Six years in Iraq: three American stories
A soldier, a reconstruction expert, and a peace activist tell of how Iraq has changed – and what more needs to be done.
It was 2005, and the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah was at war, buildings blasted to rubble and rockets splitting the sky.
Amid the chaos, "this Iraqi walks up to us and says, 'How can I help?' " says Sergeant Bowers, who has served two tours in Iraq.
It was a breakthrough moment for Bowers's unit. "He really represented the kind of relationship you need to establish at the local level to begin to turn the tide," says Bowers.
Six years after America invaded Iraq, Bowers's experience symbolizes what America has learned – and what Iraq has sacrificed. Progress in Iraq has come one relationship at a time – a lesson that could change how the American military fights in Afghanistan and beyond.
But Moufid was killed in front of his family later that year for cooperating with Americans, Bowers learned – a glimpse of the war’s cost to the Iraqi people.
Much of the wanton violence that claimed Moufid as well as thousands of other Iraqi civilians is now waning. US combat deaths, too, are now consistently lower than at any time since the invasion began in 2003.
Although few experts – let alone Iraqis – speak of victory, the Iraqi government is gradually taking greater responsibility for its own affairs. National elections slated for the end of the year offer the promise of another step toward a stability and calm Iraq hasn’t known for decades. This has given President Obama the confidence to plan for the withdrawal of two-thirds of the 145,000 American troops in Iraq by autumn 2010.
The pullout is backloaded to allow for maximum security coverage during the elections.
Yet Iraq is a more nuanced picture when seen through the eyes of three Americans who have come to know the country intimately: soldier Bowers, reconstruction expert Paul Hughes, and peace activist Michele Naar-Obed. On the sixth anniversary of the invasion, their personal perspectives point to accomplishments such as those in Fallujah, but also to the difficulties that lie ahead – from the rise of a more conservative strain of Islam to dormant sectarian rifts that could resurface as the Americans leave.
When he got word that he would be deployed to Iraq, Bowers was an intern in the Capitol Hill office of former Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe in early 2003. A week later, he was on a ship bound for Kuwait and what would be the invasion of Iraq.
In that first deployment, the civil-affairs officer began to have inklings of how important it might be to keep Iraqi civilians safe. But it was not until Bowers was back in the US, studying Arabic and Middle Eastern Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, that he began to grasp just how critical the US relationship with the Iraqi people was going to be to stabilizing the country.
Watching a succession of events, including the April 2004 public mutilating and burning of four American contractors in Fallujah, Bowers found himself wondering, “How is this going so wrong?”
It was about the same time that some US officials, including in the Pentagon, were beginning to discuss the need for a different approach in Iraq – thinking that would eventually lead to the “surge” of US troops and a focus on winning over local populations.
A wiry man with an intense gaze, Bowers got his chance to employ the “civilian first” approach during his Fallujah deployment – a tough test, he says, given that the battle’s objective was to rid the city of the Al Qaeda sympathizers who had come to dominate it. “It’s not easy to establish the rapport you need for long-term success when it looks like all you’re about is blowing the place up,” he says.
He might not have been able to do it without Moufid. He was a critical link to establishing trust, Bowers says, and helped the Americans make contacts with influential Fallujans who wanted to break free of the Al-Qaeda-inspired insurgency.
“He helped us make the critical point you always want to make,” Bowers adds: “that it’s not the US doing these things like rebuilding services or creating local councils for the Iraqis, but the Iraqis doing it for themselves.”
Bowers has heard recent reports that marines in Fallujah are now patrolling without helmets. That tells him that his work – and Moufid’s – has succeeded.
“We can still trip up, but the path we have left to travel should be easier because of what we’ve learned,” says Bowers, now director of government affairs for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
As he prepares for a third deployment – this time to Afghanistan later this year – Bowers says he’ll carry one key lesson with him: “Reaching out with a handshake instead of a bayonet will always be more effective when it comes to counterinsurgency ops.”
The reconstruction expert
Mr. Hughes has been to Iraq eight times since the invasion. He has gone with the military. He has gone as a reconstruction expert. And he has taken the Iraq Study Group on a fact-finding trip in 2005. But what he remembers most are two moments that point to the initial failures and subsequent successes that have defined the US campaign in Iraq.
The first begins at a barbecue at the US headquarters in Baghdad in late May 2003, some 10 weeks after the March 19 invasion. Word came that an attack on two humvees had killed two American soldiers along the road to the airport.
It was, to Hughes’s mind, the beginning of the insurgency, and it had come just five days after the US had given the ill-fated order to disband the Iraqi Army.
The two were connected, he says. What many officials had mistakenly believed would be a quick and stable takedown of Saddam Hussein would in fact be a long and unpredictable war.
“It was a harbinger of what was to come,” says Hughes, who was in Baghdad in May 2003 as an aide to the first postinvasion American administrator, Gen. Jay Garner.
