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Exclusively to American Diplomacy, Col. DeAtkine reports on the state of affairs in Iraq as a result of his recent two-month-long stay in that country. Here he assesses in depth a broad range of issues, from the role of the news media to the prospects for democracy.— Ed.

Observations and Impressions from Iraq

“Iraq has the most politically active people with the greatest degree of political freedom in the Middle East.”

I returned from Iraq the first week of January 2004 after a two-month stay with a U.S. army unit stationed in Baghdad. It was my second visit to Iraq, my first taking place in June and part of July 2003. During my recent stay I had the opportunity to visit the western area of Qa’im near the Syrian border, Falujah, Basra, and the Kurdish area of Sulaymaniyah where I spent considerable time with a Civil Affairs unit working with the Kurds. Because of the nature of my mission, which was to learn as much as I could about the conflict and the country, I was able to spend some time every day with Iraqi people from all the different communities, officials in the Coalition Provisional Authority, and officers and men of units who work daily with the people. Since returning I have been receiving daily emails from my Iraqi contacts concerning security and their opinions on the overall situation. The use of the Internet and newly available cell phone service are ubiquitous.

Iraqi Communists on parade in Baghdad.
Photo by N. B. DeAtkine.

When one thinks about these facts alone, the ease and multiplicity of information sources available to the Iraqis, it is a monumental development. In fact, Iraq has the most politically active people with the greatest degree of political freedom in the Middle East. For example, in mid-December I observed an “anti-terrrorism” demonstration in downtown Baghdad that the various political factions used as a stage to show their strength. Every sect from the small Mandean contingent to the two Kurdish factions put their followers into the street. The various Shia factions had a very large crowd, but most surprising was the massive size of the Iraqi Communist Party that has arisen from a grave in which they had been placed almost 40 years earlier. At the demonstration itself there was very little security and yet no violence. Groups of sectarian communities who have seldom resided together in peace marched alongside one another without incident.One other salient observation was the lack of media coverage by the American media. I saw this demonstration as one of the most significant events in recent Iraqi history and it was simply not covered. The poor quality of the American news media reporting in Iraq, particularly the television networks, is one of the most important stories of the conflict. Most of the media has simply evolved into “bomb chasers” with very little content or analysis. This lack of quality was perhaps the greatest irritation that I personally felt while in Iraq.

The proliferation of satellite dishes, some on the most humble of shanties and run down apartment buildings, is indeed one of the most striking sights to an observant visitor to the country. It is, however, a very different point to say this is good news for the Coalition in the short run. I have detailed in a short piece for the Naval Institute Proceedings (January 2004) the abject failure of our information warfare in Iraq at a strategic level. The Iraqis have been fed a steady diet of anti-American propaganda by Al-Jazeera (some subtle, some not so) and Al-Arabia, the latter that routinely refers to the Americans as the “enemy,” and the Iraqis, who with great courage are working with us, as “collaborators.” Both are supported financially by oil-rich Gulf countries whose very existence would be threatened were we not in the Gulf.

The author with street kids, Baghdad. Dec 2003.
Photo by N. B. DeAtkine.

In addition, there are a number of other Arab networks, as well as the very professional Arab language Iranian network Al-Alam, feeding in the usual decades-old staple of anti-West and anti-American conspiracy theories and misinformation. Until the past month the Coalition had no real antidote to the daily diet of anti-Americanism. The first eight months of the Coalition ‘s information program depended largely on Al-Iraqia, which is not a satellite television service. It was, until very recently, poorly presented and staffed and did not draw a large viewing audience. I have heard from my Iraqi contacts that the programming has since improved, and is beginning to build an audience. Recently the long-awaited and long overdue Al-Hurra (a new Voice of America venture to the entire Arab world) came on the air. While its initial reception was panned in several news reports which reflected Egyptian and Palestinian sentiments, it is getting a much better reception in Iraq. As one Iraqi contact emailed, “we watch Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia because there was no alternative in Arabic but we hate them.” The Shia community that sees both networks as Sunni and Pan-Arabist in their orientation particularly shares this sentiment. Certainly we could not depend on the BBC or CCN International to get across the Coalition side of the story. In fact they are often part of the problem, especially the BBC. It scarcely attempts to conceal its distaste for American policies (if not middle America in general) and routinely takes a strident and predictable left-wing view of the world. However, the BBC still has a significant following among the more educated Iraqis.PRINT MEDIA
Newspapers have appeared, literally by the hundreds. When I departed Iraq there were seventy newspapers being printed in Baghdad alone. The only criterion laid down by the CPA is that they not openly advocate violence. The majority criticizes the Coalition daily, some quite bitterly. But newspapers are a minor part of the means for reaching the people compared to satellite television. Most Iraqis buy only the newspaper that reflects their communal or ideological viewpoint. Very few buy more than one. One Iraqi recently told a U,S. focus group, “we have 275 newspapers in Iraq and they all lie.”

