Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Editorial: Iraq, What Do We Owe You?

Jeremy Schlangen

By Peter Holslin
Two weeks ago, the Iraqi government reported that around 2,300 Iraqi families have returned to their homes. Evidently, the war-torn country’s new joint security plan has brought newfound peace and stability.

Still, the experience of one family, a 67-year-old widow, her daughter and two teenage granddaughters, tells a dark story. A few weeks ago, when they arrived at their house in the deserted Amil community in Baghdad, their car packed with their belongings, they could not stay long.

Someone had spray-painted a note in red on one wall. “Residents of this house, your blood is wanted,” it read. “Leave.”

Over the past few weeks, Congress has jockeyed over an emergency-spending bill that would allot a hundred billion dollars for the war and institute benchmarks ensuring service members are adequately prepared before they are deployed to the country. Both the House and the Senate voted to include an amendment that calls for a troop withdrawal to begin in 120 days, and for troops to be out of the country by March 2008. Some lawmakers voted against the amendment. They demanded an even more immediate withdrawal.

There is no end in sight to violence in Iraq, but the American forces are pursuing a security plan that has shown some success. It is a wonder why democrats in Congress are demanding a speedy pull out so soon. As it is, this bill neglects these families, who have escaped their own homes and now fear for their lives.

Between March 16 and March 25, 560 civilians lost their lives in Iraq, according to the tracking project, Iraq Body Count. The majority were kidnapped, tortured and executed, or killed in bomb attacks. As the family in Amil escaped their old neighborhood a second time, four family members in the village of al-Buajeel, including a baby, met a grisly fate. Insurgents met them in their house and shot them dead.

Congress needs to keep these families in mind when it plans how long the American forces should stay in Iraq. At this point in the war, the American forces can finally offer some security. But if our troops leave Iraq in less than a year, America should consider what else we owe Iraq. This nation has a complicated history and we have laid groundwork for a chaotic future.

The nation of Iraq gained independence from the British in 1932, and Iraqis persevered through decades of monarchical rule and military coups. With a diverse body of Shia and Sunni Muslims, Christians and Kurds, the country retained a rich artistic and political culture.

Then, in 1968, the Baath Party took control of the country and they subjected Iraqis to terrifying panoptic controls. The Baaths led “Fifth Column” raids. Saddam Hussein rose to the presidency in 1979, and escalated a ruthless torture program dubbed “The Instrument of Yearning.” The party liquefied real and imaginary dissidents alike, running them through kangaroo courts, torture chambers, and prisons. In 1980, Hussein attacked Iran, and scores of Iraqis were sent to die in a war that lasted eight years.

When the United States finally ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraqis were no doubt relieved of this catastrophic burden. We could have brought stability, but instead we ensured for these people a great instability.

The top U.S. administrator in the country, Paul Bremer, dissolved the Iraqi Army. The U.S. government helped form a parliament that subjugated former Baath members and offered advantages to the country’s majority Shia population and the Kurdish minority, further sowing sectarian resentment. Donald Rumsfeld, then the U.S. secretary of defense, deluded by grand ambitions, cut troop levels. Looters overwhelmed Baghdad’s museums and troops could not effectively contain Baghdad’s streets, put down militants, and prevent suicide and roadside bombings.

The government also alienated Iraqis sympathetic to the American occupation. Inside the U.S. Embassy, Steve Coll wrote recently in The New Yorker, American officials—typically ones who knew little about Iraq—ignored Iraqi employees who had a special knowledge of the nation’s people, politics and culture.

Iraqi translators, drivers and office workers kept at their jobs, but had to hide their identities, sleep in cars and live in fear of the militants who killed more and more of their coworkers. Meanwhile, many U.S. diplomats treated them with great suspicion and purged them from their offices, preferring Jordanian employees instead.

Now, over four years after invading Iraq, we have adopted a new security plan that probably would have been effective at the war's inception. There have been some signs of hope: Families have been able to return to their homes and the Iraqi government is beginning diplomatic talks with insurgents.

But Congress is not satisfied: they are saying we should leave this country as soon as possible. The Iraqis should head up the parliament that we helped build, contain the violence that we helped foment, and control an uncertain future that we helped define.

Indeed, the Iraqis should have control over their own fate. Nevertheless, the United States must offer more to Iraq than a speedy pull out, because the problems are complicated: today, terrorists impersonate security forces, the Bush Administration refuses negotiations with Iran and innocent families in Iraq cower in fear. Iraqis will not simply forget what we have done to their country, so when our troops no longer patrol their streets, we must still consider what we can do for Iraq.

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