How the U.S. can still save Iraq

It's time for the U.S. to listen to secular Iraqis like Omar Fekeiki, a passionate journalist with a bold and original plan to put Iraq together again.

By Gary Kamiya
Published March 11, 2008 10:16AM (EDT)

As the debate over Iraq has raged in America, one group has been conspicuously absent: the Iraqis themselves. Neither war supporters nor opponents seem very interested in the opinions of the people most directly affected by the invasion. This fact reflects the moral confusion and blind spots that have haunted both sides of the debate, ones that stem from the profoundly ambiguous nature of Bush's war.

Which is why I was grateful to hear from Omar Fekeiki. I met Fekeiki two months ago in a class on magazine journalism I co-teach at the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. It felt a little peculiar to be teaching journalism to him. Although he is only 29 years old, he has worked for three years as a translator and reporter in Iraq for the Washington Post. He has talked his way past checkpoints where he could be killed simply because of his name, and continued doing interviews on the street even when his sources warned him he was about to be killed. These are not things they teach in J-school.

I had seen Fekeiki in Charles Ferguson's documentary "No End in Sight," with his face obscured to protect him because he was still in Iraq. He was clearly an intelligent and courageous man. When I talked to Fekeiki, I realized he was also exceptionally well-informed about both the political situation in Iraq and the mood of the Iraqi people. Equally important, he doesn't have any obvious axes to grind. Of mixed sectarian and ethnic heritage, he has no biases or allegiances to any group. He is unsparing in his criticism of the Bush administration's blunders, yet refuses to exonerate his countrymen for their share of responsibility for the dreadful state of Iraq. He calls U.S. soldiers "my brothers," in gratitude for the sacrifices they have made, but says that unless America makes a radical break with its current doomed approach, the troops should go home.

Most important, Fekeiki has a plan that he believes can save Iraq. He is firm but not arrogant in his convictions. "When I start talking about what should happen now, I enter this Iraqi mood, and I don't assume Americans will understand," Fekeiki said. "But I'm talking from an Iraqi point of view and I know what my country needs."

He said that because of Iraq's sectarian divisions, no religious government, including the current one of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, will ever succeed. Instead, he said, the United States should replace the Maliki regime with an iron-fist secular government that would impose martial law and basically lock the country down for a year. Convicted terrorists would be executed. At the same time, the new regime must build housing to give ordinary Iraqis a stake in its success. At the end of a year, elections would be held. If Iraqis didn't like the secular regime, they could vote in another government. Fekeiki has sent his plan (found on his blog, 24 Steps to Liberty,) to House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi but has not heard back from her office.

There are reasons to be skeptical of Fekeiki's plan. It assumes that enough Iraqis can get beyond sectarian hatred to create a viable judiciary and trustworthy security forces. It assumes that potential spoilers like Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army can be marginalized. It might require a grand bargain with Tehran to prevent the Iranians from sabotaging the plan, and no U.S. administration has shown that it is willing, let alone that it possesses the diplomatic vision or skill, to pull that off. Above all, it rests on an implicit belief that Iraqis are ready and willing to turn the page on the horrific violence and religious fanaticism that has racked their country.

But the United States doesn't have the luxury of ignoring any plan that offers a chance of salvaging something from the Iraq nightmare. The current political debate is a useless stalemate. John McCain is committed to following Bush's doomed strategy, while the Democratic candidates say they will simply pull the troops out. The Democratic position makes more sense because there is no reason to keep squandering American lives and money for nothing -- worse than nothing, in fact, since our presence in Iraq is a gigantic recruiting poster for jihadis. But a U.S. withdrawal is likely to result in a horrific bloodbath, even worse than anything Iraq has previously endured. That is not an outcome anyone, whether pro-war or antiwar, can contemplate with equanimity.

Fekeiki realizes his plan is bold and provocative. But his voice is important and original, given how seldom we hear from native Iraqis about the fate of their own country. And when it comes to life on the Iraq streets, few speak with more experience. In June 2006, Fekeiki figured he would never get the chance to say a word again. He stumbled into the Washington Post's translator-reporter job right after the invasion. One night as he was leaving work, a maroon BMW sedan appeared behind his car, flashing its lights and refusing to go past him. Fekeiki pulled over. "I just wanted to see them," he told me. "Either you kill me or you don't. I didn't want to lead them to my house. I didn't want my family to die. So I thought, if they want to kill me, they should kill me now." But the two men in the BMW just waited behind him.

Fekeiki managed to shake off his pursuers, but the maroon BMW reappeared in front of his home in the Jamiya neighborhood of Baghdad. This meant they already knew where he lived.

