Iraq’s Troubling Ambiguities

Over the last seven years, as a journalist, I have traveled frequently to Iraq. I always move about without protection and stay with families in private homes, trying to blend in as much as I can.

Each time I visit, I find a new country. In the wake of the carnage of 2006 and 2007, Iraq was paralyzed by fear. Now, though sporadic violence continues, overall security has improved to the point that President Obama has formally declared an end to America’s combat role, and the Iraqi authorities themselves are responsible for maintaining order.

Today, people no longer wear helmets and gas masks when they shop in the markets of Baghdad. In every neighborhood, even the most dangerous, children come outside at dusk to play, and elderly people leave their houses to sit on plastic chairs lined up by the roadsides, just as they used to before the war.

Public transportation, though not always reliable, is being revived. Female students no longer need to ride to school or universities in special vans with curtained windows.

But the mood I found during my most recent trip in May was entwined in paradoxes. Today, Iraq is a country of sullen peace and troubling ambiguities.

Many people I’ve talked to acknowledged that their freedom from the murderous oppression of the Saddam regime was “made in the U.S.A.” But there is also widespread resentment at the death and destruction unleashed by the U.S.-led war. Many expressed weariness at the seven-year occupation — along with apprehension that the Americans are planning to leave.

Few people expressed faith in democracy, their leaders or their own abilities to build a free and prosperous future. Worse, their outlook seems crippled by a mind-numbing apathy. I’ve seen the same pervasive, paralyzing despondency in Chechnya, Afghanistan and other wars I’ve covered as a freelance reporter, mostly for the French media.

Hopefully, the worst horrors the Iraqis have faced are behind them — but how can they go on with their lives if they’ve concluded that the battles they endured were fought for nothing?

The fact is, there remains a huge gap between what the West wants for Iraq and what many Iraqis understand by those Western goals.

Many people I’ve talked to never really took America’s desire to establish a democracy seriously, mostly because they were simply not familiar with the concept. For many, the word democracy has become synonymous with incompetence and corruption. They have absolutely no idea what the war cost the West in terms of money, lives and political angst. Moreover, many don’t really care.

In Kirkuk, the oil-rich city where Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen are struggling for control, I visited a Turkmen couple I have known for seven years. Adeeb, a 55-year-old oil engineer, spoke bluntly: “The Americans introduced distinctions between our people that were unheard of. We were to have quotas according to our religious sect. As a result, the little discipline we had was replaced by sort of a chaos based on supposedly ‘democratic’ values. If that’s democracy, nobody wants it.”

Adeeb seemed to have forgotten that under the previous regime his options were greatly limited because of his ethnicity. Saddam Hussein never hesitated to act against any sect or ethnic group he saw as a threat, and periodically launched vicious crackdowns. In 1988 he used chemical weapons against the Kurds in the town of Halabja in an attack that killed thousands. In the wake of the first Gulf war, he crushed the Shiite Marsh Arabs, destroying their society and way of life.

Still, disappointment in post-Saddam Iraq is pervasive, regardless of generation or social status. Not only do some people openly express nostalgia for the order of the Saddam era, but America has become an easy target for all grievances. Under Saddam, Adeeb recalled, the streets were clean. Today, sheep feed on the piled-up garbage.

In the town of Najaf, Mohammed, a 35-year-old shopkeeper, lamented that children have to attend classes in shifts because one building is used to house three different schools. In Fallujah, the capital of a Sunni rebellion in 2004, Muamer, a 25-year-old teacher who once fought the Americans, complained that his sect — on top during the Saddam era — had become the “forgotten one.”

Adeeb’s wife, Nidret, teaches English at one of Kirkuk’s elementary schools. Over the years I watched her become more and more traditional and religious and take a less-cosmopolitan approach to Western values.

“We are an occupied country and the invaders don’t respect us,” she said. “Can you imagine, my pupils don’t even want to learn English anymore. They say it’s the language of our enemy, of the people who are killing us for no reason, so we don’t want to know it.”

The word “respect” is repeated over and over again, like a mantra. Adnan, 50, a former high-ranking military officer and member of Saddam’s ruling Baath Party who vanished after the dictator’s fall, then resurfaced as the manager of a NGO focused on providing clean drinking water in his native Shiite city in the south, also feels he is not respected by the “invaders.” »

He says that life was better under Saddam, in part because he hasn’t seen any concrete improvement for himself and his family. He voted for Ayad Allawi, the secular Shiite winner of the elections five months ago, who is still unsure whether he will become prime minister. “We need an iron man,” Adnan says, “someone who understands that Iraq will develop again only if we respect discipline, control and the rule of law.”

Many Iraqis are convinced they need to develop their country by themselves but they don’t take any responsibility for today’s problems. Their passivity has bred cynicism, most blatantly illustrated by the inability of the country’s newly elected legislators to reach political compromise. These are the very people who must find solutions, not the Americans.

One argument used to justify President George W. Bush’s decision to go to war was that ousting Saddam would pave the way for the return of Iraqi exiles, many of them highly trained professionals, who would provide the basis for renewing and organizing society. But even those educated Iraqis who have returned to help their country are now thought of as “coming back in the Americans’ suitcases” and are strongly resented by the locals.

“Where were they when we were suffering?” asks Fawsia, 68, a retired professor of English and French living in Baghdad. “How could they, who didn’t share our burden for so many years, pretend to lead us now?” »

This attitude is also common in Afghanistan and in Chechnya. Those who help the “invaders” cannot help improve the situation because they are treated like traitors.

I doubt this resentment will be overcome in Iraq unless a deep level of reconciliation takes place — something that hasn’t yet been reached in any of these countries. Despair and disorganization are the real enemies, and they cannot be defeated by military means. Maybe we in the West should realize that it takes more time to erase what war provokes — destruction and despair — than to impose what it is supposed to bring: a democratic system.

Anne Nivat, a freelance reporter who has traveled across Russia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Her latest book published in English is The Wake of War: Encounters with the People of Iraq and Afghanistan.