison gas attacks Saddam’s regime staged against Kurdish civilians). “The majority of Iraqis have a deep respect for other cultures and religions,” she argues elsewhere. She decries American policies that seem to her aimed at dividing Iraqis into ethnic and sectarian communities, and makes a great point of emphasizing the mixed Sunni-Shia origins of her family.

As the story progresses, though, reality begins to catch up. Suddenly Shiites are taking to the streets with their deeply traditional rituals of mourning and self-chastisement, which had been prohibited by Saddam’s government. For Riverbend it is a jarring sight:

These processions were banned before and, quite frankly, I wish they could be confined to certain areas now. The sight of so much violence (even if it is towards oneself) is just a little bit unnerving.

So much for her Shia roots. By the same token, she is notably contemptuous of Shiite representatives who have risen to new power and prestige under the occupation. She is particularly scornful of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq—SCIRI, the Iranian-influenced Shiite party in Iraq—which she dismisses with some plausibility as an Iranian proxy. But she neglects to note that its leaders include clerics who command the allegiance of large numbers of the Shiite population. She is equally dismissive of the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the senior spiritual authority for most of Iraq’s Shiites, whom she scorns simply as an “Iranian.” Such contempt, like that of many Iraqis who share her beliefs, completely misjudges the profound impact of the national elections sponsored by the occupation authorities. Before they took place she predicted they would be a fig leaf for American power—when in fact they ended up providing a galvanizing moment for many of those who voted.

In this misjudgment, Riverbend reminds me of those Soviet patriots who failed to understand the events that ushered in the final agony of the USSR. Many of those who lived well under the system were unable to see its crimes for what they were, making them dismissive or uncomprehending when the once-oppressed began to express their own political demands. The situations are not entirely dissimilar. In 2003, the American-led coalition entered an Iraq that had just completed a century of colonization, rebellion, social unrest, endless coups (marked by the public murder of political leaders), and authoritarian government even before the Baath Party ascended to power briefly in 1963 and then, more enduringly, in July 1968. After Saddam gained the presidency in July 1979, the country embarked on a twenty-four-year-period of totalitarian rule. The disastrous events of this era included the eight-year war with Iran (characterized by savage trench combat of a type not seen since World War I); genocidal attacks on the Kurds (including the use of chemical weaponry against Iraqi citizens); political terror targeting the Shiite spiritual leadership and religious institutions; the invasion of Kuwait and Saddam’s defeat in Operation Desert Storm; and twelve years of postwar sanctions that pauperized much of the population and severely debilitated Iraq’s once-envied social infrastructure. All too often attempts to deal with the effects of this history were driven underground by the state’s ban on political discussion, furthering a process of atomization that has resulted, on countless levels, in a society that no longer knows itself. Both Shadid and Nir Rosen, in his book In the Belly of the Green Bird, note in passing that many of the Sunni Arab Iraqis they encounter during their reporting firmly believe, for example, that Sunnis make up 60 percent of the population.

This doesn’t mean that Riverbend’s own perspective renders her irrelevant8 ; her passion, to the contrary, is precisely her strength. Her story is powerfully complemented by another Iraqi diarist, Amal Salman, a Shiite girl whose musings form a narrative spine of Anthony Shadid’s remarkable book. It’s an account made all the more powerful by her background: when Shadid meets her, before the American invasion, she is fourteen, one of eight children of a “stout matriarch” named Karima Salman, who is struggling to keep together her impoverished family as the latest threat of war encroaches. In her diary Amal reveals the musings of a child confronted with the confusion and brutal injustice of fighting. As war gives way to occupation, her diary reveals how the girl who had once spoken “with the force of a loyalist” matures into a questioner: “We used to have trust in President Saddam Hussein, but now we don’t know whom we trust,” she writes. Soon the markets are filled with videos documenting the horrors of Saddam’s regime:

Saddam’s elder son, Uday, is the most corrupt person on earth,” she wrote after watching the videos over two days, a viewing interrupted by blackouts. “Any girl he liked, he would take. No one could say anything because he is the son of President Saddam Hussein. His other son, Qusay, is also cruel, like his father and brother.”

A month after the collapse of Saddam’s government, she sets off to attend school for the first time since the invasion. Her teachers tell her and her classmates to rip the pictures of Saddam out of their textbooks—and then warns them to avoid wearing tight pants, “because there are some who are abducting girls.” Later her sister, Hibba, will be wounded in a multiple car bombing that shatters the family’s street. Shadid’s great strength as a reporter is his ability to encourage his subjects to tell us their own stories, wherever possible in their own voices, and by the end of his book we are left with a sharp and fully realized portrait of a young woman finding her voice amid the furies of anarchy.

