By Fr. George Welzbacher
February 4, 2007
Critical, yes. But not quite hopeless. That's the "patient status report"--the patient being Iraq--issued a few days ago by one of the New York Times' seasoned correspondents, Sabrina Tavernise, whose reports from that war-ravaged land have been distinguished by the telling detail, the illuminating anecdote driving home both the horrors of the Saddam Hussein regime and the competing hopes and escalating anguish of the post-liberation era. Her search for the facts has seemingly been conducted with as little concern for personal danger as for her editors' bias. Such at least is the impression her reports have made on me, jibing as they do with everything I have been told by the servicemen whom I personally know who have served in Iraq.
One of the last reports Ms. Tavemise filed before a scheduled reassignment taking her away from Iraq was printed in last Sunday's Times, (January 28, 2007). I reprint it here because I think it depicts honestly the kind of situation that the new on-the-ground commander, General David Petraeus, will face, a situation that is unquestionably grim but that also possesses elements out of which a victory for democracy is perhaps not altogether beyond our reach.
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It Has Unraveled So Quickly
By Sabrina Tavernise
A painful measure of just how much Iraq has changed in the last four years since I started coming here is contained in my cell-phone. Many numbers in the address book are for Iraqis who have either fled the country or been killed. One of the first Sunni politicians: gunned down. A Shiite baker: missing. A Sunni family: moved to Syria.
I first came to Iraq in April, 2003, at the end of the looting several weeks after the American invasion. In all, I have spent 22 months here, time enough for the place, its people and their ever-evolving tragedy to fix itself firmly in my heart.
Now, as I am leaving Iraq, a new American plan is unfolding in the capital It feels as if we have come back to the beginning. Boots are on the ground again. Boxy Humvees move in the streets. Baghdad fell in 2003 and we are still trying to pick it back up. But Iraq is a different country now.
The moderates are mostly gone. My phone includes at least a dozen entries for middle-class families who have given up and moved away. They were supposed to build Democracy here. Instead they work odd jobs in Syria and Jordan. Even the moderate political leaders have left. I have three numbers for Adnan Pachachi, the distinguished Iraqi statesman; none have Iraqi country codes.
Neighborhoods I used to visit a year ago with my armed guards and my black abaya are off limits. Most were Sunni and had been merely dangerous. Now they are dead. A neighborhood that used to be Baghdad's Upper East Side has the dilapidated, broken feel of a city just hit by a hurricane.
The Iraqi government and the political process, which seemed to have great promise a year ago, have soured. Deeply damaged from years of abuse under Saddam Hussein, the Shiites who run the government have themselves turned into abusers.
Never having covered a civil war before, I learned about it together with my Iraqi friends. It is a bit like watching a slow-motion train wreck. Broken bodies fly past. Faces freeze in one's memory in the moments before impact. Passengers grab handles and doorframes that simply tear off or uselessly collapse.
I learned how much violence changes people, and how trust is chipped away, leaving society a thin layer of moth-eaten fabric that tears easily. It has unraveled so quickly. A year ago, my interviews were peppered with phrases like "Iraqis are all brothers." The subjects would get angry when you asked their sect. Now some of them introduce themselves that way.
I met Raad Jassim, a 38-year old Shiite refugee, in a largely empty house, recently owned by Sunnis, where he now lives in western Baghdad. He moved there in the fall, after Sunni militants killed his brother and his nephew and confiscated his large chicken farm north of Baghdad. He had lived with Sunnis his whole life, but after what happened, a hatred spread through him like a disease.
"The word Sunni, it hurts me," he said, sitting on the floor in a bare room, his 7-year-old boy on his lap. "All that I have lost came from this word. I try to avoid mixing with them."
"A voice of revenge" has built up inside him, he said. "I want to rip them up with my teeth."
In another measure of just how much things have changed, Mr. Jassim's Shiite neighborhood is relatively safe. The area is now largelyfree of Sunnis, after Shiite militias swept it last year, and it runs smoothly on a complex network of relationships among the local militias, the police and a powerful local council. His street is dotted with fruit stands. Boys in uniforms rough-house. Men sit in teahouses sipping from tiny glass cups.