It is also quite another thing to speak of a “democracy” in Iraq in the near future. A pure democracy in Iraq would be an invitation to disaster, and most educated Iraqis know that. A pure democracy would lead to the tyranny of the majority in a possibly very brutal manner. The religious and ethnic hatreds endemic to the Arab world, easily inflamed by clerics and political thugs, especially in Iraq, would become institutionalized in governmental structure. There is no system of checks and balances to curb the excesses of a majority rule State. The fate of the Assyrians is very much alive among the remaining Christians of Iraq. They are among the most uneasy of the various communities looking to the future Iraq.


Tribesmen in town. Dec 2003.
Photo by N. B. DeAtkine.

The Governance Committee, a Coalition committee designed to promote good government and act as a mid-wife to the birth of a democratic process in Iraq, has worked very hard with town meetings all over Iraq and in many ways reaching out to the citizens to educate and inform on the path to a decent government. I attended a number of meetings of the Committee and was impressed by their energy and diligence in promoting the Coalition hand-over plan. However the question that I never heard answered was, what institution in Iraq will act as the guarantor of a constitution? Without one the constitution will not be worth much more than the paper it is written on. Feedback from focus sessions and my own conversations with educated Iraqis confirm that there is an association of democracy with chaos. Moreover the lack of a civil society or even a civic consciousness in Iraq will be a monumental and long-term problem to solve. It entails reeducating the entire Iraqi society. For example, Oxford University conducted the most comprehensive survey of Iraqi attitudes in the November-December timeframe and discovered that seventy-nine percent of the population did not trust the Coalition. Of course, this was the news in the American media. The much more relevant finding, however, was that less than ten percent trusted their neighbors. This is the effect of thirty-five years of Ba’ath rule and intimidation. An entire society had been corrupted. This endemic distrust among all the Iraqis, even to the point some Iraqis would not tell their relatives that they worked with the Coalition, is no doubt the greatest obstacle to the implementation of democracy. The same survey indicated the Iraqis overwhelmingly welcomed democracy, rejected the idea of a religious government, and did not consider democracy some sort of nefarious Western import, as many of the religious Ulama preach. 

Baghdad palace of Uday Hussein Al-Tagriti (Saddam’s son). Dec 2003.
Photo by N. B. DeAtkine.

Overall, as Dr Bernard Lewis observed recently, there is no intrinsic reason Iraq cannot, in time, become a democratic society, provided the Western powers, through the Coalition, impart the guidance and protection of its fragile roots until it can survive on its own. As he sagely observed, this process is called “imperialism.” Despite all the gloom and doom reporting on the chances for democracy in Iraq, I take a more optimistic view, tempered with realism, of course. For example, there was a great deal of reporting on the problem of Shia rejection of the caucus method of selecting an interim government in July. This usually revolved around the lack of understanding of the caucus procedure among the Shia. On the other hand, I doubt very few Americans could tell you how the Iowa caucus works or how it is selected.THE RULE OF LAW
Iraq, run by a Mafia-type oligarchy for many years, does not have a functioning court system trusted by the people. A mishmash of old Ottoman quasi-secular law, religious law, and tribal law exist side by side and overlap. A functioning court system that puts law above the communal passions and powerful family rule is nowhere on the horizon. I was told by a number of people, especially in the south, that religious courts are assuming more of them power once allocated to civil courts under Saddam Hussein. A military guarantor such as the Turkish Army is not likely either. The “new” Iraqi Army had a very rocky start and is unlikely to be a stabilizing force for some time. Moreover, whether or not the deeply ingrained trait among Arab leaders to use their military to protect the regime, rather than the constitution or country, can be changed is very much a critical question.

