Michael Totten

The Future of Iraq, Part IV

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Getting an accurate reading of Iraqi public opinion is hard. It might be impossible. I’ve seen Iraqis cheer American soldiers, and I’ve seen some Iraqis hug American soldiers in Fallujah, Ramadi, and Baghdad. A few weeks ago, though, hundreds of thousands celebrated when Americans evacuated Iraqi cities as stipulated by the Status of Forces Agreement.
It’s theoretically possible that what we’ve seen is not contradictory. Some Iraqis are pro-American. Others are not. Those who celebrated when Americans left may very well be, at least for the most part, different Iraqis than those I’ve seen who greeted Americans warmly.
Iraqi public opinion, though, is famously contradictory. And Iraqi public opinion as stated by Iraqis themselves is notoriously unreliable.
Most Iraqis, like most Arabs everywhere, are extremely polite and hospitable. It’s a guidebook cliché, but it’s a guidebook cliché for a reason. Their culture requires them to welcome foreigners, and they take that requirement seriously. Most will conceal any negative opinions they may have against a visitor personally or even the visitor’s country — and this is true even for visitors from enemy countries. They don’t mean to be deceptive. They’re just being nice.
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There’s another problem with picking up the mood of the street — politics. For decades Iraqis have lived either in fear of the state or in fear of militias. They had to learn to keep their opinions to themselves if they wanted to live.
I don’t think many Iraqis today are afraid of the state. But everybody was terrified of Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian government. Speaking their minds could get them imprisoned or killed. It could get an entire family dragged off to prison, tortured, and painfully executed. Before the Baath Party regime was demolished, it was extremely difficult for journalists who showed up in Baghdad to read the mood of the street. Everybody appeared to be fanatical supporters of Saddam Hussein even though few Iraqis actually were.
That’s not true anymore. But habits of mind go down hard. Concealing opinions from the authorities became a survival mechanism, whether the authorities were Saddam Hussein’s mukhabarat, militiamen in the neighborhood, or American soldiers.
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Before the Status of Forces agreement kicked in, I asked U.S. Army Colonel John Hort if and how he and his men took all this into account. Effective counter-insurgency isn’t possible when counter-insurgents have no idea what the general population is thinking.
“How do you measure public opinion?” I said to him. “How do you know what people really think? We all know about this tendency in Iraq where people tell you what they think you want to hear — or what they want you to hear, which isn’t necessarily the same thing. If you ask what Iraqis think of the American military while you’re standing there with guns in your hands, they might say oh, we love you guys. Then someone from the Guardian newspaper comes along and asks what they think of the imperial occupation forces, and the same people might say we hate them. So what’s their real opinion? Do you take this sort of thing into account? Do you have Iraqis feeling out the opinions of people for you?”
“We do,” he said.
“And they report back to you?” I said.
“Right,” he said. “We have the Iraqi Advisor Task Force. They aren’t spies. That’s illegal. But they’re hired to measure atmospherics. They monitor the mosques. They hit the restaurants, places like that. And we get these reports almost every other day. Over time we’ve seen the atmospherics and compared them to what you were talking about, the guy on the street talking to the U.S. soldier. Do they match up? And if they don’t match up, we have to figure out what we need to change about the way we’re presenting ourselves.”
Colonel Hort worked at Forward Operating Base (FOB) War Eagle, a medium-sized base in Northern Baghdad. After I left the FOB and moved to a small combat outpost deep in the city, I asked Sergeant Nick Franklin if he could help me arrange an interview with one of the Iraqis the Army trusts to provide real information. I was tired of trying to learn about Iraq through the lens of the United States military, and tired of asking Iraqis what they thought while they were in the presence of American soldiers.
What were Iraqis saying when Americans weren’t in the room? That’s what I wanted to know. Even if I had disembedded myself from the Army and wandered around Iraq by myself, I still wouldn’t be able to figure that out because I’m an American, too.
“You’re right,” Sergeant Franklin said. “You practically have to beat a straight answer out of people. I’ll take you to meet this guy Sayid who works for us and tells it just like it is.”
