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Iraqi Violence: Merely Politics as Usual

Written by its correspondent in Iraq, the New York Times has published an article, the type of which you will never see in a French periodical. (The closest thing to a similar piece being published in France was a reprint in the Paris-based International Herald Tribune.) The Dexter Filkins piece has its share of pessimism and bad news, but the underlying message undermines pretty heavily the hand-wringing yak-yak about the Iraqi quagmire, the disaster in making, the "disgusting photos", the disappointed Iraqis, the violence and the insecurity, and other descriptions in the same vein.

I drove across the Kuwaiti border and into Safwan on the first day of the invasion, March 21, 2003, lugging with me a concrete expectation that I would find cheering crowds and Iraqis throwing flowers. I had driven in a similar way with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan 16 months before, as the Afghans joyously threw off the shackles of Taliban rule: turbans went into the gutters, beards to the barber's floor and the volume on the television sets way, way up.

In Safwan, I encountered not so much a celebration as a lunatic asylum, an outpouring of more emotions than I could fathom: some people cheered, others cried. One woman, her son murdered by Saddam Hussein's henchmen, wept and cheered at once: lamenting her past, praising her deliverance, fearing her future.

"Should I be afraid?" the woman, 68-year-old Zahra Khafi asked, mumbling and wiping her eyes. "Is Saddam coming back?" … All the way to Baghdad, there were scenes like this: emotions more complicated than we were ready for, naked and on display. We did not know then, as we are only beginning to understand now, how badly damaged this country had been.

We did not know then, as we are only beginning to understand now, how badly damaged this country had been. Once more: We did not know then, as we are only beginning to understand now, how badly damaged this country had been. Why do I repeat the sentence? For one simple reason. Many of the newspapers, many of the world leaders, many of the anti-war demonstrations, many of the war opponents (the majority of the given country's population, we are invariably made to understand), and much of the "street" opinion raving and ranting about Bush's war against Saddam still don't get it. They don't know it, and they don't understand it.

"Freedom is something one needs to be deprived of to understand what it means." Some peace-camp sympathizers will call these comments unfair. In fact, many claim, they wish the coalition's tactics had worked, or would work. All they are doing is responding to the "dreadful news" coming out from Iraq every day, every week, every month. Is that so? Read on.

…One night this month, I went to the home of the Iraqi finance minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi. To get to his house, I drove first to a local mosque, where a group of armed men, seated in their car, waited for my arrival. I got into the car, and within minutes I was seated in Mr. Mahdi's garden.

Life is like that for every Iraqi who chooses to work for the new American-backed government. The men and women who are trying to bring down the new Iraqi state are systematically wiping out its political class. Dozens of council members and mayors, and hundreds of Iraqi police officers, have been murdered and blown up.

Over dinner, it seemed pointless to ask why Mr. Mahdi, a brilliant, funny man with two master's degrees and a farmhouse in France, would put himself at such horrible risk. For Mr. Mahdi, like so many other Iraqi political leaders, this wave of Iraqi violence is merely a continuation of what they had already known, politics as usual.

Mr. Mahdi, a Shiite politician, was tortured by Mr. Hussein's men, but prefers not to go into details. Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, can recount how, in his own case, Mr. Hussein's thugs folded him up into a ball, hung him from the ceiling and twirled him around for hours on end. [Paul] Bremer, in a recent interview, described how at a dinner for members of the Iraqi Governing Council, a woman seated next to him had begun to tell the story of her murdered brother, killed by Mr. Hussein's men many years ago. Before she could finish she had begun to weep.

I asked Mr. Mahdi if it had all been worth it: the invasion, the guerrilla war, the car bombings, the assassinations. He gave a surprising answer.

"We were expecting much worse than this," said Mr. Mahdi, who does not discount the possibility that Iraq could slide into civil war. "Much worse."

"We never imagined this would be easy," he said. "We were telling the Americans, you will have a mess. It is mostly the psychological situation. The suffering."

In a country with so much death and anarchy, Mr. Mahdi's perspective seemed unusual at first, but on reflection, as I left his house, it struck me that the country he described was not unlike the one I found in Safwan, 15 months ago.

"We never imagined this would be easy. … We were expecting much worse than this. Much worse." This statement, of course, goes counter to the conventional wisdom (that of the newspapers, the world leaders, the anti-war demonstrations, the war's opponents — the majority of the given country's population, remember — and "street" opinion) which, if true, would mean that Iraqis have only suffered as much, if not more, from the aftershocks of the invasion than from their lot under the Butcher of Bagdad.

Owing one's beliefs to the "dreadful news" coming out from Iraq every day, every week, every month, of course, is easy if and when you… ask everybody about their opinion of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation, except… the Iraqis themselves. Iraqis such as those who call the violence and insecurity "merely a continuation of what they had already known, politics as usual". Iraqis such as the one who said that the conflict was not a war but an operation to free Iraq and to excise a malignant tumor. Iraqis such as the respondents who, in polls, have repeatedly said they are better off than they were before and that they were more optimistic than they had ever had reason to be in the past. Iraqis such as those who have condemned Western (and Arab) reporters for having pre-established agendas and not being otherwise in listening to the (Iraqi) people they are interviewing. Or Iraqis like the couple who gave their new-born son the first names George and Bush.

This is what much of Western journalism is about. This is much of what Western politics is about. Listening to the majorities that confirm your beliefs (those at home) and ignoring those that don't (and who happen to be directly concerned). This is what much Western journalism and politics is about. Avoiding the right questions to the right people, in order to fulfill one's own (or one's leaders') political agenda, which boils down to reassuring the population (and oneself) that members of one's own tribe always and invariably are those who know best; that they are the best, the wisest, the most reasonable, the most tolerant, the most altruistic, and the most peace-loving people in the world.

© Erik Svane & The New York Times