Iraq is not high on the list of destinations most Americans will include in their summer travel plans, I'm sure. It wouldn't have been high on my list, either, except that I feel a kinship with the country by now. Stands to reason, since this is my fourth trip there, each journey to a different region, each mission a different goal. Like all the rest, my trip was made as part of a delegation from the Christian Peacemaker Teams, whose motto is "getting in the way." They don't seek to convert, or stand on corners and proselytize; they seek to help in any way they can, while preventing further outbreaks of violence. From my first trip--in which a companion died in an accident on the highway--an accident that left me in an Iraqi hospital with a broken back--to my last trip, which took place right before four CPT members were kidnapped by unknown forces--it's been a revelatory experience
We don't see the real Iraq on our television screens in this country. Sometimes we see bits and pieces of sandy deserts, or arid palm landscapes, and we think we know the territory. Reminds me of the story of the blind men and the elephant -- each man thinks the part of the elephant he has experienced represents the whole. From my first trip, I knew our impressions were wrong. From the tangled freeways to the shopping malls--and from the modernly dressed female professors, doctors, and lawyers I met -- I got a very different look at Iraq than that which had been broadcast to the world. And subsequently, after meeting with such luminaries as the Moqtada al-Sadr -- and after visiting with hundreds of every-day Iraqis, both Sunni and Shia, I found that my expectations and predictions for what was happening in the country were more reality-based than what I was hearing in the media. But then again, my ear had been to the ground, not in the briefing room of a palatial Green Zone suite.
So in my last trip, which ended just two weeks ago today, I again put together some predictions of my own about the "way forward" in Iraq. Three milestones for Iraqis are just over the horizon, and those will determine if that country has the political will to move forward into the future as a peaceful nation, or slide back into the morass of violence of the last six years. Circle these on your calendar--because the clock is ticking quickly towards their arrival. The first is July first, "Freedom Day"--when the Status of Forces Agreement goes into effect. The second is July 25th, the day for provincial elections in Kurdistan. And by the end of the year, December 31st--there must be an accord on Kirkuk, or the country will be sliding backward instead.
Everywhere I went, the heavy spring air was laden with anticipation of the coming weeks; Iraqis could talk of nothing else. They just aren't quite sure whether the sounds they hear are the tick-tock of welcome “change” or the audible sound of something more deadly. From the tiny villages of northern Kurdistan to the desert cities of the South – I've learned how Iraq ticks, gleaned from a thousand conversations--and just as many opinions about life under Saddam and UN embargos, effects of war and occupation, and Iraqis’ hopes for the future. The one certainty of every conversation is this--they don't know what tomorrow will bring.
Security and Justice
Iraqis hope that the new hand-over this summer will go much better than then one five years ago, in which their “sovereignty” meant continued immunity for defense contractors, private homes searched without warrants, innocent citizens seized and taken off to prisons like Abu Ghraib, and foreign soldiers occupying the Republican Palace – Iraq’s White House. They are tired of their chants of “No, No, to the Occupier” being ignored by political minders in Washington whose policies left more than five million Iraqis dead, injured and homeless.
While the majority of Iraqis continue to want US troops to leave, and believe that the troops are a primary obstacle to security, they are willing to give the Obama administration some leeway in showing a commitment to withdrawal and vacating Iraq’s cities and towns. Groups like the Mehdi Army, the Badr Brigade and Ansar al-Sunna have mostly continued their truce with American commanders. Surprisingly, even the newer groups of insurgents appear to be hoping for the best--but, rest assured, they are prepared for the worst.
It is likely that attacks against U.S. and central government forces will remain in the “moderate” range through June, but could increase during the summer if Iraqis see occupation forces on their streets and the central government moves too slowly to remove the vestiges of occupation, such as blast walls and concertina wire. Some Iraqis are also concerned that “dark forces” may try to stir up violence to provide justification for American forces to stay.
Politics and Powder Kegs
The pendulum of violence has swung back and forth in post-war Iraq as groups jostle for political power and position. While there are winners and losers today, there can be no real victory in a land in which each and every life is at imminent risk. One of the areas in which long-running tensions boil over again and again is Kurdistan, home to three separate provinces.
On July 25th, they'll hold parliamentary elections that reflect not only ongoing problems with the central government in Baghdad, but long-standing rivalry between the two largest Kurdish political parties--the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), headed by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. They settle their differences not just at the ballot box, but in waves of assassinations and bombings. And no matter who comes out on top, the violence could easily erupt yet again.
Recent air strikes and missiles dropped on the towns of northern Iraq by Iran and Turkey could also affect elections as Kurds examine Baghdad’s response and consider America’s complicity in these bombings. While some Kurds have grown closer to the realization that their semi-autonomy under a national government is a more realistic goal than the creation of a new Kurdish nation, others worry that they might again face the kind of pogroms that have visited them in the past. The discovery of hundreds of more bodies found in mass graves near Qadissiyah and Diwaniyeh this week is a vivid reminder of that slaughter. Is it unrealistic to think that Iraqis can live together as one nation, celebrating their different languages, religions and cultures?
Article 140 and Liquid Gold
The greatest danger to the stability of Iraq, and a ticking time bomb, is whether or not all parties will be able to agree to an accord on Kirkuk.
One of the legacies of the Bremer transitional policies is a provision in the new Iraqi Constitution, Article 140, that attempts to address the arabization of Kirkuk and surrounding areas – a time when Saddam tried to change the demographics of the region by removing Kurds and replacing them with Baathist supporters from the south. Along with the national hydrocarbon law, elections and normalization of Kirkuk are unresolved issues that could quickly plunge the nation into civil war.
Kirkuk, a city of about one million, is the hub of one of world’s largest oil reserves (more than Alaska and Texas, combined). Since 2003, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has worked towards including this city within its sphere of control, while the central government would clearly like it to remain outside of the KRG. Under Article 140, a decision shall be reached on whether Kirkuk will be under control of the KRG or will continue under Baghdad’s authority.
Disputes over which entity has authority to authorize oil contracts are also central to conflict between the KRG and Iraq’s parliament. Both the UN and U.S. have tried to mediate this dispute, but outside interests, including the Turks, Russians and Europeans, have turned this into a dispute with geopolitical consequences.
The central government has pledged to resolve the issue of Kirkuk by the end of 2009 (originally to have been resolved in 2007), so that oil refineries and pipelines can be built, which will transform this region into a wealthy and productive resource for all of Iraq.
As schools close for the summer break, Iraqi families from the south will head to cooler climes in Kurdistan, skirting around Kirkuk as they seek out the rivers and waterfalls of the north. Just as in Washington, Iraq’s legislators will flee the city as the heat sets in--many traveling to their homes in Jordan or elsewhere.
Iraq, having fallen from western headlines in recent months, will once again be on the front pages. Americans, seeking the return of their loved ones, will check the news with trepidation to see whether events pass smoothly or imperiled.
Time will tell.
Founder and Director, Texans for Peace
Charlie Jackson is a sixth-generation Texan, the father of two boys, and a computer technology entrepreneur. He graduated with degrees in government and technology from the University of Texas at Austin, and has worked in economic development both here and abroad. His first trip to Iraq was in December of 2002, and he has made three trips to the war-torn nation since that time, documenting the damage done there by the continuing conflict.
Photos courtesy of the author.