Looking Iraqis in the Eye
A six-month stint in Iraq managing the construction of Iraqi police stations showed Rocco DiPippo how only trust, respect, and cooperation between U.S. forces and Iraqis can lead to the stabilization of Iraq -- and how that effort is being undermined.
August 30, 2007 - 1:00 am
Last October, driven by deep curiosity, the lure of a generous paycheck and by a desire to be where historic events were unfolding, I left my comfortable life and took a job in Iraq. With a group of Iraqi and American construction specialists, I helped manage renovations and new construction for 17 Iraqi police stations in Wasit Province, southeast of Baghdad.
Neglected throughout most of the Saddam era, those stations, like most others in Iraq, were in derelict condition. And their condition reflected the state of the Iraqi police forces inhabiting them: broken down, corrupted, barely functional.
I’m an experienced builder, and I’ve successfully managed some very challenging renovation projects. Nevertheless, when detailed pictures of the police stations were dropped on my desk, I looked them over and thought, “How the hell will I get this job get done?”
After six months of difficult work, all 17 police stations had been completed, on time and within budget. That was accomplished in what has been called one of the most dangerous places on earth.
The main reason the police station project succeeded was that most of the Americans and Iraqis assigned to it learned to trust and respect each other, to cooperate, and to focus on a common goal, seeing it through completion. Without the mutual trust and respect, the project would have failed.
So it is with the effort to stabilize Iraq – without trust and respect between coalition and Iraqi security forces and ordinary Iraqis, no amount of weaponry or diplomacy will succeed in bringing peace there. And nothing can accelerate that process more than a firm commitment from the US that it will stand side-by-side with the Iraqi security forces, and with ordinary Iraqis, until peace and stability is at hand – no matter how long that takes to achieve.
Unfortunately, since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Democratic Party, the leftist media and the nation’s cultural elite as a whole have done little to help build trust between America and Iraq. Indeed, they have done exactly the opposite, filling the airwaves and the front pages of US newspapers with endless negative messages: the experiment to bring democracy to Iraq is a total failure; US soldiers are psychopaths and murderers; President Bush is a greater threat to the world than those who torture and murder innocent Iraqis; the US presence in Iraq is the problem, not part of the solution, to ending the 30 years of brutality that Iraqis endured under the boot of Saddam; the game is over – al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups have won and the Iraqis and Americans have lost.
Who can say that the morale of ordinary Iraqis and American soldiers was not damaged when one of the most powerful men in America, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, stood in front of the world and declared, “I believe… that this war is lost.” Who can expect them to ignore the defeatist postures of men and women like John Kerry, Richard Durbin, Edward Kennedy, John Murtha, Jack Reed, John Conyers and Nancy Pelosi? Who can forget the media deification of people like Cindy Sheehan and groups like International A.N.S.W.E.R and Code Pink, who are far more concerned with pushing a radical social and political agenda than they are with bringing peace and stability to Iraq?
Iraqis watch us, and they listen to us. What they hear from some of our politicians, political activists and cultural elites has made many of them reluctant to work with the Americans in bringing security to their country. Many Iraqis are afraid of what they are hearing from the Democratic Party leadership and their media shills – that America will abandon them. And as long as they are afraid, they will be reluctant to seize the initiative in their towns and villages and chase out those who are murdering their families.
That reluctance makes sense, since if the Americans leave now, as the Democrats are urging, the murderers will rule them. And the murderers will hunt down and kill anyone who ever worked with or cooperated with Americans.
It is very easy to pass judgment and make flippant statements on the Iraq situation from the comfort and safety of American soil. It is even easier to push lies and misinformation from the newsroom while nestled amongst those in agreement with your world view, where there is near total disconnect between words written and their effects on the ground in Iraq. But who would push to abandon Iraq if they were face-to-face with Iraqis as I was? Would Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Charles Schumer or Charles Rangel be able to listen to their frightful stories, to smell their fear, to feel their disappointments and still tell them that it would be right to leave them before delivering on our promises? Would you be able to look an Iraqi in the eye while saying that?
Go to Iraq. Not for a few days, like our politicians do, but for months. Spend those days living and working with Iraqis. Try answering the question I often heard from them while I was there: “Why are you Americans saying you are going to leave my country before it is safe?”
