NBC's Richard Engel has been one of the most intrepid journalists in Iraq over the past four years and has brought us some very important stories from the war zone. But this article in Nieman Reports (via Will Bunch) may be one of the best stories he has done. He explains, in simple language, who is who in the Iraq civil war(s) and what their goals actually are. It's an invaluable little primer that puts in focus just how absurd the "freedom lovers vs. freedom haters" frame has always been. And it exposes this latest "al-Qaida in Iraq" theme as particularly absurd.
Engel takes the time to actually translate what those people are chanting in the big marches we see on television. It isn't about democracy or Osama bin Laden. It's about something that happened a very long time ago -- and modern media brings the old hatreds right up to date:
[Seventh century Shiite] Hussein's martyrdom, many Shi'ites claim at the hands of early Sunnis, is one of the central themes of Shi'ite Islam in Iraq and establishes a basic premise that Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, and his Shi'ite descendants are the true heirs to Islam but were defeated by Sunni "usurpers."
But the footage on Iraqi state TV during Ashura didn't stop there. Interwoven with the images of Hussein's struggle and the mourning rituals was current news footage of the aftermath of car bombings in Baghdad, the Shi'ite al-Askari mosque in Samara destroyed by al-Qaida militants in February 2006, and wounded Iraqi women and children. The message was clear: the attacks on markets, Shi'ite mosques, restaurants and university campuses, mostly carried out by Sunni radicals, are a continuation of Hussein's battle centuries ago.
As pilgrims marched by our Baghdad bureau on their way to Karbala, I could hear them chant: "Kul yom Ashura! Kul ard Karbala!" or "Every day is Ashura! All land is Karbala!" Simply put, they were saying, every day and everywhere in Iraq, Shi'ites are reliving Hussein's battles in Karbala.
This is just one of the "wars" that are taking place in Iraq, however. There are many more, including a new umbrella group (that includes al-Qaida in Iraq) that claims it's fighting Zionists and Persians, the militias -- especially Muqtada al-Sadr, the Kurds, "Islamic Revolution in Iraq [now the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council] that wants to control southern Iraq and carve out a ministate allied with Iran," and political factions surrounding politicians Ayad Allawi and Nouri al-Maliki. Let's just say it's a huge mess with ancient tribal hatreds, regional tensions, Islamic sectarianism and political maneuvering (and of course, oil) filling the caldron of hatred and violence that boiled over with our ill-conceived and poorly planned invasion of Iraq.
U.S. politicians and military commanders often complain that the Iraqi government "won't step up and do its job." The impression they give is that Iraqi officials are sitting around smoking hooka pipes and refusing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, while U.S. troops are fighting and dying to "get the job done." Perhaps the question should be, "Which job?" American soldiers often ask me when the Iraqis will "step up and fight for their own country." They are already fighting for their country. Iraqi officials, religious leaders, militia groups, Syria, Iran and al-Qaeda are struggling and dying to get a "job done" in Iraq, though it does not appear to be the job the White House would like them to be doing.
Blaming the Iraqis for failing to come together is quickly becoming a convenient story for American politicians of both parties. And I'm sure that many Americans want to believe that those rotten Iraqis are unforgivably ungrateful, by failing to come together in peace and harmony after we liberated them and all. But all of this was predicted by virtually everyone except the Bush administration neocons, who insisted that a Jeffersonian democracy would bloom the minute the Stalinist tyrant was removed. (There were some, of course, who knew better and simply wanted to replace Saddam with their own tyrant, Ahmed Chalabi, but that was equally naive, just in a different way.)
President Bush said "al-Qaida in Iraq" 95 times in 29 minutes Tuesday. Apparently members of the administration think they will be able to convince the American people that up is down and black is white once again through sheer repetition. They may succeed in that long enough to get Bush over the finish line in 2009 still claiming that he did the right thing. But eventually reality bites, no matter what. They can lie to Americans all they want that we are engaged in some Manichean struggle with evil in Mesopotamia, but it doesn't actually change the fact that the Iraqis are fighting several other wars that have us either caught in the crossfire or standing directly in their way.