Well, I’m back from my second trip to Iraq (the first was in Gulf War I or, as I say, “the 1st ground campaign of the current war ”), and this time I made it to Baghdad. I find that words cannot truly capture my experience, but I want to share my impressions and the messages that Iraqi people sent home with me.
It was both exhilarating and sad. I met wonderful people, almost all of whom have experienced great suffering. Many are brave people struggling to shape their futures. I met many nonviolent Iraqi patriots.
Saddam Hussein was a monster; of this there is no doubt. Almost every Iraqi I asked was happy to be rid of him. Many thanked the U.S. for liberating them from his regime.
But others feel that the U.S. occupation offers little, if any, improvement over living under Saddam. While this is the sentiment of Iraqis across the board, it was especially true for a group of about 50 Palestinian families I met at a refugee camp in Baghdad, a tent village of sorts. Under Saddam these people could not own land or a car, or have access to quality education, or obtain citizenship, but he never bothered them. Today they find themselves in the same position.
So while most are happy to be rid of Saddam and many thank the U.S., they are at the same time unhappy with the current state of affairs and want immediate changes. Security is high on the list of priorities. Many Iraqis live in fear of crime. They told me there was less crime under Saddam. They want more law and order. People are afraid to walk the streets at night and guns are everywhere. I’m not sure why, but an Iraqi actually showed me a gun he had hidden under his sweater. As usual, women particularly find themselves in danger. Sex crimes and kidnapping have forced girls and women to stay home from school and work. The fear of crime is matched only by the fear of U.S. soldiers: our sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, and friends or at least my friends and possibly my son.
Once again, while most Iraqis are happy and grateful to be rid of Saddam, they do not want occupation. They want the U.S. troops out of Baghdad streets and Iraqis to maintain security. Our troops are trained soldiers, not police officers. They do not know how to treat the civilian population. They routinely use more force than necessary. They shoot before thinking — because they are trained soldiers, not peacekeepers — and innocent people are hurt or die, including children.
Amazingly most of the people I talked to are not angry with individual soldiers. They are angry with our government. They believe that our leadership does not see an Iraqi life as equal to a U.S. soldier’s life. Many people said that there are two victims: the soldier and the Iraqi. I was told to tell the American people that U.S. soldiers’ and Iraqis’ lives are equally important. One person said that Iraqis hurt every time a U.S. soldier is harmed just as they hurt when a soldier abuses one of them.
If one can rank the Iraqi’s concerns, the second is restoration of the infrastructure. Most of the Iraqis to whom I spoke said the U.S. must deliver on its promises to rebuild their basic systems. We must fix what we have broken. Hospitals do not have enough medical supplies. The electricity goes out 3 to 4 times a day, sometimes for hours at a time. To adapt people have pooled money to buy generators and agree to the number of lights that can be used per family when using generator power.
Economic, political and social structures must be repaired. Unemployment is extremely high and many times people are paid 2 to 3 months late. Iraqi business people struggle to get back on their feet. Local contractors’ have limited access to reconstruction contracts. People spend six to 12 hours in gas lines a mile or more long. Taxi drivers regularly miss a day of work just to fill up their cars. Off market (usually called black market) gas is sold less than 100 meters away. One Iraqi said to us, “We are the people of oil, how can this be happening?”
Third, an overwhelming majority of people I spoke to want the occupation to end quickly. These people want to run their own country. Over and over I was told that while they appreciate the liberation, they do not like occupation. Many fear civil war, but others believe the Iraqi people will pull together and can handle their affairs right now. The timetable may not be uniform, but the overwhelming consensus is that the U.S. needs to leave as soon as possible, with an emphasis on soon. We can then return as civilian guest. The U.S. and Iraq should be friends.
Finally the troops we saw were very happy to see us. We gave them full support and told them we are working to bring them home. They are between a rock and a hard place.
What good is happening in Iraq? Well I stayed in a decent hotel with laundry service and had no problems taking a warm low water pressure shower. I ate good food in open restaurants. Commerce takes place on the streets. Iraqis with funds can buy TVs, VCRs, washers and other goods. I bought a few items my last night on a street of shops and outdoor vendors. The same suitcase shops exist in Baghdad and New York. New cars arrive daily from Jordan and Syria. There has been a boom on satellite dishes and access to the Internet. Human rights organizations, women’s advocacy organizations and political parties have formed. Discussion and protest is alive. Democracy of some sort has sprouted. Self-determination is in the air.
But in my eyes the bad outweighs the good. Due to the administration’s poor planning and disrespect for the opinions of the Iraqis, far too many U.S. troops and Iraqis are being injured (both physically and psychologically) and dying. If President Bush thinks he is winning the peace, he is mistaken. I say again, soldiers are not police. They are trained to use overwhelming force; the kind of force used against opposing armies, not civilian populations. Our leadership has put our soldiers in a no win situation. The current state of affairs has created new resistance fighters and the cycle of violence and suffering begins anew.