Iraq: Unreported Tragedies

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June 27, 2007: One of the great tragedies of the Iraq war was how much it was politicized. A simple matter of ousting a tyrannical minority (the Sunni Arabs, who were 20 percent of the population) and allowing the entire population to form a democratic government, was twisted into a number of unfamiliar shapes to fit the political and media needs of many groups, foreign and domestic. But for those who were paying attention, you could follow the progress of the war, despite the misleading reporting and partisan rhetoric.

Added to the mix was the Western attitude that Arabs were not capable of handling democracy. There was certainly a lot of evidence to back that up. There were no functioning democracies in the Arab world in 2003. The sorry state of Arab governance had also produced economic and cultural backwardness. Despite all that oil wealth, the Arab world had made little progress in the last half century, and was still mired in poverty and ignorance. Even many Arabs were noticing. The initial purpose of al Qaeda was to rectify this situation by replacing the tyrants with a religious dictatorship. The tyrants proved too formidable for al Qaeda, which turned to attacks on Western targets (in the belief that it was the West that was keeping the Arab tyrants in power, when, in fact, Arab tyrants got most of their police state tutoring from the defunct Soviet Union).

The war in Iraq is basically the war against the Sunni Arab minority, who refuse to acknowledge defeat, and are using terror tactics to stimulate a civil war that would, as their fantasy goes, enable them to regain power. There was never any secret about this. The story of Saddam's "Plan B" made a brief appearance in the mass media right after Saddam fell. But that was the last you heard of it.

Throughout the world, many objected to the war, for emotional, political or financial grounds. This opposition could not cope with what the war was, but instead invented many alternative versions (Iraqi freedom fighters, al Qaeda on steroids, and so on). There was an al Qaeda component, which quickly united with their natural enemies, the Sunni Arab nationalists, to put the Sunni Arabs back in charge. Added to the mix was Shia Iran, eager to see Iraq turned into a Shia Islamic state. This was competing with the al Qaeda, which wants to establish a Sunni Islamic state. Many Iraqi Sunni Arabs liked the idea of a religious dictatorship, because the secular version (Saddam) had been a disaster, and democracy would put the Iraqi Shia (who make up 60 percent of the population) in power.

The strategy for such a war is simple, hold elections and get the elected government strong enough so that it can take care of itself without American troops. The media missed an obvious part of this story. That is the fact that the majority Shia and Kurds had been excluded from leadership positions in the military, police and government for decades. There were obvious reasons for this, but the present result was that loyal security forces required experienced Shia and Kurdish leaders, who had to be created from scratch. There were some Sunni officers and officials that could be trusted, but most were suspect. That's because of another problem you encounter in much of the Arab world; family and tribe count for more than national loyalty. This makes sense when you remember that there are no Arab governments that are "just and reliable" in the Western sense. The only institution the individual can depend on for help was the family and tribe. Thus you keep hearing about "Arab tribal leaders" getting involved in whatever is happening in Iraq.

At first, most of the Sunni tribal chiefs refused to participate in a democracy. This didn't get the media coverage it deserved, partly because it was becoming dangerous for Western journalists to operate in Iraq, and partly because most of the interpreters and free-lance Iraqi reporters hired by Western news organizations, were Iraqi Sunni Arabs (who were the most educated segment of the population, and most likely to speak English). Naturally, these Sunni Arabs would spin the news in their favor, and they did. If you knew anything about Iraq, you could pick this out. But most people didn't, and couldn't. As a result, reporting on Iraq veered off into fantasy land, where much of it still resides.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the Iraq Sunni Arab fantasy that only they could, or should, rule Iraq, slowly fell apart. The Sunni Arab terror campaign, however, kept going, fueled by cash from Saddam backers in exile, and pro-Islamic organizations and individuals in the Middle East. The Sunni terrorists were formidable opponents, because they had many advantages. The Sunni Arabs were better educated, and had more people who had held positions in police and para-military organizations. In effect, the same thugs who terrorized the Iraqi people for Saddam, were now doing it again, in order to restore Saddam, or another Sunni Arab.

But as capable as the Sunni terrorist were, they found it was much easier to kill Iraqis, than it was to kill Americans. The terrorists quickly realized that the first order of business was to force the foreign troops out of Iraq. But the foreign troops were skilled professionals, and killing them was very difficult. In fact, many of the attacks on foreign troops, as with roadside bombs, ended up just killing Iraqis instead. Some 95 percent of the dead in Iraq were Iraqis, and most were Iraqis killed by Sunni Arab terrorists. The Iraqis noticed.

If the victims were the new Iraqi police or soldiers, than that was good as far as the terrorists were concerned. And many terrorist attacks were directed at the new police force and army. But then a strange thing happened, one that never got the attention it deserved. Despite all the terror attacks, people kept joining the police and army. While the cops were often corrupt, as they had always been, they were less corrupt than in the past, and they began to take back the streets. The big problem with the cops was the lack of experienced leadership. This was impossible because, under Saddam, Shia and Kurds could not have leadership positions in the security forces. But one could see how the future would develop by looking to northern Iraq. There, the Kurds had been free of Saddam since the early 1990s, when U.S. and British forces basically told Saddam to stay away, or else, and Saddam did. Left alone for a decade before 2003, the Kurds developed leadership for their security forces. The bumps along that road went largely unreported, but the end result was police and military units that were able to keep the terrorists out of northern Iraq. This began happening in other parts of Iraq. This was not news, except on a slow news day when it was OK to run a story on vacation sports and resorts in Iraq (they exist).

Meanwhile, down south, the war played out in a predictable fashion. The Sunni terrorists made themselves very unpopular with the Sunni Arab population. Three years ago, Sunni tribal chiefs began to turn against the terrorists. Two years ago, this had developed into open warfare between al Qaeda and some tribes. Starting a year ago, most of the tribal chiefs had abandoned the Sunni Arab dream of taking over again, and had sided with the government. The terrorists were losing, but no one outside Iraq was paying attention. Or, to put it more accurately, few journalists saw defeated terrorists as a story worth pursuing (for both personal and professional reasons).

Another angle largely ignored by the mass media was the battle against corruption. This shortage of honest officials (both civil and military) is one of the reasons the Arab world is in such a sorry state. Again, this goes back to the dependence on family and tribe. Even Iraqis who understand the need for honest and clean officials, are also under pressure to favor their family and tribe because, if this democracy doesn't work out, their only lifeline will be the tribe. This transition from tribal government, to national one, is not unique to the Middle East. It is playing out in other parts of the world, and most successful democracies had to pass through it in the past. Iraq will not be a victory until passage is made. The Arab world is watching. Iraq is test case, the model for an Arab future of success, and not more of the current tyranny and failure.

 

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