The constitutional question is further down the line. The immediate concern to begin with is one of getting a freely elected government in place. Here we run up against the security question. When I first arrived in Iraq in early November I wrote that the security environment for Iraqis had vastly improved since June, but it had deteriorated for our soldiers. Our soldiers were being attacked daily at multiple points with a variety of weapons. On the other hand, the Iraqis themselves were moving about freely, choking the streets of Baghdad with automobiles and busses. Al kinds of consumer goods were becoming freely available.

Mindful of the continued bombings and scattered attacks on American units at present, it is, nevertheless a much improved security environment for both Iraqis and our Coalition soldiers, and it continues to improve at an accelerating pace. People are now able to travel at night in most areas, something impossible or dangerous to do in November. The police force in Baghdad is now in evidence everywhere (still not entirely trusted of course; many see them as corrupt), and the quality of life for the people with whom I have contact has much improved. This includes most of the areas of Baghdad, despite some continuing power outages and fuel problems.

Obviously I cannot personally speak for all the cities in Iraq, but certainly my conversations with officers and officials from other areas indicated an improved situation there as well. Most importantly, Baghdad is the center of Iraq, at least Arab Iraq, and it will be the people of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul who ultimately determine the fate of Iraq. To use an overworked phrase, they are the center of gravity of Iraq. Towns like Falujah and Tigrit get the headlines, but in the final analysis they are of little consequence. The process and form of government we wish to promote into existence will ultimately be a function of the view of the people in the major cities…as it usually is in the Middle East.

Why then do I continue to hear as I did recently from CNN international the term “deteriorating security situation,” a phrase I was hearing when I first arrived in Iraq in June and hear almost every day from some network? Putting aside the conspiracy theories emanating from my absorption of Arab cultural traits over these many years, and an election year that has politicized the situation in Iraq beyond recognition, it seems to have become space filler like “war torn” or “escalating violence.” Had the security continued to deteriorate since June it would seem we would have arrived at the tactical nuclear stage of war by now. The basic fact is that it is not true.

Often while in Baghdad, sitting in the evening watching American news channels, they seemed to be covering a country other than the one I was in. Most infuriating was the propensity of “experts” who, on the thinnest of evidence, presented precise descriptions of Iraqi “resistance” groups, their tactics and strategy. After each attack there will be a predictable deluge of pundits and “military” experts, replete with audio-visual gizmos, maps and charts, drawing conclusions and postulating motives and strategic objectives. In actuality, for the most part the resistance has been remarkably inept. When one thinks about the “Green Zone,” a relatively small area in Baghdad densely packed with Coalition troops and civilians serving as the nerve center of the Coalition, it would seem to be the primary target of those who want us to fail in Iraq. But in the two months I was there, only a few mortar rounds and rockets were fired into the zone, doing minimal damage. In fact, the very disorganized state of the Iraqi/Islamist opposition has been a source of strength to them in that it makes it more difficult to infiltrate and dismember the overall resistance command. Some are basically nothing more than tribal or family organizations.

As one who has basically spent his whole life in the military, beginning as a son of a noncommissioned officer, I hold the opinion that many of the casualties we have suffered in Iraq were a result of our own training deficiencies, particularly for this kind of war in this part of the world, and the lack of mental preparation required. In short, without further elaboration that I will leave to others, we assumed one kind of war and ended up fighting a different one


Al Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Baghdad.

