BAGHDAD — The Iraqi national psyche is a Janus-faced beast when it comes to belief. On the one hand, Iraqis on the street will believe the very last thing you tell them. No conspiracy theory is too outlandish not to find some traction among the population. In a fit of black humor the other day I joked with A., my office manager and Y., an interpreter for us, that the Kurds were obviously behind all the suicide bombings.
Why? Because they could use a civil war between Shi’a and Sunni to claim Kirkuk and draw a green line around their territory. No one gets in from south of this line. Bingo! Instant Kurdistan. Or, alternately, if the Arabs discover this fiendish plot and counter-attack, the Kurds can set down their green line and set their pesh merga to defend their territory. Either way, they get Kirkuk and a state. Game, set, match.
Now, I don’t really believe this. But A. and Y., got into the “fun” of it, and said I should go tell a few people on the street my theory. “In two days, it will be on every front page in the country,” A. said. Y. protested that it wouldn’t be true. Ah! I countered. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. It only matters if enough people believe it to be true.
Y. smiled. “Now you are thinking like an Iraqi,” he said.
And yet, tell an Iraqi that many of the problems of their country — lack of security, meddling by Iran, Shi’a-Sunni violence, Zarqawi — is a result of a cascading series of American blunders and incompetence, and they will refuse to believe it. “America put a man on the moon,” said a friend of A. as we puffed on a nargilah last night. “That America has f**ked up so much is very hard for us to accept.”
“Iraq is harder than the moon,” I said, to much amusement. But like my earlier joke about the Kurds, it was black humor, and The Plot always hovered nearby.
Robert Fisk once wrote about Lebanon that The Plot — the plans of foreign powers to defeat and humiliate Lebanon during its 1975-1990 civil war — was always present in his conversations with Lebanese. He joked that The Plot should have its own chair at the table at every meal, since it was always a topic of dinner conversations. Well, Iraq has the same mentality. It is inconceivable to Iraqis that America, as powerful as it is, could have bungled this place as badly as it has. Americans walked on the moon! And they can’t find Zarqawi?
It’s a fair criticism, I suppose. But it’s a frustrating phenomenon for a reporter to deal with, because getting people to tell you what’s going on without the conversation degenerating into a convoluted sequence of events is next to impossible. Today, I interviewed Sheikh Hassan Zaydan al-Luhaibi, one of the principle leaders of the National Dialogue Council, which aims to be the political arm of the “the resistance” (muqawama). I wanted to know just how much influence the United States really wields in Iraq. I know it’s more than nothing, but less than when it absolutely, completely and openly ran the place, as under the CPA.
Al-Luhaibi is a Sunni tribal leader, so he’s not friendly to the Americans by any means. He equates the Iraqi people with the muqawama, saying they’re one and the same. And to him, the Americans control everything. They have consultants in every ministry, he said (this is true), and they control everything that goes on in the ministries (this is debatable).
How then, I asked, do you explain the apparent rapprochement between Iraq and Iran? The Iranian regime is an enemy of the United States. It has its tentacles in Iraq’s government. The United States is trying to stop it from getting nuclear weapons. Was he saying the Americans OKed Defense Minister Sadoun al-Dulaimi’s trip to Tehran last week? Did they approve the Iran-Iraq trade agreement being hammered out between the two governments?
Rather than resort to Occam’s Razor — that the Americans have lost control of the political situation in Iraq, that political ideologues underestimated the difficulties of “democratizing” this place, that mistake has followed mistake — he called over his old friend, The Plot. Obviously, letting Iran take over the government is what the Americans want, he said. The Americans can close the border any time they want. That they don’t have enough troops to do so never occurred to him. Like a disappearing Cheshire Cat, The Plot was hanging in the air around us, only its toothy grin giving it away.
Many times, an old friend of mine, a fixer who has gotten out of the business, has asked me if the United States has an agreement with Iran. I try to tell him that I really don’t think so, that it’s not in the U.S.’s interest to do, that an Iraq hostile to Iran is really better for America than a cozy relationship. But no, he just shakes his head and mutters that there must be an agreement. He is Sunni, so he feels his country is being taken from him and delivered to his enemies, the Shi’ites and the Iranians. (To many Sunnis, they’re the same thing.) And in his eyes, America is the country turning Iraq over to the threat it fought — with America’s support — in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
I confess, I don’t understand this mindset. I guess I don’t see how people can see America as all-powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing when the evidence for its helplessness is measured in a daily body count. For me, Iraq’s carnage reminds me of what Talleyrand said of Napoleon’s 1804 execution of the Duc d’Enghien: “It was worse than a crime; it was a mistake.” But for many Iraqis, as the death toll mounts, The Plot thickens.