Nir Rosen, a fellow at the New America Foundation who is also affiliated with the American Strategy Program which I direct, has just published a Robert Kaplan-esque treatment in the Boston Review of what he sees unfolding in Iraq.
It’s a powerfully written passage that opens with a vignette of Americans killing an Iraqi man inside his home, his family outside, perhaps as part of a scheme engineered by a Shia “translator”:
The Americans came for Sabah one Friday night in September. His house in Radwaniya, on the western outskirts of Baghdad, stood in a dry, yellow field surrounded by brick walls. Three cars were parked in front the day I came to visit, two weeks after Americans had shot him.
It was the month of Ramadan, and our mouths were as dry as his yard. The resistance was active in Radwaniya, and we drove through fields and dry canals to avoid any checkpoints that might reveal to locals that I was a foreigner. Journalists were targets now too.
The Americans had come maybe 20 times before to search for weapons in the house were Sabah lived with his brothers Walid and Hussein, their wives, and their six children. They knew where to look for the single Kalashnikov rifle the family was permitted to own. They had always been polite. “This day they didn’t act normal,” Hussein told me. “They were running from all sides of the house. They kicked open the doors. They didn’t wait for us.”
With Iraqi National Guardsmen standing outside, the Americans hit the brothers with their rifle butts. Five soldiers were on each man. Sabah’s nose was broken; Walid lay on the floor with a rifle barrel in his mouth. The Shia translator told them to kill Walid, but they ripped the gun out of his mouth instead, tearing his cheek.
The rest of the family was ordered out. The translator asked the brothers where “the others” were and cursed them, threatening to rape their sisters.
As the terrified family waited outside on the road, they heard three shots and what sounded to them like a scuffle inside. The Iraqi National Guardsmen tried to enter the house, but the translator cursed them, too, and shouted, “Who told you to come in?” Thirty minutes later Walid was dragged into the street. The translator emerged with a picture of Sabah and asked for Sabah’s wife.
“Your husband was killed by the Americans, and he deserved to die,” he told her. He tore the picture before her face. Several soldiers came out of the house laughing.
Inside, the family found Sabah dead. Blood marked his shirt where three bullets had entered his chest; two came out his back and lodged in the wall behind him. American-made bullet casings were on the floor. The house had been ransacked. Sofas and beds were overturned and torn apart; tables, closets, vases with plastic flowers were broken.
Sabah’s pictures had been torn up and his identification card confiscated. Elsewhere in the house one picture remained untouched — Sabah with his three brothers and their father, smiling in happier times. When Sabah was buried the next day his body was not washed — martyrs are buried as they died.
Hussein told me that three days before Sabah was killed, an American patrol had stopped in front of Radwaniya’s shops and the Shia translator had loudly taunted the locals, cursing and threatening them for being Sunnis. Sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shia had been escalating throughout the year, and the Americans had done little to diffuse them.
Rosen also elaborates on the potential for a massive regional convulsion between Shia and Sunni Muslims:
In December 2004, Jordan’s King Abdallah warned of a “Shia crescent” from Lebanon to Iraq to Iran that would destabilize the entire region. Iraq’s Shias had demonstrated against Jordan in the past, condemning the country for its steady trickle of suicide bombers who crossed into Iraq to commit atrocities against Shia civilians.
In September 2005, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal warned that a civil war in Iraq would destabilize the entire region and complained that the Americans had handed Iraq over to Iran. In response, Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr called the Saudi foreign minister a “Bedouin riding a camel” and described Saudi Arabia as a one-family dictatorship.
Jabr, who had commanded the Badr corps, also condemned Saudi human-rights abuses — particularly the repression of Saudi Arabia’s approximately two million Shias — and he mocked Saudi Arabia’s treatment of its women.
In Saudi Arabia, the home of Wahhabi Islam, Shias are known as rafida, which means “rejectionists.” A highly pejorative term, it implies that Shias are outside Islam, and to Shias it is the equivalent of being called “nigger.” This is the same word Sunni radicals in Iraq and the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, use to describe Shias. Saudi Arabia’s two million Shias have been persecuted, prevented from celebrating their festivals, and occasionally threatened with extermination.
