Obama Should Worry About Iraqi Shoes, Too

After four hours stuck in Baghdad traffic, I was close enough to get out of the car and walk to my hotel. I’m sure it was raw sewage I stepped in, but I didn’t ask; ignorance is bliss, I figured, or every time I take my shoes off I’ll think of what’s on the bottom.

The drive from an interview in Monsour district back to my hotel just outside the Green Zone should have taken 45 minutes, tops.

But it coincided exactly with President Bush’s farewell invasion of Baghdad, and the send-off by 29-year-old Baghdadiyah TV journalist Muntathar al-Zaidi.

"This is a goodbye kiss, you dog," al-Zaidi yelled and tossed his shoes at Bush, McClatchy Newspapers reports. "Killer of Iraqis, killer of children."

As soon as my drivers and I were routed from the main highway to side streets by U.S. troops, we knew something was up. Traffic was intense every direction we took; the boys selling candy car-to-car must have made out well.

Frustration grew as the sun went down. Every route was blocked by U.S. troops. Bush made an unnecessary visit to Baghdad and put an American’s life in danger, I thought, and Baghdadis’ lives are frozen until he leaves the country for good.

Iraqis, getting impatient, start each day dressing one shoe at a time. A draft report from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, leaked to the New York Times and ProPublica this week, ahead of its January scheduled release, pans nearly the entirety of U.S. reconstruction efforts here.

Stuart Bowen, the IG, recounts his first tour of the Coalition Provisional Authority: "What I saw was troubling: large amounts of cash moving quickly out the door. Later that same day, walking the halls of the palace, I overheard someone say: 'We can’t do that anymore. There is a new inspector general here.' These red flags were the first signs that the oversight mission the Congress had assigned my office would be extraordinarily challenging."

SIGIR’s responsibility was to watchdog nearly $50 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars dedicated here by Congress.

"Over the past five years, this sea of taxpayer dollars flowed to a wide spectrum of initiatives, ranging from training Iraq’s army and police to building big electrical, oil and water projects; from supporting democracy-building efforts like elections to strengthening provincial councils’ budget execution; and from funding rule-of-law reforms to ensuring that Iraq sustains what the U.S. program provided," the SIGIR report said.

"Some of the initiatives succeeded, but, as this report explains, many did not. … beyond the security issue stands another compelling and unavoidable answer: the U.S government was not adequately prepared to carry out the reconstruction mission it took on in mid-2003."

So, parallel to, or because of, the continued insecurity, there is a lack of services such as electricity, clean water and fuel -- not to mention a deficit of human-rights protection for women and minorities, according to a new U.N. report on human rights in Iraq -- it’s not difficult to understand why a journalist threw shoes at the face of this situation.

Some here debated whether he'd be better off using his power as a journalist to explain why Bush is "a dog" -- likely, since he has not been released from custody following a painful arrest. Others said it was plain inappropriate to embarrass the prime minister and disrespect a guest in a way so offensive in Arab culture, let alone committing a crime of assault; a rally in the Baghdad neighborhood Sadr City the day after called for the immediate release of al-Zaidi, an overnight hero of the Iraqi street and the Arab world.

No one I’ve spoken to, or overheard, has criticized the motivation of the reporter, who was shell-shocked covering the bombing of Sadr City this year (and was kidnapped last year).

"Ninety percent of Iraqis supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, greeted American troops as liberators with flowers and candy," said a local journalist, whose office I was sharing while I was reporting this week. "Now, 90 percent feel the same way as al-Zaidi."

"Thanks to you, the Iraq we're standing in today is dramatically freer, dramatically safer and dramatically better than the Iraq we found eight years ago," the Los Angeles Times quoted Bush during his visit.

But besting Saddam Hussein shouldn’t have been this hard.

"The work hasn't been easy, but it's been necessary," Bush said after meeting Iraq’s Presidency Council. He called the buildup of U.S. troops in 2007 "one of the greatest successes in the history of the United States military" and the Status of Forces Agreement, which he and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki symbolically signed, "a reminder of our friendship and as a way forward to help the Iraqi people realize the blessings of a free society."

If this were the case, if there was hope on the streets and feasible plans for the future, Iraqis wouldn't throw shoes at the president of the United States.

But Bush, in his final month in office, is painting Iraq as a success, progress after tough times, nearing victory after tough battles. The reality is: it’s not. Iraq does not yet wear American-made designer shoes; it wears a pair of thin, worn and hole-pocked hand-me-down shoes after years of going barefoot. Violence is down, but only low compared to the days in 2006 and 2007, when bodies were found daily. The demographic map of Baghdad now is evidence of ethnic cleansing, Shiite and Sunni, if they’ve returned to the country, relegated to "their neighborhoods." This after Saddam Hussein’s time -- unquestionably brutal and genocidal in his own right -- of intermarrying and protection from religious fundamentalism.

There are neighborhoods unsafe for an Iraqi to go through, let alone an American. A suicide bombing outside a Baghdad checkpoint Monday killed three people, according to McClatchy’s daily roundup of violence, which is seldom blank. Four days earlier, a restaurant in the northern city of Kirkuk exploded, killing 55 and wounding more than 100.

The Overseas Security Advisory Council, a federal advisory committee coordinating security intelligence between the U.S. government and American business overseas, said in the first week of December, al-Qaida in Iraq "demonstrated its continued capability to launch deadly attacks, perpetrating a series of successful attacks against both Iraqi security forces and Iraqi government targets." At least 54 Iraqis died and hundreds were injured in attacks throughout the country as AQI "demonstrated its ability to adapt to Iraq’s changing security situations."

Political disputes over provincial and national elections, a referendum on disputed territories and creating an autonomous region in oil-rich Basra province will be rough going for average Iraqis, fodder for militias and armed political groups, most of who were not run off in "The Surge," but took a break.

And if President-elect Barak Obama doesn't dispel this myth of Bush winning Iraq, let alone allow his Iraq policy advisers to believe it, he's in for a swift kick when the Sunni insurgents-turned-security face-off against the Shiite government, when Kurdish-Arab disputes continue to stall government operations, and when Iraqis en masse throw shoes in frustration of the outstanding need to basic services that human rights demand, after six years of losing loved ones.

Much blame can be laid on the Iraqi government: many have played politics while the citizens want. But the political infrastructure and the power struggles in Parliament are a creation of the U.S. experiment in Iraq. And when Congress asks why the United States should spend more money on reconstruction, a look at the SIGIR report unveils the cynicism of the question: the U.S. government wasted, not spent, most of the money the taxpayers sent here.

The Democratic Party on a national level -- most recent election withstanding -- has woken up each day, tied its shoelaces together and wondered why it tripped in getting its message out. Dems either approved or didn't articulate the strategic faults of the Bush operation in Iraq, and the result is Iraqis and the world will suffer as consequence. Its electoral losses at the start of the Bush presidency and slight gains since are more a result of voter reaction to the Bush policies than acceptance of Democratic promise.

When Iraq's violence escalates, President Obama better not be caught on his heels when he's blamed for losing Bush's win here. Neither he nor the Democratic Party will be able to duck their opponents' flying shoes as easily as Bush. 

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