Major Ben Connable writes from Iraq, via John B. Dwyer. He debunks many media myths and supplies essential perspective to the news coverage of the Sunni—Shia violence.
I'm still in Iraq, safe and sound at Camp Fallujah. I still feel very far removed from the war even though I am fully immersed in its minutia for about 15 hours every day. At Camp Blue Diamond in Ramadi, right on the edge of the river along the northwest of the city, I could smell, taste, and feel Iraq even when I couldn't get outside the gate. The call to prayer echoed across the water and the occasional stray round would hit the camp. For all the downsides, living in Ramadi kept me close to the problem at hand. It's hard to believe that Fallujah of all places is calm, but there it is.
And calm it remains. I catch the TV news for a few minutes each day at the chow hall, and we have an open source cell here that pushes all the major articles over from CNN, FOX, Reuters, etc. I couldn't help but have a strong sense of deja vu as I watched the stern faced premonitions of doom and read the dramatized, overwrought literary panic attacks over the past few days. April 2004 feels like yesterday — the Shia' were revolting, the country was collapsing into civil war, the government was going to collapse, our experiment in Iraq was drawing to a close... sound familiar? I wrote the following article during the worst of those days:
Things are never, ever as bad here as they appear on television. It would be very hard to characterize the events of the last week as "good."
Conversely, it is far too easy to paint them as an utter disaster drawing us inexorably towards certain doom. here's a middle ground that remains uncharted. Some thoughts on the current situation in Iraq.— The mosque was blown up, the Jaysh al—Mahdi in the greater Baghdad and southern areas of Iraq have killed some people, and there have been demonstrations. All this is true. The fear amongst both Sunni and Shia' is real. The potential for civil war exists, just as it always has, and just as it does in many countries around the world. With that in mind...
— Nearly every recent Iraq story on T.V. or the newspapers is inaccurate in some way large... and large. The numbers are inflated, the damage exaggerated, the estimates are misleading, and the predictions are based on pure conjecture, often by people far removed from the problem. One demonstration that was listed as 10,000 people was actually 2,000. One demonstration listed as violent was actually peaceful (in Iraqi terms — nobody hurt). Far fewer mosques were damaged than first reported.
— The photos and images are the worst of the worst. Nearly every news channel and website has lead the Iraq story for the past few days with either a shot of an angry, emotional demonstration or armed men prowling the streets. One is left with the impression that this is happening on a massive scale — the images reflect the situation in the entire country. In reality, only a few neighborhoods in Baghdad and the southern cities have seen the worst of this activity. The vast majority of protests were peaceful, dispersed peacefully, and often reflected anger at the attack and not at members of the opposite sect.
— There was a combined Sunni—Shia' demonstration against the attack and the retaliatory violence, and a joint prayer session with Sunni and Shia' in the same mosque making a similar statement. Minor blurbs at the bottom of stories on the third page...
— The Iraqi military and police forces have held together and in a great many cases (with exception) they are doing their jobs. This should be one of the feature stories on the nightly news, but it barely received mention. In 2004, the Iraqi military and police all but collapsed. The fact that Shia' soldiers who make up a vast majority of the troops have (in the vast majority of cases) stayed at their posts, held back Shia' militiamen, and prevented an increase in the violence is remarkable. When our Marines ask the Shia' troops who they live and work with out here in al—Anbar what they think about this whole thing, they typically express concern but have no desire to leave their posts or join the fight. There are exceptions to every rule, but that's the majority opinion.
— How about in al—Anbar, the most violent province? What kind of internecine violence are we seeing here? The answer might surprise you: five peaceful protests of about 150 people each. Things have been remarkably calm in our neck of the woods aside from the normal attack patterns. We don't make the news this week because the reporters are in Baghdad mesmerized by the sight of damaged mosques, militiamen, and demonstrators. Everyone is seeing the country through their eyes.
— What about the talking heads? I saw two great examples yesterday. A "former CIA operative" replete with white turtleneck sweater and tweed jacket said that we were heading for civil war. A professor of Middle East studies from the University of Michigan said, "I lived in Beirut back in the 1970's, and this is far worse than anything I ever saw." Neither of these guys is in Iraq right now — they're getting their news from the NYT and CNN. And they are drawing the same conclusion I probably would be drawing if all I saw was the US press. In effect, they're getting paid to reinforce the hysteria and they're playing along.
I urge everyone to let things settle out a little bit — they always do. This is the way Iraqis express themselves. As horrible as that sounds, it's true. Everyone here is calmly watching how the security forces perform, and I haven't heard one Marine veteran express concern over civil war. The Marines watching the news at the chow hall are often shaking their heads in disbelief. My friends in Baghdad are concerned, but mostly about how this is going to effect their operations and troops. These are immediate operational concerns, not the reflections of strategic panic.
The politicians and religious leaders are talking to each other and calling for calm. Even Sadr is trying to keep things reined in. We see report after report indicating that Iraqis on both sides understand that the attack on the mosque in Samarra was an attempt by Zarqawi to divide the Iraqi people. There is danger here, but also opportunity. This is a chance for the Iraqi troops to prove their professionalism, a chance for the politicians to prove their strength, and a chance for everyone to take a step back and see what can happen if they're not willing to negotiate and work together.
This event also offers a unique glimpse into what Iraq could become if we withdraw and leave the Iraqis to fend for themselves. The Iraqi troops are performing well now because they know that we'll back them up if things get out of hand. I think that they realize this is a test for them and for their commanders, and they're getting an opportunity to handle a difficult situation with a safety net. I also think they don't want to see their country sink into civil war.
The potential is always there. This could certainly get worse. We may find ourselves in the middle of a disaster. It is also possible that this event could help settle issues and bring the Iraqi people closer together in some ways. Anything is possible. Just remember that the predictions of probable civil war are coming from the same folks who predicted civil war in 2003...and 2004...and 2005. I believe that's called "crying wolf."