Fekeiki had been working under extremely dangerous conditions for more than three years, conducting interviews in public, and his instincts had never let him down. He had already fled Baghdad once before after being threatened, choosing the comparative safety of embedding with the Marines in their assault on Fallujah. The two men in the BMW didn't kill him that night, but he knew they were going to. That night he packed his suitcases. The Post offered to send an armored car to pick him up, but he refused because his neighbors would notice and his family would be at risk. The next day he had one of his brothers drive him to the Post's office, ducking down out of sight until he got out of his neighborhood.

"It was very scary because the next day, my neighborhood was shut down. Blocked. It was sealed," Fekeiki said. "Usually the al-Qaida people seal the neighborhood when they want to kill someone. So I thought they sealed it because of me. I have no idea if it's true."

He lived in the office for three days, until a flight to Jordan was available. Two months later he was in Berkeley.

Fekeiki grew up in the upscale Baghdad neighborhood of Kadhimiya, on the Tigris River. It's a mostly Shiite neighborhood, but those labels didn't mean anything to Fekeiki growing up -- nor, he said, did they mean anything to most Iraqis. "My mother is a Sunni Kurd, and my father is from a Shiite family. I say 'from a Shiite family' because he doesn't care; he's a very secular guy. And I have a Sunni brother and a Shiite brother. I'm none. 'I'm Omar,' I tell people."

Resolving the sectarian conflict is the key to fixing Iraq, but Fekeiki said that Americans lack a fundamental understanding of that conflict -- and don't grasp that they are largely responsible for creating it. Before the invasion, he said, it was considered bad taste in Iraq to ask which sect you belonged to. "It was taboo," he said. "It was very insulting, very demeaning, to ask such questions. Which is very sad now, because the first question you ask in Iraq is, Are you Sunni or Shiite? It's totally foreign to us. I always say it's a phase and we're going to get through it. Maybe it's going to take a long time, maybe not in my lifetime. But it will change. Iraq was always secular, and it will always stay secular."

One of the most damaging myths Americans swallowed -- and still swallow -- about Saddam Hussein was that he favored the Sunnis, Fekeiki said. This myth led the United States to promote the Shiites, with devastating consequences. "Saddam favored his henchmen, and those included Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Arabs and Christians. Whoever supported him," he said. "If you went to Mosul -- under Saddam, Mosul is a Sunni province -- it was flooded with sewage. The infrastructure, everything, was awful. And it's a Sunni place. He didn't take care of that." Fekeiki also pointed out that many top-ranking Baath officials were Shiites.

But Fekeiki said that "sick-minded" opposition leaders like Ahmad Chalabi, Aziz al-Hakim and Ibrahim Jaffari told the Americans that the Sunnis had supported Saddam, and convinced them that the only way to ensure that the majority of the Iraqi people would support the invasion was for the United States to announce that the Shiites had been mistreated and hand over power to them. This "poison," Fekeiki said, was a fatal mistake. Combined with the incalculably destructive effect of the U.N. sanctions, it paved the way to the sectarian hatreds that never existed in Iraq before.

Fekeiki's uncle, Hani al-Fekaiki (he spelled his name differently) was one of the most prominent members of the Iraqi opposition. He fled Iraq in 1979 after being tipped off that he was about to be killed by Saddam. All his colleagues were executed. "He was [Ahmad] Chalabi's right hand," Fekeiki said. "In fact, he was one of the founders of the Iraqi opposition in 1991 in London. He was the deputy president of the Iraqi National Congress." Fekaiki died in 1997. The political views of his uncle and father (Fekeiki's father, whom Fekeiki would not name because he's still alive, was a prominent pan-Arab Baath politician before turning against the party in 1963), led to Fekeiki's family being blacklisted by Saddam. "Our phones were always bugged. We could not get jobs," he said. Although Fekeiki had the fifth-highest score out of 600 applicants for 10 places in the master's degree program in English at Baghdad University, he was rejected for "security reasons."

Growing up under Saddam meant learning to keep your mouth shut at an early age, on pain of death. "My father and his friends used to sit in our living room and discuss the government," Fekeiki said. "And when I was 5 years old, I remember that my mother came in and said, 'If you repeat what you are hearing and seeing in the house, we're all going to be killed.' That's how we grew up. We were told if we opened our mouths, the whole family would be killed. So I couldn't have close friends in elementary school, I couldn't have close friends in most of middle and high school, because I was afraid of who to trust." Fekeiki didn't make his first real friend, a young man whose family had also been blacklisted because his uncle was a communist, until he was 15 or 16 years old.

