Saturday, January 13, 2007


By William Fisher

It’s now a few days since President Bush spoke to the American people about his new “strategy” for “victory” in Iraq. Reading the newspapers, listening to radio and watching television, one would think all the words that could possibly be written or spoken on this speech have finally been exhausted.

But when the punditocracy gets hold of this kind of issue, the last word is never written or spoken. And I am under no delusions that my words will be anything near the last.

But I will write them anyway, because there were a couple of things that struck me.

One of them was the way of most of both the print and broadcast media bought into the President’ s characterization of his plan as both “new” or a “strategy.” It is not new; we’ve had several unsuccessful “surges” in the past. And what Mr. Bush terms a “strategy” is little more than a tactical adjustment. It is “stay the course” 101.1.

The second thing that struck me was the almost total America-centricity of the media coverage. This seemed especially true on cable television. On MSNBC, for example, analysis of Bush’s speech was left in the hands of such well-known Middle East scholars as Chris Matthews, Pat Buchanan, and assorted retired US military officers. The result of choices like that took all the complexity and nuance out of the discussion. But I suppose that, since John Kerry’s 2004 campaign, nuance has become a dirty word.

Granted, America has a huge stake in how this misadventure unfolds. It is the blood of our surging troops that will be spilled and our tax dollars that will get spent. Still, with all its bulging rolladexes, wouldn’t you think the cable news folks might have come up with a commentator or two who actually knows something about the war zone, its history, its customs, and its idiosyncrasies?

The fact is that without this kind of information, the American public has little chance of really understanding the roots or the dynamics of what’s happening in Iraq today.

As I listened to Pat Buchanan spouting on about the US political party maneuvering going on behind the scenes, I recalled an experience that said a lot that wasn’t being explained.

When I lived in Egypt, I had a driver named Said. I once went with Said to his little village about 30 miles outside Cairo, where we were greeted by and spoke with many of his brothers, sisters, cousins, neighbors, etc. These were people Said knew all his life; he watched some of them being born. This was his part of his tribe.

But I noticed that Said passed one guy by several times and never even said hello. Later, I asked him why. He said his family had a "vendetta" (that's the English equivalent of the Arabic word he used) against this man's family. It was a feud that started some 300 years earlier, but no one in either family has forgotten it, although Said told me he had long since forgotten what it was all about. The vendetta resulted over the years in continuing hatred and periodic murders between these two families. And both families happen to be Sunni, as are most Egyptians. This was the Middle East version of The Hatfields and The McCoys!

So, with Chris Matthews chattering on in the background, I thought: If these two families, from the same branch of Islam, haven’t been able to reconcile their differences in 300 years, how can we expect Iraqis from different Muslim sects to reconcile theirs?

They won’t. And understanding the importance of this tribalism is a very important part of MidEast history and of the Iraq war, and one before and now largely ignored by the president.

The suffering inflicted on Shia Muslims – to say nothing of the Kurdish minority -- by Sunni Saddam Hussein’s apparatchiks is of much more recent vintage. It is burned into the consciousness even of those unborn when the Ba’ath Party took power. Little wonder then that the Shias now seek their revenge. It’s their vendetta. That’s what we see in the piles of tortured and executed bodied that grace our TV screens every morning. That’s what we saw when we watched an official lynch mob hanging Saddam. And the Shias ain’t giving it up just because America says they should.

That’s how we got to the 60 percent solution. Iraq’s Shias represent some 60 percent of the country’s population. Sunnis and Kurds make up the remaining 20 percent each. The president of the country may be a Kurd, but the real power is with the Prime Minister, a Shia, and his supporters, including some of the most bloodthirsty murderers in the country.

These murderers have their own armies – Muqtada Al-Sadr alone has some 60,000 fighters -- and have seriously infiltrated both the official Iraqi army and the police. It is overwhelmingly from these Shia gangs and police that the death squads and sectarian cleaners have risen. They act out their vendettas every day, and of course the Sunnis fight back. Neither side needs Al-Qaida, despite what George W. Bush says.

Does our President really believe that Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki has asked for a surge in US troops so they can go into the Sadr City slums of Baghdad and kill off his fellow Shias? When pigs fly! That’s exactly why Mr. Al-Maliki has resisted this surge – despite what the President says -- and why most of the Iraqi army troops promised in the past somehow never showed up.

I have serious doubts they will show up this time. That will leave thousands more of our troops knocking down doors in a country where we can’t even understand what anybody’s trying to say to us.

So, in a best-case scenario, Iraq will end up with a 60 percent solution – a Shia government determined to get even with their Sunni countrymen. And it will have been American military force – and American incompetence, ignorance, and hubris – that opened this Pandora’s box.

That vendetta could go on, like Said’s, for another 300 years.

But now for the good news. America and Iran are finally on the same page: accepting, if not exactly sharing, the same vision of the Iraq of the future. A Shia future.