Monday, April 02, 2007

Forgetting Our Friends

"Betrayed," a recent article by George Packer of the New Yorker tells the stories of several Iraqis who believed so strongly in the US mission in Iraq that they took unimaginable risks to be part of that mission. Most worked as interpreters for the Americans, discreetly going about their work—covering their faces as they worked, using pseudonyms, and daily altering their routesto avoid detection by the militias that were literally out for the heads of anyone who they branded as an aameel— an “agent" for the Americans.

As the threats against them mounted, these Iraqis sought protection from their American bosses. When that protection never materialized, many of those collaborating with the US were forced to flee the country. To this day, thousands remain in bureaucratic limbo--waiting for asylum or resettlement in places like Syria, Egypt and even still in Iraq, wondering why the Americans that they trusted so much would leave them hung out to dry:

"Ali initially worked the night shift at a base in his neighborhood and walked home by himself after midnight. In June, 2003, the Americans mounted a huge floodlight at the front gate of the base, and when Ali left for home the light projected his shadow hundreds of feet down the street. 'It’s dangerous,' he told the soldiers at the gate.'Can’t you turn it off when we go out?'

"'Don’t be scared,' the soldiers told him. 'There’s a sniper protecting you all the way.'

"A couple of weeks later, one of Ali’s Iraqi friends was hanging out with the snipers in the tower, and he thanked them. 'For what?' the snipers asked. For looking out for us, Ali’s friend said. The snipers didn’t know what he was talking about, and when he told them they started laughing.

"'We got freaked out,' Ali said. The message was clear: You Iraqis are on your own."

As dishonorable as America's abandonment of its Iraqi friends is, the article tells another story that is in some ways more shameful: America's disregard for the advice of Iraqis. Locals are the ones most able to understand the cultural nuances and long-term needs of their societies. The article has a poignant example of how America failed to heed their best sources of advice, the Iraqis:
"One day, Firas accompanied one of Bremer’s top political advisers to a meeting with an important Shiite cleric. The cleric’s mosque, the Baratha, is an ancient Shiite bastion, and Firas, whose family came from the holy city of Najaf, knew a great deal about the mosque and the cleric. On the way, the adviser asked, 'Is this a mosque or a shrine or what?' Firas said, 'It’s the Baratha mosque,' and he started to explain its significance, but the adviser cut him short: 'O.K., got it.' They went into the meeting with the cleric, who was from a hard-line party backed by Tehran but who spoke as if he represented the views of all Iraqis. He didn’t represent the views of many people Firas knew, and, given the chance, Firas could have told the adviser that the mosque and its Imam had a history of promoting Shia nationalism."
Check out the whole article here. Also, NPR interviewed Packer a week or so ago about the article, and 60 Minutes did a story on this same topic in early March; here is the link to the NPR story
and one to the 60 Minutes segment.

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