BAGHDAD — As Iraqi and American diplomats negotiate a deal for American troops to stay in Iraq, or not, Iraqis are also debating the issue.
For Iraqis, just as for Americans, it is far more complex than a simple “stay” or “go.” For both it is about blood, treasure, pride, dignity and a nation’s sense of itself and its place in the world.
But a lot more Iraqi blood than American has already been spilled, and stands to be spilled again, if the politicians get it wrong.
On the streets of Iraq the questions being asked about the continuing American presence are about sovereignty, stability and America’s intentions in Iraq past, present and future: How many American troops will stay? How quickly will they go? If they stay, where will they be based? To do what? With what powers? And under what restrictions?
For the most part, Iraqis’ views generally fall into three categories.
One group, which includes many followers of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr — and some intensely nationalist Sunni Arabs in parts of the country that have suffered the worst since the invasion – simply want the Americans to leave, period. They say no amount of American effort now can make up for the horrors of the occupation, including the destruction of society and the killing of innocent civilians.
A second group takes a similarly dim view of the occupation, but worries that the brief period of improving security which Iraq has witnessed this year will be vulnerable if the Americans abruptly withdrew. They say the United States has a moral obligation to remain, and that continued presence of the occupiers is preferable to a return to rule by gangs and militias.
A third group shares a common worry, that without a referee, Iraq’s dominant powers – Kurds in the far north and Shias in the center and south – will brutally dominate other groups.
The Americans are not the first to be facing such dilemmas in Iraq.
In August 1920, only two years after his declining colonial power had emerged from the devastation of the First World War, the then British Secretary of War Winston Churchill wrote (but did not send) a letter to his prime minister which contained this assessment of Mesopotamia:
“It seems to me so gratuitous that after all the struggles of war, just when we want to get together our slender military resources and re-establish our finances and have a little in hand in case of danger here or there, we should be compelled to go on pouring armies and treasure into these thankless deserts.”
A millennium and a half earlier in 694 AD, the Ummayad provincial governor Hajjaj also faced a fractious Baghdad. His response to one angry crowd was a speech learned by all Iraqi schoolchildren: “I see heads before me that are ripe and ready for the plucking, and I am the one to pluck them, and I see blood glistening between the turbans and the beards.” The turbans melted away.
Five years later Hajjaj faced a rebellion in a troublesome region to his east, which forced him to move troops from Iraq/Mesopotamia.
That rebellion was in Kabulistan, now part of Afghanistan. An historical parallel which drew a wry smile from General David H. Petraeus, the commander of American forces in Iraq, when The New York Times pointed it out to him last month. General Petraeus will soon move up the chain of command to take over the Central Command region, making him responsible for a region that covers both Iraq and modern Kabulistan.
Names and regimes change, but there is nothing new under the Mesopotamian sun.
The debate goes on.
* NY Times