Just to the south, the Sunni neighborhood of Dawoodi is ghostly at almost any time of day. Wide boulevards trimmed with palm trees used to connect luxury homes. Now giant piles of trash go uncollected in the median.
A serious problem is dead bodies. They began to appear several times a week last summer on the railroad tracks that run through the neighborhood. But when residents call the police to pick up the bodies. they do not come. The Dolice are Shiite and are afraid of the area.
"Entering a Sunni area for them is a risk," said Yasir, a 40-year-old Sunni whose house is close to the dumping ground.
A few weeks ago, a woman's body appeared. It was raining. Yasir said he covered her with blankets and called the police. A day later the police arrived. They peeked under the waterlogged blanket and drove away. It was another day before they collected the body. They took it at night, turning off their headlights and inching toward the area like thieves.
For those eager to write off Iraq as lost, one fact bears remembering. A great many Shiites and Kurds, who together make up 80 percent of the population, will tell you that in spite of all the mistakes the Americans have made here, the single act of removing Saddam Hussein was worth it. And the new American plan, despite all the obstacles, may have a chance to work. With an Iraqi colleague, I have been studying a neighborhood in northern Baghdad that has become a dumping ground for bodies. There, after American troops conducted sweeps, the number of corpses dropped by a third in September. The new plan is built around that kind of tactic. But the odds are stacked against the corps of bright young officers charged with making the plan work, particularly because their Iraqi partner-the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamat al-Maliki-seems to be on an entirely different page. When American officials were debating whether to send more troops in December, I went to see an Iraqi government official. The prospect of more troops infuriated him. More Americans would simply prolong the war, he said.
"If you don't allow the minority [the Sunnis] to lose, you will carry on forever," he said.
The remark struck me as a powerful insight into the Shiites' thinking. Abused under Mr. Hussein, they still act like an oppressed class. That means Iraqis are looking into a future of war, at least in the near term. As, one young Shiite in Sadr City said to me: "This just has to burn itself out."
Hazim al-Aaraji, a disciple of the renegade Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, understands this. A cleric himself, he is looking for foot soldiers for the war. On a warrn October afternoon, as he bustled around his mosque in western Baghdad, he said the ideal disciple would have "an empty mind," and a weapon. Surprised by the word choice, an Iraqi friend I was with stopped him, to clarify his intent. Once again, he used the word "empty."
The frank remark spoke of a new power balance, in which radicals rule and moderates have no voice. For many families I have become attached to here, the country is no longer recognizable.
I met Haifa and her husband, Hassan, both teachers, in a driveway in western Baghdad. They had just found the body of their 12-year-old son, who had been kidnapped and brutally killed, and they were frantic with grief. They finally decided to leave Iraq, but its violence tormented them to the end. They paid a man to drive them to Jordan, but he was working with Sunni militants in western Iraq, and pointed out Hassan, a Shiite, to a Sunni gang that stopped the car. Over the next several hours, Haifa waved a tiny Koran at men in masks, pleading for her husband's release, her two remaining children in tow.
Hassan, meanwhile, knelt in a small room, his hands behind his back. His captors shot a man next to him in the neck. Haifa, a Sunni, eventually prevailed on them to let him go. The family returned to Baghdad, then borrowed money to fly to Jordan.
Now they live there, in a tiny basement apartment without windows in a white stone housing project on the side of a hill. Like many Iraqis there, they live in hiding. Residency permits cost $100,000, far beyond their means. Hassan cannot work, nor even risk leaving the house during the day for fear the Jordanian police will deport him.
He tries not to talk to people, afraid someone will recognize his Iraqi accent. He doesn't bargain in the vegetable market. He accepts mean remarks by Jordanian cab- drivers wordlessly.
Most of all, he wants to go home. "But death is waiting for us there," he tells me "We are homeless. Please help us!'
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A final comment from Father Welzhacher:
Faced with sectarian hatreds of this intensity, perhaps all that we can hope for realistically is partition, with a kind of central government charged with conducting foreign affairs and sharing the profits from Iraqi oil in proportion to the percentage of the total population that each sect and ethnic group can legitimately claim.