By Lisa Schirch
Americans and Iraqis tell two different stories about the war in Iraq. Most Iraqis say that the U.S.-led invasion and occupation have fueled violence. The dominant American story is that U.S. forces are curbing sectarian violence and making things better in Iraq. This gap in perception severely undermines public diplomacy efforts throughout the Muslim world, and demands much greater effort toward understanding the Iraqi point of view.
Recently, I was sipping tea with a group of Iraqi community development workers in Amman, Jordan. The conversation shifted from a focus on their attempts to reconcile Sunni, Shi'a and Kurdish leaders in villages across Iraq to the larger question of how to reconcile U.S. and Iraqi narratives about the war.
"Do Americans know they have made the situation worse? Do they know there was no al-Qaeda here before the war, but now our cities are full of terrorists?"
The dominant, though of course not sole, Iraqi version of the war goes something like this:
While some of us wanted the United States to help overthrow Saddam Hussein, most of us think the Americans have stayed too long. The U.S. presence in Iraq fuels sectarian violence and has been a magnet for al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters. Iraqis feel humiliated by the occupation and believe the United States continues to stay in Iraq to justify building permanent military bases and to ensure access to Iraqi oil for U.S. corporations. We want the United States to announce a timetable for its departure. Violence will decrease when the United States leaves.
Iraqis name the indignity of the occupation as the major reason why they want the United States to leave their country. Many Iraqis believe that U.S. interests in both Iraqi oil and the establishment of permanent military bases in Iraq sway, if not control, Iraqi politics. They point out the irony that those wanting a "soft partition" of Iraq are unlikely allies, as such a partition would allow greater influence by the United States, Iran, al-Qaeda, and corporate oil interests. Most Iraqis themselves, on the other hand, prefer a strong central government that controls its own oil.
This Iraqi narrative is confirmed by polling data. A new ABC/BBC poll showed that over 70 percent of Iraqis want the United States to leave Iraq. Most believe the U.S. troop "surge" has increased rather than decreased violence in Iraq. Earlier polls by World Public Opinion showed that while nearly half of the Iraqi population supports attacks on U.S. troops, only 1 percent agrees with attacks on civilians across sectarian lines.
Here in the United States, the dominant narrative is quite different. It goes like this:
While some of us believe we should not have gone to war in the first place, many now believe the United States has some responsibility to prevent the sectarian violence which we believe threatens to pull the country apart. American leaders across the political spectrum believe the United States should stay in Iraq until security improves. The American public generally agrees that a vibrant democracy in Iraq is central to U.S. interests in the war on terror."
Within this narrative, many Americans see two choices: a long-term U.S. military presence, or a U.S. withdrawal leading to sectarian warfare. But there is a third option for responsible U.S. engagement in Iraq.
General Petraeus cautioned more than a year ago that in Iraq "there is no military solution, the solution is economic and political." If the U.S. presence is indeed fueling rather than curbing violence in Iraq, it is time to go a step further, by withdrawing U.S. troops, supporting international peacekeeping forces, initiating robust regional diplomacy, and investing in reconstruction and humanitarian aid for the nearly five million displaced Iraqis. This plan would more accurately respond to the true democratic wishes of the Iraqi people.
It is time Americans engage Iraqis more directly in dialogue to build a bridge between these two very different stories. Our policy discussions of "what to do about Iraq" need to include Iraqi civil society, government or religious leaders -- and seriously consider polling data and Iraqi elections as signals of Iraqis' desire to have American military forces leave their country.
Lisa Schirch is a professor of peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University and the director of the 3D Security Initiative. She has spent time in Iraq working with Iraqi civil society organizations involved in peacebuilding efforts. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
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