2007 January 28 Sunday
Sabrina Tavernise On Her Years In Iraq

New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise, whose reports from Iraq I have very much liked, is leaving after spending about half her time there since the invasion. Tavernise says she's lost touch with many people who have left Iraq or died.

A PAINFUL measure of just how much Iraq has changed in the four years since I started coming here is contained in my cellphone. 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.

The middle class moderates have left and the extremists remain.

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.

She says a year ago Iraqis would get angry if you asked them which sect they belong to. But now they often introduce themselves with their sect identification. She relates anecdotes of Shias who are consumed with hatred of Sunnis.

She still finds potential for optimism.

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.

I think this is too little too late. Too many have been killed and the killings have left bitterness, mistrust, and hatred in their wake. The ethnic cleansing has emptied whole neighborhoods. I also think this US troop surge attempt goes up against a backdrop of even pre-war conditions that overwhelm attempts to maintain order. But the Shia Iraqi government officials are not on-board with the US strategy anyway.

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 Kamal 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 to lose, you will carry on forever,” he said.

I happen to agree with the Iraqi Shiites who think this way. As long as the Sunnis have any doubt whether the Shia government will last the Sunnis will keep on fighting. Tavernise sees this attitude as a product of their abuse by Saddam. But I think that's a misunderstanding.

The remarks 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.”

I was just watching a C-SPAN rebroadcast of a speech by historian Niall Ferguson about his recent book War of the World which attempts to explain why the really big killings of humans occurred in the 20th century. He's come up with what he calls his "E" rules: Ethnic disintegration, Economic volatility, and Empire collapse. Think about central and eastern Europe where the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires collapsed. The collapses left ethnic groups living under the rule of other ethnic groups in many new countries. The Great Depression added to the economic volatility. Massive killings and population shifts ensued and not just by the Nazis.

Well, Ferguson says that the Middle East has 5 times the economic volatility of the United States. Within the Middle East Iraq has been hit far harder by economic problems due to the Iran-Iraq war, the invasion of Kuwait, followed by a crushing military defeat that included massive damage to economic infrastructure. Then the sanctions and declining oil production added to the woes and the Iraqis suffered a big decline in living standards. Now the civil war keeps the economy in bad shape and cycles of revenge between groups that do not trust each other have brought Iraq to a point that makes it extremely difficult to fix. I think the best solution is to help the Shias and Sunnis move away from each other.

The Times also has an excellent 6 minute MP3 of Sabrina Tavernise relating observations about her experiences in Iraq. Worth a listen.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2007 January 28 11:05 PM  Mideast Iraq Ethnic Conflict


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