The first time I heard that question, during a heated political discussion with some of my Iraqi friends, I shot back saying, “When are you Iraqis going to start fighting back when terrorist thugs roll into your neighborhoods? Where are your Washingtons, your Jeffersons, your Gandhis, your Martin Luther Kings? Surely, in a country of 30 million people there must be some of them.”
It was unfair of me to say that. I am an American. I have never had to live in fear that something as harmless as a joke about my president could get me, my parents, brothers, sisters and cousins, tortured and murdered by my government. I had never lived in a place where a slip of the tongue could get me killed. My country is the United States of America, where just about anything goes, even when criticizing one’s government — where calling one’s president a liar, an idiot, a murderer or someone worse than Hitler is far, far more likely to get you a seat at the Oscars than a bullet to the brain.
After my outburst, one of the Iraqis explained to me that what I was interpreting as cowardice among Iraqis was deeper than that: “Saddam killed us,” he said.
Thirty years of totalitarianism had nearly destroyed individual initiative among Iraqis. It had nearly killed their spirits. It had made them averse to rising up against those who would torment them, including those who currently fill their streets with the blood of innocents.
The Iraqi who had explained what I had called cowardice also told me that during the Saddam era, the best way to avoid life-threatening trouble was to never poke one’s head up above the crowd. The surest way to do that – to survive — was to trust no one completely, not your friends, not your brothers, not your sisters, not your husband or your wife, especially when it came to discussing politics or the government.
It should come as no surprise to anyone in the placid West that ordinary Iraqis have been slow to rise in defense of their neighborhoods and to join with the Americans in pursuing that task. They have simply been hedging their bets. And why not? The antiwar declarations of the U.S. media, the cultural elites, American academics and high profile Democratic Party politicians tell them that America will abandon them.
Why would Iraqis join with the Americans, risking their necks, if they believe the Americans will leave before the terrorists were defeated? Why should ordinary Iraqis work with American soldiers in hunting down terrorists when prominent Americans like John Kerry, Richard Durbin, Barack Obama, Edward Kennedy, John Murtha and Michael Moore tell them that those soldiers are as cold and as brutal as the terrorists destroying their families, and America’s most publicized civilian activist, Cindy Sheehan, is telling them that the man leading those soldiers, George W. Bush, is the world’s biggest terrorist?
It is a miracle that in spite of these terrible messages, that in ever-increasing numbers, ordinary Iraqis are stepping forward to work with American soldiers to take their country back. It shows that courage and initiative are still alive in ordinary Iraqis. It shows that thirty years of Saddam Hussein is being undone.
The Democratic Party leadership and the media and the U.S. left have had nothing to do with that recovery. Indeed, in the name of trying to destroy a president they hate, they have tried hard to subvert that recovery. I often wonder how many American and Iraqi lives their subversion has cost. I wonder how many mothers have lost their children in Iraq because of the war-time treachery? I know for sure that their subversion has made it harder for ordinary Iraqis to trust American soldiers.
A few months back, while living in Baghdad’s International Zone, I received a panicky call from an Iraqi friend living in one of the city’s embattled neighborhoods. My friend, whom I’ll call Omar* was worried about his younger brother who had been ordered by US forces to report for questioning about terrorist activity in his neighborhood. Omar told me that his mother was a wreck over the possibility that her son, a decent kid with no terrorist ambitions, would be handcuffed and beaten — disappearing forever into prison-or worse. Omar asked me what he should tell his mother, and he asked me what his brother should do.
They were so worried because they believed the myth of American soldiers as violent psychopaths. It took me over an hour to convince Omar and his mother and his brother that Abu Ghraib and Haditha were sensationalized aberrations, that most US soldiers were fair and decent, that his brother should report to the American soldiers, that as long as he wasn’t involved with terrorism and was straight with the soldiers, he would be okay.
Omar’s brother did as I suggested, and he was fine. Had I not convinced him that, overwhelmingly, American soldiers were good men, had he acted on the Michael Moore-induced view of American soldiers, I think he would have fled from them.