“How did you meet him?” I said.
“He’s been around for a while,” he said. “He’s been a source for the Army for years. Each unit that rotates out hands him over to the next unit as a known good guy who tells it to you straight and really knows what’s going on.”
So Franklin took me outside the wire to Sayid’s house. Sayid wasn’t really his name. That’s just what I’m calling him here because I need to conceal his identity.
We were in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah. It was a stronghold of support for Saddam Hussein’s government, and a stronghold of support for Al Qaeda more recently. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, who make up around 15-20 percent of the country’s population, are by the far the most anti-American. Yet Adhamiyah appeared, on the surface at least, to be no more hostile to Americans than Iraqi Kurdistan.
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I needed help from reliable straight-shooting Iraqis to see the truth behind the façade. I can’t know if everything Sayid told me was true, but what he told me was a lot more interesting and substantial than the “America good” boilerplate I often heard from random civilians.
What I wanted from Sayid was a glimpse into the Iraqi psyche, which he delivered. He also shared with me his vision of Iraq’s future. And I should warn you that his vision is not pretty. (For optimistic assessments, see “The Future of Iraq Part I”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2009/05/the-future-of-i.php and “The Future of Iraq Part II”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2009/05/the-future-of-i-1.php.)
Four of us sat on couches in his living room — me, Sergeant Franklin, Lieutenant Eric Kuylman, and our Iraqi interpreter “Tom.” We didn’t need to bring Tom with us, though. Sayid spoke near-perfect English.
I’m going to skip the exposition and switch to interview mode. Our conversation speaks for itself.

MJT: They say you’re a good guy to talk to because you give straight answers. It’s hard to get straight answers in Iraq.
Sayid: Yeah.
MJT: Can you explain to me why that is? I mean, I have an idea why, but I’m sure you understand it better than I do.
Sayid: It’s the formula of our community. There are many kinds of people. I will give you a straight answer, but it’s Iraqi like me.
Just 20 percent of our people are good. 80 percent are bad. You should know that.
MJT: I’ve heard that. “You’re not the first Iraqi who has said this to me”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2007/08/an-iraqi-interpreters-story.php.
Sayid: The bad people won’t give you a straight answer if you ask them about anything. For example, if you ask them about electricity. Is it good or bad? If they have 12 hours of electricity a day, they will say they have just one hour.
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Baghdad’s electrical wires
MJT: So they say it’s worse than it is.
Sayid: Yes. They don’t tell the truth about this stuff. And that’s just an example. And if you ask a deeper question, you can imagine the kinds of things they will say.
MJT: Why is that? Why is it hard to get a straight answer out of people? Is it cultural, or is it political?
Sayid: The main reason is because our community is too selfish. They love themselves very much. All they think about is their stomach. They want to enjoy themselves, and everyone else can go to hell. You should know that.
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Billboard in Sadr City, Baghdad
MJT: What percentage of the people do you think are bad in a way that causes security problems?
Sayid: I will answer you honestly.
MJT: Please.
Sayid: I’m shocked at the number of people who supported the Al Qaeda organization. It was about 60 percent.
MJT: In the past, you mean.
Sayid: Yes, in the past. Not now.
MJT: Why so many?
Sayid: I don’t know. A lieutenant came yesterday and showed me a picture of a terrorist he was looking for. I know this man. He is a good person. I am shocked. I asked the lieutenant what this guy did, and he told me all kinds of bad things. They are normal humans, you know. They look like me and you.
MJT: Of course.
Sayid: It was 60 to 70 percent. That’s a huge number.
MJT: But it’s less now.
Sayid: Of course.
MJT: Why is it less?
Sayid: Because they have money. They have a job. The coalition helped them.
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MJT: So they supported Al Qaeda for money. Not for politics. What do people here actually think about the American forces? I hear contradictory things. They seem friendly on the surface, and there is a lot less violence now. So anti-Americanism must be somewhat reduced. And yet I hear from some Iraqis that 80 percent of the people in this area don’t like the American forces and want them to leave. So I’m not sure how to sort all this out.