That paradox of simultaneous empowerment and brutalization runs throughout Shadid’s panoramic portrayal, which scrupulously and very sensitively charts experiences of many kinds ranging from the pre-war period to the end of the occupation’s first year. He describes the funeral of a boy killed in a US bombing raid. He reconstructs the world, and the motives, of one of the early members of the Sunni insurgency, a rural man whose intense faith in Islam leads him to die in an ill-considered attack on US troops. Shadid also tells the story of a father forced by tribal custom to kill his own son, who is accused of collaborating with the Americans. At a mosque in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City, Shadid watches as a Shiite cleric loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr engages, as he responds to petitioners, in a style of hands-on religious activism heretofore unknown to Saddam’s Iraq:

The questions ranged from the mundane to the abstract—requests for equipment at a brick factory, help in tracking down a stolen trailer, assistance to reinstate a dismissed teacher, permission to open a medical clinic, queries about religious taxes. Money flowed freely—from a few hundred dinars to ten thousand, depending on the request…. Unlike US administrators, already blamed by many Iraqis for promising too much, Shuweili was careful. He never promised more than he could deliver.

Shadid, who spent years reporting on the Middle East before his work in Iraq, muses that he has seen this same kind of grassroots Islamic politics before, in places ranging from the slums of Istanbul to the refugee camps of Gaza. “The arcs of that activism,” he observes, “played out over years and decades. In Iraq, I was watching it evolve over days and weeks.” Listening to Iraqi voices, a simple strategy that few Americans have yet proven capable of mastering, has enabled Shadid to spot and track the agents of Iraq’s extraordinary evolution, no matter how traditional their guises might seem. And if we are to come even close to understanding Iraq, we must first be able to comprehend its radical transformation.


It is an aspect of the problem often overlooked in reporting of the war, but Iraq today is a country in the grip of revolutionary change. The American occupation swept away the institutions of Saddam’s regime without providing for new ones to replace them. It encouraged a remarkable flowering of pluralism in expression (including satellite television, avidly competing newspapers, and cell phones), allowing Iraqis to discuss the problems of their own society with a freedom that is still rare in the Arab world,9 while failing to provide many basic services or respond to widespread unemployment. It organized democratic elections and stimulated the growth of local self-government without ever dealing with the conditions that prevented these new participatory institutions from effectively exercising power—and watched helplessly as they were bypassed by other forms of community self-assertion, like Shadid’s activist clerics. Most catastrophically of all, the occupation government never managed to offer Iraqis a basic level of security—a situation that led to the expansion of already existing militias and encouraged the growth of new ones.

Many American commentators mistakenly assume that the democratic freedoms brought by the Americans have simply allowed the inherent weaknesses of Iraqi society to come out into the open.10 Certainly Iraqi society has always been deeply divided against itself; but under the occupation it has been turned upside down. The middle class, under attack from criminals and murderous ideologues, is abandoning the country. According to the Iraq Index of the Brookings Institution, the authorities have issued two million passports since August 2005. An estimated 40 percent of Iraq’s professional classes have left the country.11 New elites are rising in their place, sometimes through the use of violence; needless to say, this is not the sort of civil society that the Americans were hoping to promote. There is evidence, for example, that some of the Shiite parties have embarked on systematic assassination campaigns against leading Baathist officials, including secret policemen and air force officers who flew missions against Iran during the Iran–Iraq war in the 1980s.

  1. 6

    American Political Shift Linked to the War Is Met With a Shrug by Baghdad’s Elite,” The New York Times, November 10, 2006. There is certainly no lack of interest in the voices coming out of Iraq. When I ask readers of my own publication, Newsweek, what they miss most from current coverage, the answer, surprisingly often, is “What is it like for ordinary Iraqis?” Aside from the sources mentioned in this article, one remedy is certainly the growing number of blogs by Iraqis. See, for example, Iraq Blog Count at iraqblogcount.blogspot.com. Perhaps the best-known blog, aside from Riverbend’s, is by Salam Pax; unfortunately it now seems to be quiescent. Some of his writings are included in Salam Pax: The Clandestine Diary of an Ordinary Iraqi(Grove Press, 2003).

  2. 7

    As she herself informs us, some of her e-mail correspondents accuse her of being a Baathist, which she stoutly denies. I take this denial at face value; there were many Iraqis who benefited from Saddam’s regime without necessarily joining the party.

  3. 8

    She herself has acknowledged that blogging is not intended to substitute for history. See Firas al-Atraqchi, “Iraqi Blogger Documents History,” al-Jazeera (on line), April 6, 2006.

  4. 9

    Press freedom has now come under severe pressure from political parties and militias. So many Iraqi journalists have been killed that there must now be serious doubt about the extent to which the media can still report freely.

  5. 10

    See, for example, Fouad Ajami, who in his latest book depicts the benefits of the occupation as a “gift” that ungrateful Iraqis are incapable of accepting: The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq(Free Press, 2006).

  6. 11

    See www.brookings.edu/fp/saban/iraq/index.pdf.

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