But Fekeiki also pointed out that life under Saddam was not an unrelenting nightmare. "Other than being afraid of saying the wrong thing in the wrong place, I had a pretty normal childhood. We had parks. We had resorts," he said. "You knew what the limit was. You knew where the red line was, and if you crossed the red line, you're going to be killed. That's how 25 million Iraqis survived. I'm not saying this is good. I'm saying we knew our red lines. Unlike now, when even if you say nothing, you get killed. Just for your name. My first name is Sunni, my last name is Shiite. And so for those two reasons I could get killed."

Like all young Iraqi men, Fekeiki had a fake ID. "I had it in my drawer in my office at the Washington Post. My real name is Omar, and my fake Shiite [first] name was -- what? I don't remember. I refused to use it. Now, when I think about it, it was stupid. But the pride inside me was like, 'It's your name. You shouldn't be ashamed of it. And if you're going to get killed just because of your name...' I couldn't accept the idea of changing my name for a bunch of uneducated, uncivilized people."

Life in Iraq began to collapse in 1990, after the United States and the United Nations imposed crippling sanctions to punish Saddam for invading Kuwait. Fekeiki said the sanctions had catastrophic consequences. "Everything that Iraq is going through right now is because of what happened during the sanctions," he said. "During the sanctions, everything changed. My aunts, my uncles, I've witnessed my relatives selling their mattresses to get food. That was the most horrible period of my life, because I've seen my close relatives and friends suffering, and I could do nothing."

Fekeiki said that it was the sanctions that drove Iraqis into religion. "In the 13 years of the sanctions, the Iraqi mindset and community and culture dramatically changed. That's when the Iraqis turned to religion as a kind of mysterious power of God that's going to help us. Because they were frustrated and they gave up on politics. There was nothing they could do, and America, the most powerful country, turned its back to us. There was nothing but God to go to. And that was a turning point in Iraqi history."

The swelling of religiosity created by the sanctions caused Iraqis for the first time to pay attention to sectarian affiliations, Fekeiki said. He said that until the sanctions destroyed life in Iraq, he didn't even know that an uncle with whom his family lived was a Shiite.

As the American invasion drew near, Fekeiki found himself drafted into the Iraqi army. Two days before the invasion, he deserted. "I deserted for two reasons. One, it is shameful in my family to serve under the Saddam regime. The second reason is I was waiting for the invasion to happen. I called the American troops my brothers. I still call them my brothers. Because I thought, if they're coming to free me from this dictatorship, they're my brothers. So I was waiting for them. And I couldn't imagine trying to fight back. I was waiting to host them in my house -- how can I fight them?"

Fekeiki chuckled as he recalled the endless wait for the Americans to show up. "It was a long wait until they arrived in Baghdad. My cousin and I were watching the news on TV, and my cousin was laughing, saying, 'If you were on camels, you'd be in Baghdad by now, for God's sake!'" On the night of April 8, Fekeiki was listening to Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, aka "Baghdad Bob," the now-legendary information minister whose ludicrous radio reports constantly announced nonexistent Iraq military victories. "He was saying, 'We defeated them, no one is here, no one is in Baghdad, they're in the borders of Basra, and everything is OK.' The next day, April 9, I woke up, opened my curtains and there was an American tank right in front of my house."

"We went out to talk to the soldiers," Fekeiki said. "That was the first time in my life when I felt I had a future." And then things began to go terribly wrong. "It was awful after that," he said softly.

Over the next three years, Fekeiki witnessed the horror show of Iraq firsthand. He saw body parts scattered on streets every day. He visited morgues to count the corpses. He watched hatred and violence corrode the soul of the country he loved.

Was there any scenario under which the United States could have succeeded? "Yes," he said. "First of all, before the invasion we were all listening to radio stations from the opposition and we were prepared to accept Chalabi, [Ayad] Allawi, Hakim and Jaffari as our government. We did not know they were crooks. We just thought they were opposition leaders who were coming to free us from Saddam. We were prepared to accept them as a government. At least as a temporary government. So I believe one of the Americans' first and biggest mistakes was not to have a plan when they entered Iraq. They did not have a government ready."

The American's second big mistake, Fekeiki said, was going to the U.N. Security Council and getting the legal status of occupiers, which gave them the authority to run the country. Before that, he said, the Americans were seen as liberators, which was why the Iraq army did not fight back. Once they were seen as invaders and occupiers, the Iraqis turned against them. "That was a huge turning point in the Iraqi street, in the Iraqi community, because that's when we realized we were deceived," Fekeiki said. "To invade an Arab country is a big deal. Call it stupid, call it naive, call it whatever you want, but our pride says, You cannot invade us."

