Friday, May 18, 2007

Nir Rosen and the Exodus from Iraq

In the early 1990s, Nir Rosen used to be a bouncer at a club here in Washington DC. Interested in terrorism and what was happening in the Middle East, he met a DJ with similar interests. His name is Peter Bergen.

Years later, Peter would become one of the only journalists to interview Osama Bin Ladan. His 1997 TV interview with the man became the basis of a documentary and the bestselling book Holy War Inc. (Free Press, 2001). Nir Rosen would go on to become internationally recognized for his groundbreaking journalism on Iraq, including his time among the insurgents and tribal leaders of Fullujah and Anbar province. His book on Iraq is In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq (Free Press, 2006), which made it onto EPIC's "2006 Best Books on Iraq."

Today, the Nir and Peter are senior fellows at the New American Foundation and
-- I suspect -- continue to keep up with Washington DC's great club scene. Nir's
latest work titled The Flight from Iraq was the cover story in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine.

Cosmically enough, the New York Times Magazine titled it "The Exodus." The name of one of the best clubs in DC in the early 1990s? You got it: Exodus.

But back to the here and now, millions of Iraqis have fled their country, creating the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East since 1948. As they flee, Iraq is being deprived of the very people needed to help rebuild and stabilize it. There are also fears that the sectarian conflict is already following them, transforming the war into a regional conflict.

Nir offers a cogent summary of the scale of the crisis, and he gets the interviews that only a reporter who's spent more than 2 years among combatants in Iraq can get. However I have one criticism, more for the editors of the New York Times than for Nir: some of the conversations that are a central part of the article are with Iraqi tribal leaders and insurgent/resistance leaders who are NOT refugees. Under international law, a refugee is a person who is outside his/her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution. As you read the following excerpt, you can judge for yourself: do they fit the legal definition of a refugee?

Nevertheless, those same interviews are intriguing. They reveal clues to what a political solution to Iraq's civil war might look like in provinces like Anbar and Diyala, where there is a growing opposition to the terrorism of al-Qaeda and the "Islamic State of Iraq" (see The Story of Diyala and the Promise of a New Awakening). Here's a taste:

In Amman, I was reunited with Sheik Saad Naif al-Hardan, leader of the Aithawi tribe in Ramadi since 1995. I first met him in his village of Albu Aitha in 2004, when he was closely involved with antioccupation forces, refusing even to tell me how many men his tribe had, viewing it as a military secret. Sheik Hardan said he had been arrested by the Americans as early as July 2003, along with 85 men from his tribe. Since I last saw him, Sheik Hardan had briefly served in the Iraqi government (as minister for provincial affairs). But he spent most of his time in Jordan. "All the leaders of the Anbar are outside of Iraq," he told me. "In the Anbar, America is killing and Al Qaeda is killing."

Like many Sunni leaders, Sheik Hardan had grown pensive about the past few years. "The Sunnis left the political process," he said. "This is our fault. Sunni scholars forbade political participation." But not all had changed. "We all support the muqawama sharifa," he said -- the "honorable resistance," by which he meant to distinguish resistance warriors from the many armed people who attack civilians. "And I am part of it," he said. When I raised my eyebrows, he added, "With words." I asked if there was still an honorable resistance given the civil war that Sunni and Shiite militias were engaged in. "It still exists," he said. "You don't see how many Americans are killed in the Anbar?"

One of Sheik Hardan's companions that day, who served as deputy chief of police for Anbar Province under the American occupation, had survived numerous assassination attempts. He blamed them on Al Qaeda, which he also believed blew up his house. "Al Qaeda is not cooperating with the Iraqi resistance," he said. "The real Iraqi resistance considers Al Qaeda an enemy."

Sheik Hardan's refugee counterparts in Damascus told a similar story. There I met one of the leaders of the Anbar that Sheik Hardan referred to when he told me they had all fled. Sheik Yassin was a weathered and frail man with a thick white scarf over his head. He fingered black beads as we spoke. He led a mosque in the Anbar city of Hit but fled a month before we met and left it in the care of his sons. Hit was deserted, he told me. "The situation there has become disastrous," he said. "They hit my son's house in an air strike and destroyed his house and killed my grandson. The people of Hit are caught between Americans on one side and Al Qaeda on the other side. And the police and army do not treat people properly."

He, too, recognized the strategic Sunni error made at the beginning of the American occupation. "That is the origin of the problem," he said. "They boycotted. If they had participated with all their weight, they would not have let the Shiite militias take over the government of Iraq." He blamed the Iraqi Sunni leadership for denouncing elections and threatening those who participated. "They made the wrong interpretation," he said. "Shiites wanted to prevent Sunnis from voting, and jihadists did as well. The jihadists fight the Americans on one side, and on the other side they destroy the community. The only solution is if the Americans stop the Iranian interference." Sheik Yassin did not flee Shiite militias. He fled from Al Qaeda. "Sunnis must choose between death or seeking refuge in the Anbar, Syria or Jordan," he said.
Check out The Exodus (the article that is) and bring it to the club to share with friends. On Monday, The New America Foundation hosted a great event with Nir where I learned of his past life as a DC bouncer. The moral of the blog? You never know who you'll meet at a dance club, nor where such friendships can lead.


Anonymous said...

Another moral - I need to get out more!

John Reinke said...

Excellent post, Erik. I never knew of the interesting connection between Nir and Peter. The refugee problem is huge and will clearly impact the region for many years. - John Reinke

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