Lost in Our Own Little World

Two days after a lethal car bomb exploded outside the Mount Lebanon Hotel in downtown Baghdad last month, I sat down for tea with an Iraqi poet near the capital's famous open-air book market. In between jokes delivered with a mock Egyptian accent, he laid out his theory of the hotel bombing: The U.S. military staged the violence, he posited, in order to justify its continuing occupation of Iraq.

A few hours later, I stood in a city square as an emissary of the young Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr addressed a crowd of 1,500 that had gathered to protest the U.S.-approved transitional administrative law. Sadr's spokesman was equally skeptical about the U.S. presence, saying that the Army would stay on at the invitation of the "Governed Council" -- his way of characterizing the U.S.-appointed 25-member Iraqi Governing Council created last July to give Iraqis some feeling of limited national sovereignty.

The poet summed up the situation in his nation this way: "Surreal! Iraq is a surreal country."

But upon returning from Baghdad, I find that America feels a little surreal as well.

Here, the debate about Iraq is almost completely focused on what the war has or has not done for the United States. Two concerns we all feel: How long will our soldiers' lives be at risk? Are Americans safer from the threat of terrorist attack? Other concerns seem a little abstract: Will U.S. military readiness be sapped by the construction of 14 "enduring" bases in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins? What course of action best demonstrates the firmness of our will? Though these questions spark much disagreement among politicians and policymakers, a bipartisan consensus holds that the U.S. cannot cut and run from Iraq because its standing as a world power would suffer grievously.

Our self-centered national debate starts with the assumption that Iraqis want the U.S. military to stay, as Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said after the brutal slayings of four American security contractors in Fallujah, "until the job is done." Because there are few Iraqi voices in the American media, the public has precious little ability to fact-check this conventional wisdom. The White House cites a series of polls, most recently one conducted by Oxford Research International for the BBC and other broadcasters, showing that a majority of Iraqis believe they are better off today than under Saddam Hussein. The administration assumes this must also mean that Iraqis welcome the occupation. But Iraq is full of reasons to doubt this optimistic view.

Quite apart from the spread of violent resistance beyond the so-called Sunni triangle into the mostly Shiite areas of the holy city of Najaf and the sprawling Baghdad slum known as Sadr City, the bumbling course of the occupation has turned hearts and minds firmly against the Coalition Provisional Authority. One afternoon in March, I went looking for a group of Iraqi families that planned to hold a demonstration to burn the promissory notes they had been given as compensation for sons and brothers wrongly killed by coalition troops. Not only were the compensation amounts small, but months after the shooting incidents, the families still had not been paid. They had completely lost faith in U.S. intentions, I heard. But there were no Iraqis at the protest site. When a U.S. tank and armored personnel carrier appeared -- in order "to protect" (the officer in charge told me) the bereaved Iraqis, the nervous families had departed en masse upon the arrival of their "protectors."

On another afternoon, passing the so-called Assassins' Gate that guards the entrance to the CPA's "Green Zone," formerly the grounds of the main presidential palace, I saw a young day laborer wave at the soldier in the watchtower. "Warm greetings to Saddam!" he yelled, as his friends burst out laughing.

Meanwhile, the dissolution of the Iraqi army ordered by CPA head L. Paul Bremer III and the aggressive de-Baathification pushed by Ahmad Chalabi and other returned exiles have swelled the ranks of the unemployed. Jobless Iraqis conduct demonstrations from Mosul to Basra. Baghdad residents are bewildered and angry that their electricity still cuts out several times a day. They are angry at the detention of up to 13,000 Iraqis without charge in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison on the outskirts of Baghdad. It's no wonder that conspiracy theories abound. As Abd al-Karim Hani, a courtly former government minister who was imprisoned by Hussein for failing to inform on coup plotters, put it to me in March: "The U.S. went to Mars, yet has failed to repair electricity in Iraq after a whole year. I can't believe that they are inept. It must be intentional."

Now the U.S. has attached its hopes -- almost certainly in vain -- to the transitional administrative law, or TAL, which our media persist in calling the "draft constitution." Outside of the Kurdistan region, the TAL is widely excoriated, chiefly because of a clause inserted at the Kurds' behest that gives them virtual veto power over a new constitution. The clause stipulates that, if two thirds of the voters in any three provinces vote against a constitution, it would not pass even if it were to win the popular vote countrywide.

After decades of repression at the hands of the central government, the Kurds are understandably determined not to lose the substantial autonomy they have gained since 1991. But most Sunni and Shiite Arabs -- who evince scant sympathy for the Kurds' historical persecution -- regard the federalism provisions in the TAL as the prelude to a division of Iraq and its petroleum riches. For this reason, and because it was not drafted by an elected body, many Iraqis simply dismiss the document. "It does not bind the Iraqi people to anything," as one moderate Shiite cleric in Baghdad told me and other reporters recently.

Given that the last remaining justification for the Iraq war is the replacement of a tyrant with a democratic government, the stubborn solipsism of the American debate on Iraq is more than a little odd. But the ultimate measure of how self-centered our national conversation about Iraq has become can be found in what is not measured. No attempt is being made by the U.S. military to count civilian deaths in besieged Fallujah -- nor were such records kept during the major combat operations last year. And no one is monitoring maternal and child mortality rates since Hussein's defeat. Such statistics were carefully kept by the old regime as well as the United Nations and independent researchers during the economic sanctions of 1991-2003. Alaa Yusuf, a doctor whose hospital I visited, was both philosophical and bitter. "Maybe the statistics were part of the old regime's propaganda," he said. "Maybe the new propaganda requires no statistics."

Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East Report, publication of the Middle East Research and Information Project. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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