Iraq: When Is an Iraqi Not An Iraqi?


June 2, 2006: American troops are going to Anbar province in support of an Iraqi operation that is going to try and seal Baghdad off from the Anbar towns that still harbor terrorists (who send suicide bombers into Iraq.) At the same time, police have arrested several senior al Qaeda leaders in the last week, including Hamza Khair al-Aini and Samir al-Batawi. Interrogations of these two have already led to raids on more terrorist locations.


While attacks in Iraq are at their highest levels, American casualties continue to fall. Total American casualties per month are down a third versus last year, even though attacks are up about ten percent over 2005 (to about 85 a day). Americans have improved their weapons, tactics and equipment much more rapidly, and effectively, than has the enemy. People are shooting at U.S. troops more often, but to less effect. Moreover, the quality of enemy fighters has declined, as the more capable men, often former security men with long experience working for Saddam, have either been killed, or, more commonly, fled the country. The big change in the past year has been the massive movement of American and Iraqi forces into largely Sunni Arab areas of central Iraq. Many of these towns have not been under any government control since Saddam was overthrown in 2003. Now the government is there, in force, and the former Saddam gunmen don't like it. There has been a lot more shooting, but the Sunni Arabs continue to lose. This is especially painful because many of the troops are Kurds or Shia Arabs, people Sunni Arabs, from this part of Iraq, have long despised. It gets pretty ugly at times, and many Sunni Arabs have come to see American troops as their protectors, as the U.S. soldiers and marines are more disciplined and less trigger happy than their Iraqi counterparts.


When an Iraqi says, "I am an Iraqi," it has a different meaning from an American saying, "I am an American."  Kurds and Shia Arabs, like the Sunni Arabs, also have divided loyalties.  Family, tribe and religion come first, before national loyalty, in Iraq. This is a problem throughout the developing world, and a major reason why democracy is so difficult to establish.  These divided loyalties shift gradually. The U.S. became a powerful democracy partly because its citizens were all immigrants, who had cut competing ties. Thus saying, "I am an American" is a pledge of loyalty to all other Americans that is easier for a new immigrant, looking for support in a new land, to make. An Iraqi saying, "I am Iraqi" is much more likely to have a lot of other competing loyalties. Ask an Iraqi what tribe or clan he belongs to, and he will tell you, often with a tone of pride. Ask an American the same question, and most often you will bet a blank stare.


Iraqis know that they have to develop a national loyalty to go with their national identity, because without it, Iraq will always be torn by disorder and feuds. Many Iraqis also know that such an identity is not alien to the region. Iranians and Turks have had such a national identity for centuries. So also do people like the Egyptians. Tribalism and sectarianism are not eternal curses. The people in question have to decide which loyalty, in the end, is more important. This is a struggle that gets hardly any media attention at all, but is at the heart of the current violence in Iraq. The war won't be over until most Iraqis agree to become Iraqis.