Sayid: The American forces help people in this area, you know. There was a time when the militias ruled this area. They were shooting people. When the Americans came, they could no longer do that. The Americans secured the area. And of course anyone who gives security is loved. He is a friend.
But in the depths of their minds, no. They don’t have any love for American forces. They always say Americans are bad people. They know the truth, but still they say this. They know Saddam Hussein caused a big mess in the region, but they ignore that. They ignore the truth. They hang all the responsibility on the American forces. But American forces secure them, give them help, give them money, give them a job. All the people in Adhamiyah working for the municipality, the Iraqi Army, and the Iraqi Police is because of the American forces. And they know that. But when you sit with them and talk with them, face to face, Iraqi to Iraqi, they don’t say that. They say all bad things come from America. They ignore the truth.
If you give them money and jobs, they’re good. If you cut the money, you will see another face. You will see the guns and the roadside bombs again.
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MJT: Where does the anti-Americanism come from? Is it because Americans invaded Iraq, or is it older than that?
Sayid: In Adhamiyah they loved Saddam Hussein too much. I’m not from here. I moved here about four years ago.
MJT: Are you Sunni also? I’m sorry. I probably shouldn’t ask you that.
Sayid: I don’t believe in that.
MJT: That’s a good answer.
Sayid: I believe in God, but it’s just that.
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Lieutenant Eric Kuylman
Lieutenant Kuylman: Adhamiyah is about 95 percent Sunni. Compared to other parts of Baghdad, Adhamiyah is spoiled. The first thing we heard when we came here is “we work so hard.” They’re used to having electricity. They’re used to having water. Saddam took good care of them, and they didn’t pay anything. He even fled here for a time. A lot of people are still very sympathetic to him, and that feeds into the politics.
Sayid, I don’t mean to speak for you. This is just what I’ve gathered from people. A lot of people here are very distrustful of the government, not only because of what happened with the elections last time, but also because they view the Sunni stake in government as a sham. We may view our government having our back on a bailout or something like that, but they don’t view their government as on their side. But if you ask people in some Shia-dominated areas, they’ll say they back the government more.
As far as the current sentiment toward us right now, I think we’re seeing a hangover. It’s like the morning after. We’ve been here for five or six years, and now that violence isn’t an issue, militias aren’t patrolling the streets, and people aren’t tearing each other apart, it’s all about money. It’s all business. Gimme gimme. “If you’re here and occupying the country and cutting me off on my roads, what are you going to give me now for it?” They’ve seen how much money we have, and now they just expect it. So if we’re not going to do anything good, we’re just going to piss them off more the longer we stay.
MJT: [To Lieutenant Kuylman.] That makes sense. [To Sayid.] Does that sound about right to you?
Sayid: [Nods.]
Lieutenant Kuylman: Everyone was glad that the Americans were here, that Sahawa was here, as long as there was a bad guy out there to fight. Fast-forward a year later to when the violence is down, and you have Sahawa on the street corners acting like gangs and militias.
Sayid: They are gangs.
Lieutenant Kuylman: Sometimes they treat people badly, depending on which area you’re in.
MJT: You’re talking about the Sons of Iraq?
Lieutenant Kuylman: The Sons of Iraq, yeah. Depending on which area you go to, people have a different view of them. And now with us, we pumped all that money in shops and into Sahawa, so they know we have money. But if they don’t see constant improvement, then they wonder why we’re still here. They look at us and say “what have you done for us lately?”
Sayid: [To Lieutenant Kuylman.] I have a question for you. You pumped a huge amount of money. What do you think has changed? If you pay a lot of money, you should expect something from it.
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Lieutenant Kuylman: The logic is that once you secure an area, if people have something to live for, if they have something they want to protect, if they have something to lose, they’ll have a stake in their community. They’ll have ownership. If they have a nice business now, they won’t want to lose their business. You know what I mean? So we gave people that. We injected money into the economy and people spent it. They spent it on other goods. If I give a guy 2,000 dollars for his shop, he stands to lose something. Before he had nothing. Now he has employees, he feeds his family. The logic is that if we do that across the board, people won’t let everything all go to shit.
