- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
When Matt Valkovic finished his tour of duty in Iraq, he got out of the Army, hung up his captain’s bars, and became a "temporary ski bum." I asked him for his thoughts from the slopes of Colorado about the land between the rivers-or, as he put it, his reflections from the lift line on the Sunni/Shia fault line. Here they are. And remember that the guy in the chairlift next to you might just have finished a tour of duty.
By Matthew Valkovic
Best Defense chief Alpine sports and sectarianism correspondent
I’ve been home from Iraq for about five months after having spent a year with my battalion in the northwest Baghdad district of Kadhimiya. I’m also out of the Army (well, IRR to be exact) with plans to work and attend graduate school in DC. I’m lucky enough to be spending some down time in Colorado, living the ski-bum life, before jumping into a new job and a new life. Sometimes, though, riding up the ski lift, I think about where I was and what I was doing a year ago and then wonder what’s going on today in my old corner of Baghdad.
A little O/I backgrounder first: while Sadr City is probably the more well known Shia neighborhood in Baghdad, the Kadhimiya district and more precisely, the central Kadhimiya neighborhood, is a tourist trap, a holy Shia landmark and an economic dynamo. It’s home to the Musa Al Kadhim shrine, the burial site of the 7th and 9th Shia Imams. Next to Karbala and Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran, Kadhimiya is one of the most important holy sites in Shia Islam. Explaining Kadhimiya to friends and relatives, I often use the crude analogy of Rome and the Vatican. Much like Catholic pilgrims come to pray at St. Peter’s Basilica and enjoy the sights and shopping and food in Rome, Shia pilgrims pay homage to Musa al Kadhim and his grandson at Al Kadhim shrine, stay in one of the many hotels throughout central Kadhimiya, shop the impressive gold market and drink chai at a cafe in Iranian Square — yup, Iranian Square.
Just this past week, Shia pilgrims observed Arba’een, which is the fortieth and final day of Ashura, the Shia holiday marking the martyrdom of Imam Hussein Ali. There was a bomb attack in Karbala a couple days ago, just outside the shrine in which Hussein Ali is buried. There were other smaller attacks against pilgrims in Baghdad as well. Sunni militants, we can presume, were behind these attacks, much like they were in the series of attacks over the last six months targeting government buildings and hotels in central Baghdad.
I still vividly remember last year’s observances, which I observed mainly through our battalion’s ISR platforms from our mini-FOB, an old Iraqi army intelligence barracks in Kadhimiya — the same complex, incidentally, where Saddam was hanged to death in 2006. My unit was in full "overwatch" mode, ready at a moment’s notice to support an Iraqi national police battalion, which at that time had responsibility for central Kadhimiya’s security. I do remember taking a nighttime patrol when the Arba’een observance was in full swing, literally. Throngs of Shia men, young and old, marched and chanted prayers through the main avenues of Kadhimiya, flagellating themselves with chains to the rhythmic thumping of a big bass drum. It was one thing to see a thirty year old men whipping a chain against his back; it was quite another to watch an eight year old boy do it with an equal level of devotion.
Since the invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the number of pilgrims observing Ashura and Araba’een has increased exponentially as Saddam had these commemorations banned during his regime. Why? Well, it’s no secret now that while the majority of Shia pilgrims are Iraqi Shia, there are busloads after busloads of pilgrims who make the trip today from Iraq’s neighbor to the east, Iran. Saddam, the Sunni, pan Arab bulwark, made sure Shia and Persian influence was kept at bay. Now, with Saddam no more, the balance has clearly shifted the other way.
Before the June 30th "out-of-cities" deadline last year forced U.S. troops back to mega-bases like Camps Victory, Liberty and Taji from our JSSs and COPs, we used to go on patrol through central Kadhimiya, en route to our weekly meeting at the Kadhimiya District Council building. It was surreal walking through this part of town, with bustling markets and tourists disembarking from those giant tour buses, which were parked en masse along one of the streets outside al Kadhim Shrine area’s outer gates.
Our interpreters told us most of the people getting off the tour buses were Iranian. "Look at the women’s abayas," they instructed us, referring to the black, flowing robes that covered everything but the women’s eyes, in contrast to what the average Iraqi women wore. "You can tell the men from their beards," they said. "Plus, they’re speaking Farsi to each other!" — as if we could distinguish the difference.
One interpreter, who worked with our PSYOP team, spoke Farsi, so we thought it’d be interesting to chat up a few of the "out-of-towners." They were plenty cordial and eager to talk to our curious American patrol. They told us their buses were escorted into Iraq from Iran by "private security officers," which explained the huddles of men dressed in khaki shirts and pants bearing side arms standing by the buses. Who knew who those guys really worked for? Some folks even co-owned shops in Kadhimiya with friends or relatives. They said they appreciated the better security in Baghdad and hoped for better relations with Iraq and Iran in the future.
Walking through these crowds, watching them going about their business, I felt I was in the middle of something really significant, almost historical. It was like I was straddling a centuries-old fault line. Shia and Sunni; Arab and Persian. Right there in Baghdad, in Kadhimiya. What the hell was I doing there? Maybe watching the natural order of things attempt to take their place?
News reports estimated that at this year’s Ashura and Arba’een observances somewhere between three million to six million pilgrims made their way down to Karbala. Surely observant Shia who couldn’t make the trip south stopped off in Kadhimiya to pay their respects. I wonder, too, how many buses from Iran were parked in the streets outside Al Kadhim Shrine this year.
It’s a bit ironic, given our own attempts to reform our international behavior, but what I think is going on in Iraq, by virtue of these pilgrimages and other historical, cultural, and economic linkages, is that Iranian "soft-power" is steadily making its way through Iraqi society. This isn’t any secret and it’s been said time and again by the likes of Vali Nasr, Bob Baer, and others.
I hope, that as we draw down militarily this year and into next, the State Department and CIA can send their folks out into Baghdad and other cities to help explain how Iranian influence is not only effecting Iraqi society and politics but also how it effects our long-term relationship with Iraq. Maybe that’s a long shot, I don’t know?
I think we can leverage the considerable sums of security force and development assistance dollars we’ve spent and continue to spend on the ISF and local infrastructure into a meaningful diplomatic relationship based on common interests like energy production, cultural and educational exchange programs, and counter-terrorism activities.
On the other hand, there will continue to be push-back from Sunni militants in the form of spectacular attacks targeting government institutions and officials. There will likely be complicity in this regard from sympathetic members/units in the Iraqi army.
One thing to watch after the March elections, no matter how things shake out, is if the new parliament renegotiates the terms of the Security Agreement with us. Which means, especially if this steady rate of bombing attacks in Baghdad continues, the Iraqi parliament may want US troops to hang around past 2011 in some advisory/assistance capacity. Not sure how the Iraqi public would take that request if it came to fruition; the American public may not even hear about it.