It was not until four years later, during a stint in Mahmoudiyah – a district in what had become known as the “triangle of death” southwest of Baghdad – that he began to feel that important changes in US policy were taking hold.
The US Army brigade assigned to secure and hold the area during the surge of US troops was having trouble making inroads with the locals. Soldiers were killed and kidnapped. Local Shiite leaders would not work with their Sunni counterparts. But after months of painstaking effort a plan for reconciliation was reached.
“What the leaders of Mahmoudiyah signed was essentially a peace agreement, and it became known among Iraqis as the Mahmoudiyah model,” says Hughes, now a senior program officer at the US Institute of Peace, a Washington think tank focused on conflict prevention and postconflict reconstruction.
The experience, and others like it, taught the Americans a couple of lessons, Hughes says. One was how ill-prepared they are for what comes after conflict. Another was how much their presence will remain vital to Iraq for years to come.
“We in the US are now keenly aware of our inadequacies in dealing with postconflict situations,” Hughes says.
Yet at the same time, he adds, “There is also a real requirement, as long as the Iraqis ask for it and agree to it, for America to be there for some time,” he says.
“Our responsibility is to help them work through the difficulties of building a stable and just society and an open, free-market economy,” he says.
But that means the US will be learning as much from the process as the Iraqis – lessons it may be able to apply in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Hughes also hopes that the shift away from a military focus in Iraq will reveal a different Iraq to Americans.
“I remember driving near Karbala [in southern Iraq] when the interpreter pointed out the window and said, ‘That’s where the prophet Ezekiel is buried,’ or being told where Daniel’s den might have been in Babylon,” Hughes says. “Those are the kinds of things many Americans would love to see, the Iraq they’d like to experience.”
The peace activist
When Ms. Naar-Obed returned from Iraq in 2004, she brought with her news that would shake America and the world – reports from Iraqis of abuse in the US detention facility in Abu Ghraib.
“My hope was that whatever pressure I could bring to bear, either [in Iraq] or by speaking out about it when I was back home, would help put an end to the abuses we were hearing about,” says Naar-Obed, who has spent several months of every year since 2002 in Iraq.
Once again in Iraq, Naar-Obed is impressed not by any progress she sees, but by the challenges Iraq still faces. Iraq’s sectarian tensions eased when ethnic cleansing led to migration and segregation. But the underlying tensions among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds remain.
“There may be a current marked reduction in violent acts [because of the new segregation of sectarian populations], but there has been little in the way of political or personal reconciliation,” she says by phone and e-mail.
Currently in the Kurdish north, she says she senses “great fear and concern about what will happen when the walls that physically separate people come down, and when the forces that keep those walls erected leave.”
The one unequivocally positive outcome Naar-Obed sees from six years of conflict is that Saddam Hussein no longer rules the country. She didn’t fully grasp the importance of this, she says, until her Christian Peacekeepers Team moved out of Baghdad to the Kurdish town of Suleimaniyah.
“I don’t think I understood the depth of [Saddam Hussein’s] brutality until our team moved up to the Kurdish north and began to learn about the plight of the Iraqi Kurds,” she says.
Yet according to Naar-Obed, even Iraqi Kurds who once revered the US for toppling Mr. Hussein are now disillusioned. They resent US support for Turkey, which is pursuing Kurdish rebels into Iraq.
“Kurds who once flew American flags alongside the Kurdish flag and named their children George [Bush] … now curse US policy and curse themselves for counting on the US to be their allies,” she says.
Nor does she view the recent provincial elections optimistically, as many others have. “Actually, fraud ran rampant throughout the provinces,” she says, citing cases of large numbers of Iraqis denied the right to vote based on technicalities or the disqualification of entire displaced populations.
The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki exhibits “increasingly abusive and dictatorial-like behaviors,” particularly regarding women’s rights and the rights of the Iraqi Kurds, she adds.
Despite her bleak views of the US presence here, Naar-Obed says that America’s six years in Iraq have brought her to the conclusion that America does have an important international role to play – if America changes its approach to the world.
“We [Americans] have a lot of resources and talents, if they could be used for the good of the world instead of the good of the superpower,” she says.
In some ways it’s a view that is not so far removed from what Bowers saw on the streets of Fallujah.
Those experiences have been incorporated into a new counterinsurgency model implemented by Gen. David Petraeus, emphasizing a “public security first” approach. The idea is to secure the trust of the civilian population and a nation-building approach based on work – two lessons the US has supposedly learned from its years in Iraq.
Pointing to her own experience, Naar-Obed says the Iraqis are looking for a helping hand to establish peace and reconnect to the world.
“These people who were ostracized and isolated from the international community for so long have someone who can hold out a hand of friendship from the West,” she says. “I see the impact in their eyes, it’s a gift that I as one individual can offer here.”