Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Sergeant and the Shiites

“We regard Iraq’s success to be our success.
And, God forbid, Iraq’s failure will also be ours.”

Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq on February 20, 2005

One evening in Baghdad’s Green Zone I had a chance to sit down and visit with a group of Shiite security guards (see above photo). It was an interesting encounter and a chance to learn once again that the average citizen of the world is pretty much the same everywhere.

I am working on a book (as time permits) about my 2004 tour in Iraq. The following entry is part of Chapter 12.

“We visited for about an hour discussing politics, religion, our differing cultures, Muqtada al Sadr (a Shi’a or Shiite Muslim like these men), our families and all manner of things. In the end we discovered that men were much alike everywhere. We wanted to live in peace with our families, love our wives and children, have a decent job and make a good home. We might all follow a different path to God, but we all tried to be good men and surely that is what God, or Allah, wanted.

I asked them “Are all Shi’as good?” Their response, of course, was “Yes, yes”. Then I paused, looked at the ceiling and asked “But what about Muqtada al Sadr?” They all laughed and one of them said “Muqtada is not so good.” The guard sitting next to me didn’t respond. I smiled at him and said it was O.K. to tell me how he really felt because now Iraq was an independent country and its citizens could express themselves freely. He still didn’t speak and the others laughed. They told me the quiet man lived in Sadr City, al Sadr’s neighborhood. Another guard said what al Sadr was doing was not good and the real leader of the Shi’a’s was Grand Ayatollah Sistani, a fact well-known to all Americans in Iraq.

Still trying to unmask their real feelings, I asked them “Is America taking Iraqi oil?” They all said “Yes, yes”. In response I said “No, America will BUY Iraqi oil.” I said we would buy it with American money that would go to help the Iraqi people. Then, as the English-speaking guard translated, I explained how Germany and Japan were defeated by America and we helped rebuild those countries. I said America doesn’t control those nations, but it helped them become prosperous and free. They seemed to understand this since they nodded their heads up and down as my words were translated. Either that or they were in the “accommodate the stupid American” mode.

They appeared to agree that Iraq now had a better future. I asked them how they felt this happened. They sat for a minute. I said “Do you feel free? Do you feel free to have a better life? Do you fear the government any more?” They said they did feel free and they didn’t fear the government any longer. I told them American soldiers came to Iraq to give them their freedom and the freedom of Iraqis was being purchased with both Iraqi and American lives. I could tell they sensed my own feeling of loss just as I felt theirs.

We discussed the differences in our cultures and religions. I told them I respected their country and their religion, but if Iraq wanted to be a land of freedom then all religions must be free to practice as they wish. I may have been preaching about the benefits of freedom and liberty, but I sensed they liked it because they hung on every word I said. They asked a lot of questions and I did my best to answer them.

I told them I was a Christian, but I believed all men had the right to choose their own roads to God, or Allah. I told them a story of three men – a Christian, a Muslim and a Jew – who were walking the same path to a common destination when they came to a thick forest. The path split three ways and the men argued as to which path to take. In the end, the three men separated and each one followed a different path through the dense woods. After a long journey, the three paths came out of the forest and once again merged into one. The three men greeted each other and traveled together on a single path until they reached their destination.

I tried to explain to the Shiite guards that we all take different roads in life and we all choose our own path to God. In the end, isn’t the ultimate destination the same? All men seek God, or Allah, and all men must be given the freedom to follow their own hearts through the forest of life as they make their way to Him.

They seemed to like the story. It was apparent I was the first American with whom these men ever shared an in-depth conversation. During the hour or so that we visited, they offered me tea and food and I felt as though I had made friends of some of them, but certainly not all of them, especially the quiet one. As I stood to leave, some of the guards asked me if they could have their picture taken with me. I said I would be honored.

We took that picture the next morning.”

SFC Chuck Grist

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