Saturday, December 23, 2006

Tribal Loyalties: Iraq must bridge divide

As the sectarian violence in Iraq continues to plaque that new democracy, we are reminded that not all cultures are like ours. During my tour in Iraq in 2004, I had a great opportunity to meet Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Although I found the average Iraqi to be extremely kind and even gentle, the cultural divide between these three main groups was apparent in most of the Iraqi citizens with whom I dealt.

I wrote the following op-ed piece for the Orlando Sentinel:

Special to the Orlando Sentinel
April 24, 2005

The Sunni Muslim barber was cutting my hair with a long pair of sharp scissors. He was the only one working in the barbershop of the al-Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad’s Green Zone. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t stop talking about how all Sunnis were good and all Shiites were bad. I wanted to ask him a question, but until he finished and put away the scissors, I thought silence was the way to go.

When he was done, I stood up, handed him his money and asked, “If all Sunnis are good, what about Saddam Hussein?”

His eyes got big and he said, “Well, maybe Saddam was not so good.”

I’ve been a cop long enough to spot a bad liar, so I just laughed.

Last year I got to know Iraqis of all types, including Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and Christians. Like other Westerners, I learned that Iraqis are more “tribal” than they are nationalistic. Other than foreign terrorists, loyalties to tribe, region and religious sect are the biggest internal obstacles the newborn nation will face. Much of the insurgency arises from the loyalty that some Sunnis felt toward the old regime and the blood oaths made in the past to the imprisoned dictator.

Fortunately, the new Iraqi leaders see the importance of including all segments of society in their fledgling government. Shiites are working with Kurds and both groups are trying to lure the Sunnis into the democratic system. This progress gives us hope that all of the Iraqi people will eventually learn the benefits of working together.

In America, our Irish, Italian, German, African, Spanish, English or Chinese heritage is an important part of what makes each of us unique. There have been times in our own history when these differences have spilled over into conflict. For the most part, we have learned our lesson and we have been fairly successful in balancing individual needs with the common good. We may have our differences, but we settle them in the halls of Congress or in the city council chambers of our hometowns. We don’t kill our opponents with bullets and bombs; we defeat them with words and ballots. Iraqis are still learning this lesson.

During my tour I met Salem Chalabi, the man in charge of creating the tribunal to try Saddam Hussein. I was honored when Chalabi, the nephew of Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi, asked for my advice on some of his personal security issues.

One evening I sat sharing tea with about 10 of his Shiite guards. Only a couple of them spoke English, but I listened as one said, “All Shiites are good, but all Sunnis are bad.” I remembered the Sunni barber with the opposite opinion.

“If all Shiites are good,” I asked, “then what about Muqtada al-Sadr?” At the time, al-Sadr’s Mahdi Militia was killing both Iraqis and Americans. One of the guards rolled his eyes, shook his finger in the air and said, “Muqtada no good.”

Another guard sitting next to me said nothing, but continued to look at me. I’ve seen that look before after I handcuffed someone.

Looking into the man’s eyes I asked him, “Do you like Muqtada?”

He shrugged his shoulders and looked away, giving me his silent answer. His fellow guards laughed and pointed at him. They told me later that he lived in Sadr City, the Baghdad neighborhood of Muqtada al-Sadr.

Before we left Iraq, some of those guards came up to us. They put their arms around us and said farewell. I was glad to be going home, but I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty at leaving the job unfinished. Then I thought to myself that the job wasn’t ours to finish.

It will be up to the Iraqi people to create the happy ending.

SFC Chuck Grist

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