The next big issue that always arises, and much more frequently now, is the Shia issue. It is difficult to number how many times I have heard the pundits and experts pontificate on the Shia sword hanging over our heads about to behead us. The specter of a Shia religious takeover haunts the Left and Right of the U.S. political spectrum and a significant number of Sunni Iraqis as well. Based on what I saw and heard, I arrived at some very definite conclusions. First, there will not be a Shia-instituted Islamic government. Secondly a Shia-dominated government will not go the way of Iran. To my surprise I found a highly educated elite of Shia with leadership capabilities somewhat lacking among the Sunni community. They are more disciplined and cohesive than I was led to believe. They also have much more savvy than our experts give them credit, and know how to manipulate the Western media.True, there are a number of factions among them and there is competition for leadership. There is always the unlikely possibility of intra-communal strife as between Amal and Hizbollah in Lebanon, but the Shia elite tends to discount it. As one put it, “we lived in degradation for years and we will not allow it to happen again.” Nor do they see conflict with the Sunni community as somehow inevitable. The belief that Al-Qaida operatives are trying to instigate sectarian war in Iraq is undoubtedly true, but gravely underestimates the mood of the Iraqi people. They are tired of constant war and bloodshed, and resent those who try to stir up religious or ethnic conflicts. Again and again a common refrain heard was, “we do not want to light the match” of intra-communal warfare.

The bugaboo of a Greater Iran encompassing southern Iraq also illustrates a lack of understanding of the Iraqi Shia. Over and over, the sentiment heart was, “the Iranian Shia are our Muslim brothers but they are Persians, not Arabs, and do not understand us.” There is also palpable residue of bitterness from the Iran-Iraq war in which the predominately Shia soldiery of Iraq took the lion’s share of casualties. Some is directed at Saddam Hussein whom they see as getting them into the war, but Iran does not escape blame. There is very little respect for the Faqih of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is often viewed as an example of a religious man corrupted by power. This is one of the reasons Grand Ayatolah Ali Al-Sistani, who in the past stayed largely clear of political issues, is widely respected, not just by Shia, but many Sunni as well. The Shia elite with whom I have had contact view the recent tough statements by Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani as serving two purposes: first, not to get left behind in the resurgence of Shia power and secondly, to up the ante as far as possible in dealing with the Coalition before modifying some his demands. Most of the statements printed in the media as being the views of Al-Sistani are often from his staff and can be easily retracted if necessary. There is also much made over the fact that al-Sistani is Iranian-born and educated, but in fact he is universally accepted as the Marja Ala. His entire career has been spent in Iraq and has given him Iraqi Arab credentials. His apolitical role has also given him religious authority, while other Shia leaders squandered much of theirs in political bombast. This included Muqtada Sadr who is an irritant and can turn out a “rent a mob” of significant size, but he is not a major player. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), led by Abdel Aziz Al-Hakim, has a relatively large force of militia called the Badr Corps, however, except for pockets of support in the Shia South such as Kut and along the border in the Diyala province, their close association with the Iranian regime works against them. Still, they do have by far the best information operation in the West and present a façade of moderation attractive to Western journalists. The other major Shia party, the Dawa Party, is not cohesive, although their de facto leader, Ibrahim Jaafari, is widely respected among the more secularized Shia middle and upper classes in Baghdad and elsewhere.

Here I thought it best to simply reproduce a portion of the journal I kept while in Kurdistan:

During my visit to Kurdistan I was able to speak with a number of American Civil Affairs officers who work daily with the Kurds and a large number of Kurds as well, especially Kurdish officials of the PUK government in Suliemaniyah. Some primary points are below.

1. A very apparent observation, which seems very clear to all who have closely looked at the people and society, is that barring its reintegration into Iraq by force of arms, Kurdistan, or at least this segment of it, will never acquiesce to Iraqi Arab domination again. Only a very loose, symbolic attachment to the new Iraq will satisfy the populace.

2. I was told a number of times that even the sight of the Iraqi flag is taken as a humiliation to the Kurdish people. The only place the Iraq flag flies is at some main government offices and then it is often a tattered remnant. I am sure this was done as a deliberate affront to the Arabs. If used, Arabic will be ignored. In some cases the person addressed will turn his back on the speaker. There is a palpable hatred of all things Arab in this part of Kurdistan. Almost everyone has lost a relative or many relatives to Iraqi Arab conflicts.