Sayid: Yeah.
Lieutenant Kuylman: Because they don’t want to lose what they have. That’s what we put all our money on. That’s what we bet on. That they’ll fight to keep it. But the flip side is that we now have people who expect us to do things for them with money, and the money supply is not endless.
Sayid: Yes, that’s good, wise, and logical. But I’ll tell you something. That was the logic of the Saddam regime, too. He’s dead, but some people still believe in him even though they don’t get anything from him now. If you see the old houses by the Hanifa Mosque, it’s misery. They’re sinking in black water. I don’t know why they love Saddam, those people.
Lieutenant Kuylman: I don’t know if those people love Saddam, but if you cross Omar Street, those people have good houses. Those people are sitting good.
Sayid: And, of course, educated people think about logic. If someone didn’t pass primary school, you can’t expect much from him.
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Lieutenant Kuylman: And that gets to another thing in Adhamiyah. Where you are right now is the lower — don’t take this the wrong way, Sayid — but it’s the lower class, with less education and less money. The further you go toward the east, the more people you’ll find who used to have government administration jobs. They’ve got former colonels in the Iraqi Army, college-educated kids, English-speaking families.
Sayid: Of course, money makes life fun.
MJT: What do people here think of Al Qaeda now?
Sayid: They don’t love them.
MJT: In the past, though…
Sayid: In the past they helped them and even opened their hearts to them. Al Qaeda are really bad people. They even rape women, and you can’t do anything. They kill people right in front of your eyes, and you can’t do anything.
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MJT: What were people here expecting from those guys? They must have known Al Qaeda was doing this sort of thing in other places, in Afghanistan, in New York City. Maybe they liked Al Qaeda for what they did in New York City.
Sayid: It’s a religious thing. They think if they kill someone like me, someone like you, they will go to heaven. If they have a big bomb and they kill us all, they’ll go to heaven. They fill people’s minds with this crap, that there are beautiful chicks in heaven.
MJT: Were people here expecting Al Qaeda to kill only Americans?
Sayid: No, no, no.
MJT: I’m trying to figure out what kind of mental shift went on here.
Sayid: They love to kill people like me.
MJT: I know it. But why did people here support them before and now they don’t? What changed their minds?
Sayid: They didn’t see the bad face of Al Qaeda before. If Al Qaeda didn’t rape wives and all the other bad things, Al Qaeda would have support even now. There is still a sleeping cell in Adhamiyah.
MJT: How do you know that?
Sayid: I know it. It’s my job to know.
MJT: Do you know who they are?
Sayid: Yesterday I showed a lieutenant a house of Al Qaeda leaders in Adhamiyah. He didn’t know where they lived. I have many relationships, and from those relationships I can collect information about them. So I showed the lieutenant two houses. One of these guys killed his sister’s husband.
Lieutenant Kuylman: Why did he kill his sister’s husband?
Sayid: Because his sister’s husband was Shia.
Lieutenant Kuylman: It’s not so much that people here have turned against Al Qaeda. If people in Adhamiyah are against anything, it’s the Jaysh al Mahdi militia and the “Special Groups.” They will vehemently blame everything on Jaysh al Mahdi and Iran because they’re Sunni. So you don’t see too many explicit denunciations of Al Qaeda. They think of it more as a business issue.
Sergeant Franklin: Look at the Abu Hanifa Mosque. I wouldn’t say it’s a breeding ground, but it’s a haven. It’s a nice place to hide. We can’t go in there.
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Sergeant Nick Franklin
MJT: The imam is radical?
Lieutenant Kuylman: Well, he was detained. He doesn’t like us very much. I wouldn’t say he’s a radical, but he’s not cool.
MJT: What do people here think of the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police?
Sayid: They don’t trust them. All of them come from the Shia militias. From Jaysh al Mahdi.
MJT: They’re mostly Shias in the police and the army here?
Sayid: Yes.
MJT: Isn’t that kind of stupid? Who makes these decisions?
Lieutenant Kuylman: The Iraqi Police came from Sadr City. The logic was that the Iraqi Police in Sadr City were so corrupt, yet they couldn’t really afford to fire them all. So they just swapped them.
