Iraq’s Mud Is Getting Wetter

As U.S. troops pull out, it's starting to look an awful lot like 2003.

Iranian Shiite Muslims stand a mud pond as they take part in the 'Kharrah Mali' (Rubbing Mud) ritual during the Ashura religious ceremony in the city of Khorramabad, 470 kms southwest of Tehran, 19 January 2008. Iranian men roll over in mud and dry themselves by gathering around a bonfire before flagellating themselves on the last day of the Ashura mourning period, which commemorates the seventh century slaying of Prophet Mohammed's grandson Imam Hussein in Karbala, Iraq. AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI (Photo credit should read BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)

It was the fall of 2003 in Iraq, autumn but still scorching. I had been there much of the year, growing more familiar with the place with each passing week and perhaps less insightful about what might be ahead. That sentiment probably made me a little more receptive to a proverb I often heard in those days, as I and legions of colleagues tried to make sense of a place where everything seemed to be in play. "The mud is getting wetter," people told me over and over, as the occupation lurched forward, violence of all kinds escalated, and more Iraqis were killed. Things are getting worse, it meant.  I would shake my head, as confused as anyone else.

The war that began that year — Iraq’s struggle for survival — is over. The forces the U.S. invasion unleashed have run their course — a Shiite revival, disenfranchisement of Sunnis, the import of a radical strain of Islam, and a hardening of identity. They culminated in a paroxysm of carnage that left virtually everyone in Baghdad with a friend or relative killed. Scores of journalists were there to cover it, and I suspect very few would say that anything authoritative over that period was written. Whatever courage or insight there was, it was almost impossible to tell that story.

Another struggle is under way these days. It is perhaps less dramatic, if we measure spectacle solely by the number of bodies that piled up in the Tigris River in 2006. But this struggle for power is no less important and potentially far more momentous for Iraq’s identity a generation from now. And it is no less perilous. Like 2003, everything is in play, as the country’s forces — the men around Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, sectarian Shiite parties, remnants of the Sunni Awakening, the Kurds, the street movement of Moqtada Sadr, and so on — try to figure out the grand coalition that can make power stick as the Americans ostensibly leave.

For the first time in years, we can cover that struggle, fought on a landscape as confusing, complicated and nuanced as it was after the invasion. Sadly, there are far fewer journalists to do it, a fraction of the hundreds who arrived in 2003 with the Americans. As an administration, as journalists, as a public, we are disengaged from Iraq, and nothing short of another foreign invasion will probably change that. We are withdrawing, in more ways than one, even as the mud gets wetter.

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