Fekeiki said that the Americans completely failed to provide any direction for the Iraqis, who desperately needed it. "The problem was, the Iraqis through history were always under a dictatorship. They were always told what to do. We've never had control of our lives. We needed someone to direct us which way to go. And to come and say, 'Here you go, you have democracy' -- well, they did bring us democracy, but it turned out to be uncontrolled freedom. And that's the worst kind of freedom and democracy you can have. I've seen it. It was awful."

I asked Fekeiki what he thought America should do now. "We invaded your country, and we did it unilaterally, and in my mind we owe you everything," I said. "But I don't know what the best way to repay that debt is."

"I do," Fekeiki said. "But the problem is, Americans don't listen to Iraqis. They never did. They listen only to Iraqis who left Iraq in the 1950s and '60s and '70s. Saddam Hussein was still the same when they came back, but Iraqis have changed. And this is one of the problems. If you don't know the people, you can't bring them what they want. So they need to listen to someone my age, someone who's been in Iraq all the time. Because we've gone through the three wars and the invasion. We know what we need now. We've gone through the sanctions.

"First of all," Fekeiki went on, "I have to say, I'm one of the very rare cases who blame the Iraqis 100 percent for what's happening in Iraq. Because even when the Americans made the mistakes, we did not step up and say, 'This is wrong.' We were waiting to be spoonfed, and that was our problem and still is our problem."

He continued. "This Maliki government should be totally forced out. We do not need a parliament now, because all the Parliament is doing is vetoing decisions. Parliament should be disbanded. We should bring in a secular government of one prime minister and one president. Give them a year to work on issues in Iraq. Along with martial law. Martial law should be imposed. Iraqis don't trust the government and don't trust the Americans because we don't know what is happening to the terrorists who are being arrested now. Since 2003 we've been arresting terrorists in Iraq and they've been thrown in jail and nothing happens to them. If a terrorist kills 10 of my people I want him to be executed. I'm not being savage. Iraqi criminal law says, if you kill an Iraqi, you can get the maximum sentence, which is death. I want to see terrorists killed.

"This government should exist for one year. Then the Iraqis will have an idea what a religious government like Maliki's can do, and what a secular government can do. This is democracy. We are giving the Iraqis the chance to vote for what they think is best. They will have seen them both."

Should the Americans get out and turn this all over to the Iraqis? "No. In order to impose the martial law, we need the Americans," Fekeiki said. "In order to force out this government, we'll need the Americans. I call the Americans in Iraq '911.' When there is an emergency I call 911. That should be the American role in Iraq."

Fekeiki said the Americans must not force out the Maliki government and impose a new secular one by force, but by behind-the-scenes political deals. It would be a tricky game, but he was convinced they could pull it off. "The Americans imposed the Governing Council, the Americans imposed Allawi and Jaffari and Maliki, why shouldn't they impose a secular government?" he said. "Let's forget about democracy and everything. We have a shitty situation we have to deal with now. It's not about democracy, it's not about dictatorship, it's about saving lives, Americans' and Iraqis'. And that's why my plan doesn't mention the word 'democracy,' doesn't mention the word 'dictatorship.'"

Fekeiki stressed that Maliki will never reconcile with Sunnis, because he's a religious zealot. "He's not delusional. This is the plan of Hakim and Jaffari -- by those names I mean their parties, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and the Dawa Party -- the plan is to come and Shiite-ize Iraq. And what's happening now is exactly that. They don't care if it's going to work for the Sunnis or the Kurds. What they want is Baghdad and down [south]. And that's what they got. They're totally succeeding."

"So your feeling is that this whole Sunni-Shiite thing is overblown and that even a lot of Shiites would support this plan?" I asked. "That a lot of Shiites are totally pissed off and they don't have any allegiance to Maliki?"

"You're correct for one simple reason," Fekeiki said. "The Maliki government has not built two bricks over each other since 2003. They've done nothing, absolutely nothing." The Iraqis, he said, are "exhausted" and sick of religious sectarianism. (A recent New York Times cover story by Sabrina Tavernise, chronicling how many young Iraqis are turning away from religion, supported this claim.)

"So the most crucial thing then, in your eyes, is that whoever runs the country must be secular," I said. "Iraq will never be run as a successful country by any religious figure. Never," Fekeiki said. "Because it's an ugly mix of religious backgrounds since the '90s, when the sanctions happened. So Iraqis will never be satisfied by a religious figure."