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Sayid: [Laughs.]
MJT: So they have Sunnis as police in Sadr City?
Lieutenant Kuylman: I think they do. All the police here are Shias. And they’re completely ineffective. They patrol on their own, and no one will go to the police.
MJT: So people around here don’t like American soldiers very much, but they trust Americans more than they trust their own police?
Sayid: Yes. That’s right. The only people anyone trusts are the American forces.
MJT: So they don’t like Americans, but they trust Americans.
Sayid: Yes. I told you, it’s complicated and strange.
MJT: It is. I knew it was complicated before I walked in your door.
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Sergeant Franklin: They know that if they get detained by us, it’s a nice thing. If they get detained by the Iraqi Army or Iraqi Police, they might not come out alive. Or they might be missing a finger. If they get detained by us, they don’t really care. They know they’ll get out soon and they’re not going to get beaten.
Lieutenant Kuylman: They think we’re the lesser of evils.
Sergeant Franklin: And they know how to play the game, too. If they cry abuse, it might get us in trouble. They watch TV.
Lieutenant Kuylman: They know there’s a system we all abide by. We treat everybody the same.
MJT: You were saying the Sons of Iraq was like a gang. What did you mean, exactly? There are different kinds of gangs.
Sayid: I’ll tell you something. Maybe this isn’t the answer you’re looking for, but I know why you’re asking. And I’ll tell you something. If the American forces leave this area before two or three years, the people will start fighting each other. You should know that.
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MJT: That’s the big question right now.
Sayid: I see that. I know it will happen. I live here. I’ve been shot at, even with a tank.
MJT: By whom?
Sayid: The Iraqi Army. Eh, not a tank. A soldier carrier. I was walking.
Lieutenant Kuylman: A lot of people say things will implode after we leave. They’ll blame it on politics and religion, but it’s not going to be any of that shit. It’s going to be about straight power. It’s going to be guys trying to one-up each other. It’s going to be key people in cities just like this who will want to seize the power gaps. It’s going to break down along tribal lines and these militias that we’ve put in place. When we pull out, there will be power vacuums. There will be pockets of people that we’ve put in power. I mean, everybody already has shaky alliances as it is. So what you’re going to see is the straight seizing of power. People are going to try to put their own tags on it, but it’s just about the seizure of power. It’s not going to be Sunni or Shia, nothing like it. It will be all about men who want control.
MJT: Does everybody here think this is what’s going to happen?
Sayid: No.
MJT: Is it a majority opinion, or a minority opinion?
Sayid: Minority.
MJT: Most people think it will be okay?
Sayid: Simple people. Uneducated people. The same 80 percent of people I was talking about before. They don’t see beyond their own nose.
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MJT: Is there any way to avoid this? Assuming you’re right. I mean, nobody really knows what will happen until it happens.
Sayid: It’s complicated. I’ll tell you something. We’re Arabs. But first we are selfish and greedy. If you visit a house, a neighbor, you will see that if someone’s neighbor is driving a nice car, he doesn’t feel good. He feels bad because the neighbor has a nice car. So, of course, he is envious of him. He will do anything to hurt him. When the civilian war happened, neighbors threw away their own neighbors. They said “if you don’t leave your house right now, we will kill you and your family.” They said this to people who were their neighbors for thirty or forty years. You can’t imagine.
We don’t have honest politicians. Not even in the United States. Politicians are bad. They just give the ignition to start it. The community does the rest. A small child could tell you that.
MJT: [To Iraqi interpreter Tom] Do you think that’s true?
Iraqi interpreter Tom: Yeah. I do.
MJT: If you could give advice to the American government, if you could talk to 500 foreign policy professionals, what would you say to them?
Sayid: They should finish what they started. George W. Bush did a good job. I hope President Obama will be honest with the Iraqi people and continue the work. I know the economy is tired from the heavy cost of this war. I know it. I know the American people have suffered, that many American people have lost their jobs. I see it on the TV. I know. I’m watching. But nothing is free. I hope President Obama will continue.
MJT: How long do you think it will take?