3. The two primary fears of the educated elite with which I spoke were: (a) a deeply rooted fear of Arab Nationalism, which the Kurds believe, is simply an extension of the Caliphate dream of Bin Laden, i.e., a twisted Islamism with a mystic belief in pan-Arabism. Kurds see Arab Nationalism as simply a hegemonic Sunni vehicle for power and (b), fear of Shia triumphalism when the Shia gain control of Iraq and impose a draconian religious government on very unwilling Kurds. Again and again the Kurds, officials and others, voiced the belief that Islam acted as a retardant to progress and stability. They took pains to point out by way of old photographs, the lack of Islamic dress on females in the 50’s and early 60’s. The refrain heard repeatedly was that the Arabs imposed Islam on the Kurds. One Kurd told me that Suleimaniyah has more bars than mosques. I do not believe this is true, but certainly alcohol is everywhere and easily obtainable.

4. In the city itself the contrast with Baghdad is stark. Consumer goods are falling out into the street, with construction and business being conducted everywhere. There is a sense of purpose among the people. That purpose is to establish a Kurdish entity that is prosperous and stable. Traffic clogs the streets. It took us over an hour to drive through the city even with relatively well-regulated traffic controls. There were policemen of one variety or another at almost every main street corner. There is also a sense of peace and stability. The Pesh Merga soldiers are seen everywhere but do not evidence any manifestation of being on alert for trouble. One gets the impression that the Kurds have collectively decided that Suleimaniyah will displace Baghdad as the central transportation node in this part of the Middle East. The Turks are building a terminal on an airfield that is of sufficient size to handle the largest aircraft.

5. In this regard one refrain frequently voiced was, “why do you Americans reward your enemies and ignore your friends?” They were referring to our “hearts and minds” attempts to win over Sunni Arabs. As they so succinctly stated time and again, “the Sunnis cannot be won over, only dominated.” They take issue with what they view as a rather weak American response to Sunni (Arab) attacks. Their belief is that we should assist in making Kurdistan the shining example of democracy and prosperity in the Middle East. Obviously there is a great deal of self-promotion in this, but the emphasis and repetition by ordinary Kurds convinces me it is their reality and genuine outlook.

6. Kurdistan is not without many problems, some very old. The most pressing one is the typical Kurdish disunity. There is a great deal of resentment against the Barzani KDP. This results from the events of 1996 when Barzani used the Republican Guard to further his own aims against the PUK. There were a number of atrocities committed on both sides. Tribal animosities remain strong and obscure many national loyalties. There is a rumor that the US will soon impose a single government on Kurdistan and many of the younger intellectuals see this as the only way to get beyond the same old warlords and traditional tribal thinking. There is the usual nepotism and corruption, although on a lesser scale than down south among the Arabs. Despite progressive attitudes among many of the middle and upper class youth, Kurdistan is still a very traditional country. I never saw a single woman driver the entire time I was there. In the restaurants the main area is for men only, with a curtained area for family members. However, most of the younger women did not wear traditional dress in the urban areas. No one was seen to wear a veil. As some of the more pessimistic young people told me, under the façade of progress and modernity there is the same old traditional rivalries, blood feuds, family domination of power and petty ambitions.

7. Kurdistan is also an area of ethnic and religious rivalry. The Turkoman, at least the Sunni majority among them, are seen as enemies. Their alliance with the Turks is viewed with grave concern. Turkish Special Forces personnel operate more or less openly in the city and there are a large number of Turkish “NGO’s,” simply front for Turkish contacts with the Turkoman population. There are not many in the PUK area but there is a large number in Kirkuk.

8. The problem of home ownership is horrendous in Kirkuk. Thousands of Kurds displaced over the years by Arabization polices, some as long ago as the early seventies, are housed in temporary lodging in Chamchamal, awaiting the go ahead to reclaim their homes. Most of these homes now have Arab residents who bought these homes from the Iraqi government after displacement of the Kurds. This entails a humanitarian problem of massive scale. The Kurdish Communist Party also has a significant following among the college students and in some of the villages

9. Finally, no trip to Iraq, or particularly to Kurdistan, should be without a visit to Halabjah. It is indeed a monument to the inhumanity of the Saddam regime. An impressive building near the town contains the names of the 5000 victims of the nerve gas attack inscribed on the wall. There are a number of photographs of the dead lying in the streets, mostly women and children, their mouths and eyes open with blood running from their noses and ears. Only by visiting this monument can one truly appreciate the barbarity of the Saddam regime.

