Diary Of A Hollywood Refugee

Sunday, March 16, 2008

War Torn

About Iraq, John Burns gets it right:

FIVE years on, it seems positively surreal.

On the evening of March 19, 2003, a small group of Western journalists had grandstand seats for the big event in Baghdad, the start of the full-scale American bombing of strategic targets in the Iraqi capital. We had forced a way through a bolted door at the top of an emergency staircase leading to the 21st-story roof of the Palestine Hotel, with a panoramic view of Saddam Hussein’s command complex across the Tigris River.


It was not long, of course, before events in Iraq began giving everybody cause to reconsider. On April 9, the day the Marines entered Baghdad and used one of their tanks to help the crowd haul down Saddam’s statue in Firdos Square, American troops stood by while mobs began looting, ravaging palaces and torture centers, along with ministries, museums and hospitals. Late in the day, at the oil ministry, I discovered it was the only building marines had orders to protect. Turning to Jon Lee Anderson, a correspondent for The New Yorker who had been my companion that day, I saw shock mirrored in his face. “Say it ain’t so,” I said. But it was.


The harsh reality is that many Iraqis, at least by the time of the two elections held in 2005, had little zest for democracy, at least as Westerners understand it. This, too, was not fully understood at the time. To walk Baghdad’s streets on the voting days, especially during the December election that produced the Shiite-led government now in power, was inspiriting. With 12 million people casting ballots, a turnout of about 75 per cent, it was natural enough for President Bush to say Iraqis had embraced the American vision. In truth, what the majority produced was less a vote for democracy than a vote for a once-and-for-all, permanent transfer of power, from the Sunni minority that ruled in Iraq for centuries, to an impatient, and deeply wounded, if not outright vengeful, Shiite majority.

American hopes are that Iraqis, with enough American troops still present to stiffen the new Iraqi forces and prevent a slide backward toward all-out civil war, will ultimately tire of the violence in the way of other peoples who have been plunged into communal violence, as many Lebanese did during their 15-year civil war. Those hopes have been buoyed by a reduction in violence in the last year that can been traced to the American troop increase and to the cooperation or quiescence of some previously militant groups, both Sunni and Shiite.

They are hopes shared by many ordinary Iraqis. Opinion polls, including those commissioned by the American command, have long suggested that a majority of Iraqis would like American troops withdrawn, but another lesson to be drawn from Saddam Hussein’s years is that any attempt to measure opinion in Iraq is fatally skewed by intimidation. More often than not, people tell pollsters and reporters what they think is safe, not necessarily what they believe. My own experience, invariably, was that Iraqis I met who felt secure enough to speak with candor had an overwhelming desire to see American troops remain long enough to restore stability.

Read: War Torn - Looking Back At Five Years