The first time I went to Iraq after the occupation in late July 2003 I was worried because I had no visa or special papers to cross the border. Iraq had always been a stickler for fully stamped visas often acquired after expensive visits to embassies and consulates, considerable paper work and official meetings. When I left Amman, Jordan about 9 pm for the four hour paperless and permission less ride to the Iraqi border, the nerves in my stomach were alive. At the border there was the usual confusion of trucks, taxis, hustlers and lines where we were to get our passports stamped to leave Jordan.
After the Jordanian officials were done with us, we went on. At the technical border we were greeted by the first fruits of occupation, a massive broken down monument to the Iraqi state and several more dilapidated buildings. No one could tell us where to go. Just as I was deciding to look like I knew what I was doing and keep walking to the place where you find the taxis and buses to Baghdad I saw the real border – two American soldiers sitting at a broken down old table, head in hands and fast asleep. “So this is the New Border,” I thought. Hardly a picture of the great awakening to the age of democracy. I kept walking, still stamp less and paperless. In darkness I stumbled with others to a taxi and the six hour ride northeast to Baghdad.
The image of sleeping soldier border guards appears in my mind every time I hear of foreign fighters in Iraq. A year later in a meeting with former US Senator Simon of Illinois I told him the story of the sleeping border and I explained that it was my hypothesis that the early policy of open borders in Iraq was put in place intentionally to lure violent activists to Iraq for elimination. The Senator laughed at me. He said, you give them too much credit. They [the Pentagon] didn’t have the ability to think up such a sophisticated plan. These things just happened because they didn’t have a plan. But I didn’t abandon my hypothesis.
As events unfolded in the reporting to Congress last week, two reasons emerged for failure to reach benchmarks, the inability of the Iraqi government to make the factions work together, and the presence of what Gen. Petraeus consistently described as barbarous foreign fighters in Iraq. Later in a discussion with my next door neighbour he said he saw Iraq as, “an impossible situation with peoples who have been fighting each other for thousands of years.” He is not the first person who has explained the situation to me using metaphors based on violent culture. In fact, it turns out to be one of those universal commentaries on war and violence about “those people” and “their proclivity to violence” that turns up in war time when the conquerors can’t make things come out their way. It is part of the pattern of explanation for the need for war or policing reaching all the way back to the violent European acquisition of North America when Indians were consistently described as “savages”.
This is a description that makes us feel bleak about Iraq. But the Iraq I met is not bleak. By the time I reached Baghdad just four months after the occupation, Iraqi human rights and emergency assistance groups had sprung up all over Iraq, largely unnoticed by the occupation forces. When we began to meet and talk we quickly discovered that we did not just have common goals for people’s rights. We discovered deeper common values, hopes for the earth, humanity and the environment as well as curiosity about nonviolence. I have often discovered these traits among hopeful people and activists.
For the Iraqi groups, the new situation in 2003 created opportunities for great good. I discovered endless expressions of generosity, hard work, reasonable hopes for community and humour. I discovered partners, not the kind of partners that far away funders require that you have. I found real partners who share a vision for our age. I enjoyed generous hospitality and received many gifts. Something like this happens to me in every new society I touch but Iraq was striking because I had been subjected to such intense bombardment of negative voices on Iraq for so long that I think I let myself believe some of the negativity.
Many of the grassroots folks I met in 2003 are still in Iraq. Many have hunches, suggestions and the hidden ingredients of courage to create the fabric for hope filled programs. Like people who live with an eye to the future everywhere, they have long practised reaching across lines into the neighbourhoods of others where the stuff of negotiations begin, sometimes with great fanfare and sometimes with little notice.
The occupation tore Iraq apart. Iraqi people will have to put their own country together again. It is going to be hard and it will help for them to have friends who cheer them on instead of enemies who do not respect their borders. They don’t need friends who force their leaders to have instantaneous responses to the election cycles of distant lands. They need friends who understand the power of space, space to create an envelope for hope which is the prerequisite of reconciliation, space to fail and space to succeed. They need friends who understand that boundaries create the possibilities for real friendship. It is a huge challenge to do something about those who destroyed their boundaries and thereby allowed the demons of human character to become visible where they were not present before.
Viewed from this perspective, the decision this week by the Iraqi government to ban Blackwater, a leading U. S. security contractor in Iraq may be encouraging. Blackwater with 1000 employees in Iraq was involved in a Baghdad shoot out that killed at least nine people. The firm response of the Iraqi government reflects a hardening of positions about mercenary foreign fighters regardless of where they come from. In 2004 Blackwater employees became famous when four of their foreign contractors were hung from a bridge in Fallujah by a crowd of local people.
I have lost confidence in any possibility that Americans will make things come out according to their right prescription for democracy but I do take hope from the folks I worked with, laughed with, planned with in 2003 and 2004. I know them to be people like the poet Robert Frost, who understand the importance of borders, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Some of them are now dead. Many have lost family members. Some have been forced to flee to safety beyond Iraq’s borders. Some have stayed. And, they can be depended upon to try to do the right thing. They know that their lives and common recovery reaches beyond blame into the world where humans recognize the hopes in one another.
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