A Farewell to Arms

(From left) Mala Shakhi, PUK member of Parliament, Brig. Gen. Jalal Aziz, myself and Brig. Gen. Rabar Said, pose in front of the command center in Taqtaq the day before Kirkuk fell. (c) 2003 Christopher AllbrittonBAGHDAD — This is the farewell note, both to Iraq and to you, the readers. Tomorrow I will drive to the Jordanian border through Baghdad and thence to Amman.
The war here is winding down, and the long, laborious process of rebuilding has started. Much of the activity in Baghdad involves the U.S. command looking for qualified people to help get the city back on its feet. Water and power still have to be restored. A state economy now lacks the state, so people have no jobs; no one is there to pay them. Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen in Kirkuk are a hair’s breadth away from Yugoslavia-style ethnic clashes. Mosul is still savage, with little order. One reporter who returned from there yesterday described it to me as “like Mogadishu” with the city divvied up into territories for armed gangs and almost no civil authority. There are fewer than 300 American troops for a city of two million peoplel. This has gone almost completely unreported from what the journos in Arbil are hearing from editors back home. No one seems to care about Mosul, they say.
“They [the Americans] have given up on Mosul,” said one reporter, who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s terrifying.” He could have been talking about his editors, too.
At the same time, other cities are calming down — at least during the day. Kirkuk sports traffic lights that work, cops in the street and a bustling street merchant community. At night, however, there is still shooting and thuggery.
All of this will settle down eventually — or explode into civil war — but the question is how long will it take? I think the violence will continue at a low throttle for months, but even that would be a welcome contrast to 35 years of Ba’ath Party systematic terror and three wars since 1980.
Whether Iraqis gets the government they deserve, however, is a different story. Their neighbors don’t wish to see a new American client state in their midst and can be expected to meddle most mischievously. Also, the fractured nature of Iraqi society, thanks the Ba’ath Party’s repression and playing one group off another will take a long time to heal. Free-wheeling democracy is not in the cards for quite a while, if ever, thanks to the majority Shia population and the ethnic divisions in the north. If elections were to be held in the next few months (not likely) they would probably bring to power a government friendly to Iran and hostile to the United States and everyone else in the region. The Kurds would walk out and demand _de facto_ — or even _de jure_ — independence. The United States can not allow this.
Still, many Iraqis are optimistic about the future. “We are happy,” said Hoshang Sadraddin, 22, a Kurd in Arbil. “We want a democratic government, a future. And for all the people in Iraq to live in peace.”
“I look for a better life in the future,” said Jasim Khidhir, 18. “I look forward to success in life, getting an education, that is my dream.”
And in Baghdad, an Arab who wouldn’t give his name smiled at me and said in halting English that he was happy that democracy had come to Iraq. The sentiment was genuine, if a little premature.
We’ll see. The Kurds I’ve talked want the United States to stay “forever” as Assan Ahmen Awla, 30, a taxi driver, told me. America is seen as the Kurds’ insurance against control by Baghdad and Arab violence. The marchers in Baghdad demanding a quick end to American occupation, he said, were incited by Ahmed Chalabi and the INC to stir up trouble against the Americans, so they will leave and the INC can seize complete control. Chalabi, obviously, isn’t popular up here. Neither are Arabs in general.
“I think forever I will chose American troops to keep us away from the Arabs,” said Taha Muhammed Hassan, 30, a fruit vendor. “We know what the Arabs will do if they have control.”
Sentiments like these, as well as threats against Kurds in Tikrit, Baghdad and the southern part of the country are ominous signs, both for a coherent country and a democratic future. Delshad wrote me to tell me his thoughts:
“The heavy heritage of more than three decades of dictatorship and oppression will need many, many years to be overcome and Iraqis to get a better understanding of what is liberation and its limits. And if the Americans keep in their current role [of] being only observers standing aside then things can’t get better!!”
Others suggest democracy isn’t that big a deal to them, that jobs are a priority rather than self-government. “We choose jobs, not democracy,” said Hemin Sultan, 28, a translator.
Given that much of the country is working at subsistence levels, even in the relatively prosperous cities of Iraqi Kurdistan, his opinions are understandable. But I worry that unless the Iraqis demand democracy for themselves the United States won’t give it to them… I believe the White House would prefer a docile Iraq to one that can say no to American interests. But of course, I’m constitutionally inclined to oppose the idea of an American empire based on commercial ties, so I do hope the Iraqis realize that real democracy — unruly, nettlesome and untidy — is in their long-term best interests.
But while the Iraqis have just started a long journey into the future, the Back-to-Iraq.com journey is coming to an end. B2I has succeeded beyond what I expected or envisioned when I began writing it in September 2002. Through the months, the site has managed to provoke, entertain and — hopefully — enlighten people. It’s garnered some attention and people have said it’s a new form of journalism and that it’s history making.
I don’t know if it’s all that, but I’m certainly flattered by the compliments and the accolades. This was journalism without a net (although it was on the Net.) I’ve stumbled a few times, almost losing my balance, but looking back over the site, I hope it was good enough.
Now I’m going home. The stories that I’d like to do require money and time that I simply no longer have. The looming ethnic conflict in northern Iraq, the role of the Turks, the treatment of women, the fate of the political prisoners and the new government’s faltering first steps are all stories that I would love to pursue, with the style and techniques I’ve developed on the site. I’d also wanted to find Salam Pax.
As for the future of B2I, I’m working on that. The site and listserv will remain up for as long as the server has power, but I’m still undecided on what to do next to push forward the concept of independent, reader-funded journalism. I will use the site and the premium email list to announce anything new, so stop in every now and then to say hello.
I do plan on returning to Iraq in a few months to check in on how things are going. Those dispatches will also be published here and on the listserv. Donors who have donated will continue get premium content and photos whenever the site is active.
A note about donations: I am no longer actively soliciting them. The mission is over — for now. Save your cash or donate it to other indy journalists. It’s important to develop this genre of journalism, and reader contributions are key. We all proved that this kind of endeavor is possible. I may be the first, but I sincerely hope I’m not the last. I believe other independent journalists will soon strike out and cover major events alongside the major media. I hope they break more stories than I did, and challenge their mainstream colleagues to keep up.
A few of those mainstreamers here — most enthusiastically from Fox News, oddly enough — think the ideals that B2I brings to the table are grand and think something like this site could be the future of the craft. They bemoan the top-down editorial control and like the idea of readers’ input in deciding what to cover.
That can wait for a bit, however. For now, I must bid you farewell. I’m disappointed and sad to do so, as I feel like I’m leaving early. The reality of a limited budget is an inconvenient fact of life, however. I hope you all don’t hold it against me.
It’s been a truly fantastic journey and I am sincerely grateful to everyone who donated, read, sent in feedback, argued on the comment boards or wished me well. While truth may be the first casualty in war, I hope I was able to save a small shard of it. But it’s hard to say. Many times since I’ve been here, listening to the claims of Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Turkomen or Assyrians, I’ve thought that there is no such thing as *Truth,* only myths that people tell their children to get them through to the next generation. History doesn’t exist here, at least not in the American sense; the past is never really past and history isn’t something that happened long ago; it’s very much alive and kicking. In this ancient place, a land of empires, gods, gardens, wars, blood and beauty, at the heart of it, you will find only stories. I hope I’ve been able to bring a few of them home to you.

11 Comments on “A Farewell to Arms”

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