Two steps forward, one step backward – that’s been the way of progress in Iraq since the “surge” began. But that’s not how the media and the Democratic leadership have described it. Both push the inverse of that reality, a misrepresentation that has emboldened Iraq’s enemies, helped push Iraq towards genocide and made it harder to build trust between Iraq’s leaders, its people and America. They have told ordinary Iraqis that their situation is hopeless, that America has lost and Iran and Al Qaeda have won. But that is not true. I was there and I saw some good things happening.
Yes, atrocities are occuring in Iraq and, of course, they should be reported by the media. There is carnage and deep corruption. The country is still, by and large, a mess. There are ugly Americans there (mostly civilians) and ugly Iraqis, too, who care little about their fellow man, who take advantage of others, who look the other way when confronted with evil, who commit evil, who do as little honest work as possible, who cheat and steal as much as they can, whether to buy a splendid villa in Jordan or to finance their next drunken orgy in Thailand. It is a very human place.
But there are plenty of good people there, Iraqis and Americans – soldiers and civilians from many nations, risking death and injury to help Iraq achieve stability. I know this is true because I’ve had the honor of working with some of them.
They are men like Mohammed, who while living in one of Baghdad’s most dangerous neighborhoods risked his life marking out, with a GPS unit, terrorist rocket launching positions that were right behind his house. Those rockets were aimed at the Green Zone, meant to kill Americans. Mohammed would feed the coordinates to the coalition. He told me he did that to stop Americans in the Green Zone from getting killed and to chase the terrorists out of his neighborhood. He took terrible chances doing that. If he had been caught, he undoubtedly would have been tortured to death. When I reminded him of that, he said his actions had been worth the risk. Still, he was worried about what might happen to him if we left Iraq before it was reasonably secure. Thanks to the political pressure coming from the Democrats to abandon Iraq, I had to tell him I could not say for sure whether America would stay or leave.
They are men like Hussein, who protected me while traveling on Iraq’s deadly roads. Hussein is an Iraqi policeman. Since some of his fellow policemen are corrupt members of terrorist groups, Hussein knows that quite a few of them would like to kill him. Still, he protects Americans mainly because he thinks it is the right thing to do. I can never repay Hussein for the courage he displayed while protecting my life. But my country can repay Hussein, by staying in Iraq until it is secure. If it leaves before accomplishing that, I am sure Hussein will be one of the first good men to be hunted down and killed by the terrorists.
They are women like Lamas and Dr. Rashida. You would likely not know that Lamas is courageous — when I first met her I thought she was beautiful and friendly and gracious but she struck me as somewhat superficial. Later, I discovered that she is very clever and courageous — a patriot, who along with Dr. Rashida, risks her life working with American aid organizations to personally deliver food, clothing and medicine to some of Baghdad’s worst neighborhoods. I do not even want to think about what will happen to these women, and the others like them, if the U.S. leaves Iraq before it is safe.
Brave men and women are counting on us to finish what we started, as are millions of ordinary Iraqis who will pay dearly for an early departure by the U.S. If we let them down, we forever lose the right to call ourselves a moral people.
During my last three weeks in Iraq I worked in Anbar Province, which the U.S. media once proclaimed had been lost to al-Qaeda. I walked among hundreds of Iraqi workers and saw no violence, no chaos, and no death – only steady progress on a construction project vital to Anbar’s economic resurrection. I met with a mayor – a tribal sheikh whose town was freed from Islamist thugs last year by US Marines. He was pleased with his people’s improving lot and was extremely optimistic about his town’s economic future. Sick of the killing that had gone on at the hands of terrorist invaders, he had learned to trust Americans enough to work with the U.S. Marines in driving the terrorists out. Now his town is safe and headed towards normalcy.
That dynamic, driven by trust, has been repeated throughout Anbar Province, and beyond. It shows what can be accomplished in Iraq if America does not lose its nerve there, if trust between America and Iraq is nurtured, given time to develop, not subverted by cynical politicians and fellow-traveling ideologues amplified by a hateful press.
It shows what is possible when America keeps its word.
(Author’s note: Names have been changed in this article to protect individual identities.)
Rocco DiPippo is a freelance journalist and publisher of The Autonomist blog.