Sayid: In my opinion, you’re about a quarter of the way finished. Maybe a third. They say the hardest step in the race is the first. Continuing the race is okay. That’s my advice to President Obama. If he quits, many bad things will happen.
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MJT: It looks like the Iraqi government is going to throw us out, though.
Sayid: Believe me, Maliki is a dictator in Iraq. If the American government doesn’t watch him, he will become a dictator in no time. In four or five years, he will look like Saddam Hussein. Keep on him. He wants to rule. He wants to have the power. Everyone who works in his office are his relatives. He will bring all his tribe.
MJT: That’s how it is everywhere.
Sayid: No, no. In the States?
MJT: I mean, in this region. It’s like that everywhere in this region.
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Sayid: In this area? Yeah. It is. Except Israel and Lebanon. They have democracy. But the rest of them? Syria? Damn. [Laughs.] Iran, too.
If they evacuate the forces from this block, I will be the first one killed. The first one.
MJT: Do people here know you give information to Americans?
Sayid: No.
MJT: I won’t quote your real name. I’ll give you a fake name.
Sayid: But they know I’m a friend of Americans. The Americans are my family. They saved my life. The Iraqi Army arrested me and hit me until I was unconscious. They kidnapped me from my house. They were dressed as Iraqi Army. Well, they are Iraqi Army. But they also belonged to the militia. They wanted to kill me. But an American, the bravest man I know, saved my life.
MJT: What did he do?
Sayid: He is a captain. He got me out. He knew me from before because he visited me. And we had a kind of bond. And since then I feel that the American people are my family. Not the Iraqi people. People here want to kill me. They kidnapped me to kill me. And Americans saved my life.
I want to leave this country. I have suffered a lot. When my dad died, it was hard when I buried him. I couldn’t go to the cemetery because of the shooting. If I took him to the cemetery, they would shoot me. But I went anyway and hoped no one would try it. The cemetery is across the river. There was a sniper shooting at us. We’ve seen hell. We’ve seen hell. And that hell, if the American forces evacuate, will repeat. I hope it won’t repeat for me.
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MJT: I’m worried that you might be right, but nobody can know for sure until it happens. This is what a lot of people are worried about, though. Not just here, but in the U.S. also.
Sayid: Because they’re smart. They think well. They know what’s going on. Right now it’s okay, but think about the day after. Then bad things will happen. I believe President Obama does not want to do bad things to the Iraqi people.
MJT: Of course he doesn’t. He has wanted to leave Iraq all along, but now it’s his problem. It wasn’t his problem before, but now it is.
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Sayid: Because now he’s president.
MJT: Right.
Sayid: He’s facing huge pressure. I know that. I’m wondering what I can do with my house and my family. I don’t know. If Obama forces an evacuation from Iraq soon, everything will turn against him in this land.
Lieutenant Kuylman: Yeah. Sit on that, Mike.
Sergeant Franklin: Sayid might become an interpreter for us. And if so, he’ll be able to go to the States. He, and most of the rest of them, will be happy to turn their backs on Iraq and just go.

As we drove back to COP Apache in Humvees, I asked Sergeant Franklin what he thought of Sayid’s analysis now that we could talk privately.
“Do you think Sayid was basically right?” I said.
“I do,” he said. “There will be a power vacuum here after we leave. They’re going to jockey for power. Someone will take over and be dictatorish or an outright dictator, and Iraq will either flourish or it won’t.”
“I think he’s right, too,” said our Iraqi interpreter Tom.
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Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fought with Americans against Iranian-backed Shia militias and won. What I didn’t know then, and still don’t know now, is whether or not Iran can ramp that violence back up again, or if Tehran’s proxy militias have been truly defeated. I asked a number of American military officers what they think about this, and their answers were all over the place. Maybe nobody knows.
Sergeant Franklin was not optimistic.
“I think Iran is laying low right now and is riding us out,” he said. “They’re still killing our guys, though, and we know it. You know it. But we pretend they aren’t so we don’t have to open up another front. When we pull out, though, and they know we’re almost out, it will be game on here in Iraq.”
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