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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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“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.