The only person who can run Iraq now, Fekeiki said, is the secular strongman Ayad Allawi. Allawi served as Iraq's interim prime minister from 2004 to 2005, but was defeated in the December 2005 elections. "Allawi is the only one who can come in," Fekeiki said. "Allawi has a great base among both Sunnis and Shiites. Ironically, the reason is that he bombed Najaf, which is the Shiite holy city, and he bombed Fallujah, which is the most important Sunni city. I've heard this from Iraqis when I've interviewed them. They like Allawi because he didn't care about Najaf and didn't care about Fallujah. He bombed both of those places."

"In a certain way this is almost like going back to Saddam," I said. "A transitional Saddam-like state." "Yes," Fekeiki said. "And if you ask Iraqis, they'll say, we need a Saddam. But no one wants to listen to us."

Fekeiki said that imposing security, while essential, was not enough. "We'll show the iron fist of the government, but we should be building housing units. Because if there is a housing unit being built in my neighborhood, and someone comes and bombs it, I'm going to defend it. I'll see that something is happening in my favor. I'll favor this government because they're doing something for me. The two things go together. Military operations never worked alone. They haven't worked in five years. Why don't they try what I'm saying? I just don't get it."

If the Americans don't force out the Maliki government, disaster is inevitable, Fekeiki said. "This Shiite government in Iraq is going to be a pure Shiite government. Even if we have some Sunnis in it, they're going to be forced out. Iraq will be a territory, it'll never be a state. It'll be three territories: the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shiites. And Baghdad will always be the Bermuda Triangle. Because it's mixed, it'll always be an unstable place. And Iraq will never be a state again."

Hideous violence, worse than any before, will follow, Fekeiki said. "The Sunnis will never accept the idea of having only three provinces with no oil resources whatsoever. How are they going to maintain their territories? And they will never allow the Shiites to get wealthier and wealthier with the oil money, which is supposed to be for all Iraqis. It's going to be another bloodbath. A continuous bloodbath."

Fekeiki said that none of Iraq's current leaders is capable of working in the interests of Iraq, for a simple reason. "They are traumatized. They were forced to leave Iraq, their relatives were executed and killed by Saddam Hussein. All of them went to Iran, except for Allawi and Chalabi. So they came back traumatized. And they came back to take revenge. Not only on Saddam, and on Sunnis, but on Iraq. Iraq forced them out, and they came back to take revenge. They should be in rehab. I'm totally serious about this. If we like these people, we should put them in rehab. And then maybe we'll use them as leaders. But now they came back to be dictators."

Fekeiki acknowledged that it wasn't entirely clear how his plan would be implemented, but that was all the more reason to start trying. "Look, it's never going to be clear how to do this if we don't start implementing it. By doing the backstage, behind-doors discussions. If they don't, we'll always be far from knowing if it's going to work."

But he is not optimistic that anyone will try. "They don't listen to Iraqis. What the Americans are doing now is just wasting time until the next elections. Then they'll wash their hands of Iraq."

Fekeiki believes that a temporary American presence is necessary to save his shattered country. But he said that unless America changes direction, the U.S. troops should leave Iraq. "I don't want them to stay. Because they're losing lives, and for nothing. The Americans have given me a lot. I don't want them to die."

I asked Fekeiki what he plans to do after he graduates from UC-Berkeley in May. "I'm going to Washington, D.C., for a while," he said. "I'm going to work on advocacy or lobbying campaigns to bring more Iraqi refugees to the states." The United States, citing bureaucratic obstacles, has allowed in fewer than 3,000 Iraqi refugees so far -- an outrageously low number. "I want to work on improving the lives of Iraqi refugees here in the States already. I think right now journalism is not the way. This story is so big. The catastrophe is so big that journalism is not going to be enough. I think that what Iraq needs right now is not a journalist but a lobbyist. It's all a way to pay back a very little of what Iraq gave me." Fekeiki plans to return to Iraq and publish a newspaper. His goal is to eventually go into Iraqi politics.

At the conclusion of our interview, I asked Fekeiki what immediate, concrete steps the United States could take to implement his plan to save his country. "I am willing to go tomorrow, get on a plane and go," he said. "If we get protection in Iraq, I would go to every single city. I would leave school tomorrow if they gave me a convoy and a helicopter to go and talk to tribal leaders. Because it all starts with tribal leaders.

"Iraq needs someone who's so passionate now, and so fed-up, who doesn't care about personal interests, to go and shame the tribal leaders. To say, 'You're betraying your tribal traditions, you're betraying me, you're betraying your people.' We need someone who speaks the language, who's Iraqi, who didn't leave 40 years ago.

"They don't listen to us. It's so frustrating. And the change will never begin in Iraq if the Americans don't help people like me who are Iraqis."

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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