Saudi Arabia is also the main exporter of foreign fighters to the Iraqi jihad to fight both the Americans and the Shia “rafida” collaborators.
Nir Rosen’s treatment of this killing of an Iraqi man inside his house — where no guns or other terrorist materials seem to have been found — is the type of reporting that is vital for Americans and others in the world to read. The job Americans are assigned to do in Iraq is nearly impossible to accomplish if they are unable to make sensible life and death decisions without being dependent on the biases of local “fixers” and “translators”.
I am highlighting Rosen’s report because I’ve already heard of dozens of cases from U.S. servicemen who had previously served in Iraq that the language and culture gap between American troops and the Iraqis that they are trying to “protect” and “help” forces dependencies on “gatekeepers” — particularly English-speaking “translators” — who are very frequently crooks charging exorbitant fees for their services, spies, thugs attached to organized crime rings, extortionists from Iraqis whom they threaten to expose to Americans, or players in the Shia-Sunni conflict who manipulate American troops to perform executions of their enemies.
This situation is terrible. Those who continue to harp on that we “must stay the course” need to think about this. What does “stay the course” mean when many of our troops are not able to conduct themselves independently of thugs who are terrorizing the very people we are trying to help.
I had not read about this case which Nir Rosen exposes, but the American military needs to find a way to investigate this story and prosecute the “translator” and other such thuggish gatekeepers. It then needs to find alternatives in how life and death killing decisions are made when such translators are involved.
I think that Rosen’s depiction of the Shia-Sunni tensions that are beginning to boil regionally is accurate, but I want to add two dimensions that are missing from his piece but which are potentially important in balancing this picture.
The first is that as I and others have reported before, Saudi King Abdullah has been sending unambiguous signals that he is trying to reach out to his own domestic Shia population in positive ways — and as part of this campaign within and beyond Saudi borders invited Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to be his personal guest during the Haj. These symbolic gestures are seen by Sunni and Shia and represent a bit of a counter-force to the negative news we hear.
Secondly, I recently had a conversation about Saudi Arabia’s political stability with a senior Saudi Defense Attache based in a foreign government — and would rather not identify the person. The Saudi General told me that one of his greatest concerns about Saudi Arabia’s future was not that the Iraq War or other regional conflicts would boil over, but rather that the conflicts would be quelled, that the problems in Iraq would more or less stabilize and the fire in the heart of the insurgency would diminish.
The General’s concern in that scenario is that the many Saudis that have left the country to fight in these “wars” would come home. That, he said, would create serious internal tensions and possibly create instabilities that would be “difficult to control”. This was an astonishing admission from a top General but it seemed candid and honest to me.
I asked then whether it was important for Saudi Arabia’s stability for it to have the ability to export these young-ish, male jihadists. The General’s one word response: “Absolutely.”
There are no quick fixes in the Middle East — and every course of action for America, whether it involves staying or leaving, or engaging in so-called “strategic redeployment” has serious costs attached.
America needs a better strategic plan to address expanding arcs of instability in the world and without a more serious road map, our efforts are thinly reactive, ad hoc, and designed to go nation by nation rather than focus on regional realities — and this only prescribes ongoing serious failure.
America has to turn this problem of strategic blindness around, and it is something Republican and Democratic partisans should resist treating as election fodder. The Republican leadership has been self-righteous and indulgent in pushing an idiotic notion of infallibility. And Democrats have failed to provide a competing vision of national security priorities and strategy to satisfy a market calling for such a plan — recent proposals included.
America’s mystique is fragile and collapsing and without some better management of American political, economic and military resources, America could, as Zbigniew Brzezinski has said on several occasions, “lose its primacy”.
That could have devastating consequences for Americans and the world. That is what this gambit in Iraq may be costing, and we have to wise up to better decisions now.
— Steve Clemons