Nothing in my many years of study and living in the Arab world prepared me for the complexity of the Iraqi society and personality. Engaging one moment, infuriating the next, reasonable and perceptive in the morning and telling you in the afternoon that Saddam had always worked for the Americans (the capture was carefully choreographed and, they say, he will never come to trial because Americans do not want the world to know he was “our man in Baghdad”). Later the same person may tell you that it was wrong to humiliate Saddam on television as he was, after all, the president of “our republic.” As one Iraqi ex-brigadier general told me, “Iraqis are the only people in the world who can be both dedicated communists and devout Muslims at the same time.” I saw evidence of this at the demonstration mentioned earlier. Most of the women were wearing the hijab while waving secularist banners.

The author with PM Bahram Sallah of the Kurdish Suleimaniya government. Dec 2003.
Photo by N. B. DeAtkine.

A number of the Iraqis mentioned that I could only understand the Iraqis if I read the lectures by Dr Ali Al-Wardi, an Iraqi historian and sociologist, who died in the mid-nineties. One of the translator-editors I worked with laboriously translated his lectures and I found them fascinating. It opened a book for me and explained much of what I saw and heard. He emphasized what he called “dualism” or a form of having two personalities or “schizophrenia.” As Dr. Al-Wardi writes, the Iraqi will do something and suddenly turn around and do something else which contradicts his earlier actions. Without going into the intricacies of his argument, he saw this dualism as a result of a history of conflict between nomads and settled people. This in turn created a society of the ruled and the rulers. While the Iraqi lords it over those he can, he continually complains about the injustices of others toward him. They demand perfection in others while making excuses for themselves. “They call for certain principles they never carry out. They call for goals that they can never achieve. That is why they encourage their leaders to do miracles but when the time comes, they turn their backs giving many excuses and blaming luck.”1In an even more illuminating passage he blames much of the problems in Iraq on child raising in which a boy learns early that he must live two lives, the obedient, perfect son expected by his father, as well as the irresponsible street kid he is most of the day. His school discipline and expectations of his family run in opposition to the neighborhood values of the boys of his sectarian community, which Dr Al-Wardi says is about power and control. As a result “the Iraqi individual grows up with an extreme tendency toward sectarianism, knowing nothing about his religion.” This problem has been exacerbated by the constant wars, executions, and relocations of ethnic minorities, as well as the exodus from countryside to the cities. There are a sizable number of young men who are simply street people, without fathers or a family relationship. Many of these are drawn into various anti-coalition organizations for money or prestige.

A third reason for the inconsistency in the Iraqi character is that they have “been cursed with the huge difference between classical Arabic and the Iraqi dialect.” As such he describes this as requiring a dualistic system of thought patterns which puts emphasis on “poetic rhymes and grammatical decoration” producing orators who are admired for “unique synonyms” instead of speaking to the ills of their society.

The subsequent years of constant conflict, war between the Communists and Ba’athists, the revolutions, wars, and brutal totalitarian regime of Saddam Hussein reinforced these personality attributes. The expectation that the government should provide all the necessities of life except religious instruction is deeply imbedded in the Iraqi mentality, reinforced by the socialist centralized control of Iraq for decades. This is a major hurdle for the Coalition and any new government to deal with. Nevertheless one can see all over Iraq amazing displays of individual entrepreneurship and initiative. It is not the norm, however.

The term used in describing the Iraqi intervention as “draining the swamp” has been met with a lot of cynicism from politicians, pundits, and many in the academic community. I take it seriously. I have been in and out of the Middle East since 1967 and it is a swamp. In almost every factor one can consider in terms of quality of life, the Arab world is worse off today in relation to the rest of the world than in 1967. It is an area populated by immensely talented and personable people, yet it is an area of corrupt governments, religion prostituted for political objectives, a miasma of dysfunctional ideological and political movements, and an intellectual class who have sold themselves for power and protection, aided and abetted by far too many Western Middle Eastern academics who have acted as facilitators and apologists for those who kill in the name of religion or grievances, some real, some invented. In the end, of course, I do not know whether the draining will take place, but I firmly believe that if (a large IF) democracy will take root anywhere in the Arab world, it will be in Iraq.


Norvell B. DeAtkine. 


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