The day after the US election I was in Iraq and saw first-hand the jubilation of many Iraqis as they welcomed in Barack Obama’s election as President of the United States; their optimism, however, was quickly met by an afterthought of doubt about whether the new administration could politically afford to follow through with the withdrawal of US troops by the end of his first term.
Since Obama’s announcement these same Iraqis have been overjoyed about the decision, as they believe it to be the first step in building their own society, independent of the US.
Iraqis realise that the transition will not be easy, but for most they would prefer a situation where they have control, whether this be through the ballot box or through the media, than the present situation that involves a foreign army which has unleashed such destruction on their country.
Iraqis in places like Mosul realise and accept that a US withdrawal will mean an increase in violence, but for them, they feel they have a greater chance of controlling it through their own means than with the help of the Americans. The Iraqi army is, after all, made up of Iraqis who have a greater understanding of the religious, cultural and social backgrounds of the militants, and therefore may be able to win them over ideologically, rather than just with force.
With no chance of controlling the weaponry coming across the borders of Iraq’s neighbours it really is the hearts and minds that need to be won. There is a good chance of failure, and the country may once again fall into the hands of extremists but Iraqis are not scared of that: “It can not be worse than the mess that currently exists”, a Kurdish academic from Kirkuk told me.
While the quality of life for some Iraqis has improved since the invasion, a great deal of the population is fed up with the bureaucracy and extremism that exists in their current system. However, slowly, things are changing; the Iraqis strayed away from the religious parties en masse in the most recent provincial elections in January 2009. They are also concerned that continued American military involvement has meant that extremist fringe groups have a recruitment base among vulnerable communities.
The absence of any large scale co-ordinated violence in these recent provincial elections was not due to the presence of American security forces across Iraq - because by that stage 13 of the 18 provinces in Iraq had been handed over to Iraqi forces - but rather due to the combined efforts of most Iraqis to ensure they rejected extremism both at the ballot box and on the streets.
The election period was still bloody, especially in conflict areas like Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mosul, but Iraqis still came out in their thousands to cast their vote for democratic change. Some thought it was a sham vote, but appreciated the opportunity to vote for the “least worst” candidate, to use the words of an Iraqi blogger from Mosul whom I met while I was in Iraq.
In July 2008, 16 Iraqi teenagers met with 16 American teenagers to discuss the conflict, and the unanimous view of the Iraqis was that the violence was the result of their religious leaders - people the age of their grandparents - not of themselves. They commented that these leaders were ageing old men when Saddam came to power, and that a new, fresh group of secular moderates were replacing them in mosques, churches and on the streets all over Iraq. These new replacements have been adversely affected by both the American invasion and Saddam’s tyranny, so reject extremism on both sides, and feel that Iraq needs a chance to be able to control its own destiny so their children can grow up feeling an affinity and loyalty to their country, instead of just their tribe or religion.
Despite Iraqis supporting the withdrawal of US troops, the vast majority do not hate the Americans, the Australians or the British, rather they just dislike a small section of the armed forces - the ones doing home raids at 3am, or pilots who have “inadvertently” bombed schools and weddings again and again.
The Iraqis have no qualms in saying they want these troops to leave. Most have no problems with the American’s who are working to train the Iraqi forces, or indeed the Australian troops who used to play soccer with the Iraqi school students in the Al Muthanna governorate. In Mosul I heard first hand of the happiness of both Kurds and Arabs after an American engineering team visited a school to help them construct their own assembly hall. Mosul still stands as one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq, but the unrest is not supported by mainstream society: they are more concerned about opportunities for their children rather than ethnic or religious conflict.
The war was not won, but Obama was right: the job was done, Saddam was toppled. But now if the Americans have any intention of winning the war they must do it with the support of the Iraqi people not with weapons. They need to spend the next 18 months focusing on building a strong, united police and military force, and on training local engineers, teachers, doctors and diplomats to bring about progressive change in Iraqi society.
The Iraqi’s optimism has continued to thrive despite more than 30 years of tyranny, so it’s time to have faith in the pragmatic, moderate elements banding together and coming up with the post-sectarian and post-partisan policies that foster peace and democracy in our world.