Best Defense
Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Iraq 2011: Jet skiing the Triangle of Death, listening to Bee Gee songs — and pondering what comes next

While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on June 21, 2011. On a morning when news comes of more bombings in south-central Iraq, here is an overview from Lady ...

Emma Sky
Emma Sky
Emma Sky

While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on June 21, 2011.

While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on June 21, 2011.

On a morning when news comes of more bombings in south-central Iraq, here is an overview from Lady Emma Sky, who knows as much about Iraqi politics as a foreigner can. Her comments on Turkey balancing Iran in Iraq especially interested me, as did the speculation about whether an overthrow of the jerks running Syria might lead to further fragmentation in Iraq. And keep in mind that Iran remains mighty interesting.

By Emma Sky
Best Defense roving Middle East correspondent

The taxi driver to Beirut airport tells me that yom al-qiyama (the day of judgment) is approaching. There will be a big explosion soon — a very big explosion. The revolutions sweeping the Arab World are not good. Islamic parties will come to power everywhere. There will be no more Christians left in the Middle East. Believe me, believe me, he insists. In anticipation, he will make the Hajj to Mecca this year, inshallah. I tell him that I am traveling to Iraq as a tourist. The look he gives me in the rear view mirror says it all: He thinks I am crazy.

I am heading back to Iraq nine months after I left my job as Political Advisor to the Commanding General of U.S. Forces Iraq. Earlier this year, a Sheikh emailed me from his iPad, “Miss Emma we miss you. You must come visit us as a guest. You will stay with me. And you will have no power!” I am excited and nervous. The plane is about a third full. I am the only foreigner. I look around at my fellow passengers. I wonder who they are and whether they bear a grudge for something we might have done.

The flight is one and a half hours long. I read and doze. As we approach Iraq, I look out of the window. The sky is full of sand and visibility is poor. But I can make out the Euphrates below. Land of the two rivers, I am coming back.

I do not have an Iraqi visa. Visas issued in Iraqi Embassies abroad are not recognized by Baghdad airport. I have a letter from an Iraqi General in the Ministry of Interior, complete with a signature and stamp. In the airport, I present my passport and letter, fill out a form, pay $80, and receive a visa within 15 minutes. I collect my bag. I am through. I want to reach down and touch the ground, this land that has soaked up so much blood over the years — ours and theirs.

I spot the Fixer. We grin at each other as we shake hands. Soon we are in his car speeding down the airport road — that we called Route Irish — towards the Green Zone. I can’t see any Americans. Not on the roads, not on the checkpoints. Iraq looks normal – for Iraq. What is new? What has changed? The situation is not good, he tells me. The government is bad. Too many assassinations. We laugh and chat like old friends. The Fixer, who used to ‘smuggle’ me out of the Green Zone is now “smuggling” me back in. Leave it to me, he says, smiling and patting his chest with his hand.

Before long, I am sitting with my Iraqi hosts in their home, catching up with their news. I take a dip in their pool. It is 46 degrees (Centigrade). The brown of the sand-filled sky is broken by flashes of grey, white and yellow lightening. Later in the evening, the rolls of thunder are replaced by the thuds of mortars targeting the U.S. Embassy.

*Sitting in the back of the car wearing abaya and hijab, I drive south towards Karbala with two young Iraqi army guys, who are both from Baghdad and Shia. In the national elections last year one voted for Maliki to be Prime Minister, the other voted for Allawi as he wanted a secular man to lead Iraq. They both agree that life was better under Saddam, that there was more security before, people could travel anywhere safely, gas was cheaper, salaries went further, there was no “Sunni-Shia.” They tell me that people are very upset with public services, especially electricity, but are too scared to demonstrate. No one likes living under occupation, but people are also worried that the situation might deteriorate if the Americans leave. They both stress that Jaish al-Mahdi is not the right way.

We drive for an hour southwards. We pass numerous checkpoints. No one checks my papers. I am the invisible woman in Islamic dress. It is late so the roads are not busy. Finally, we turn off the main road, down a track, through an orchard, and arrive at a house on the banks of the Euphrates where I meet up with my Iraqi friend, and he introduces me to his companions, male and female. Tables are arranged and big trays of food emerge from the house. Fatoush salad. Maqluba — chicken and rice. We stuff our faces. I sit in a swing chair, chatting with my friend, who talks about his experiences of working with the U.S. military. They have big hearts he tells me, but they are naïve. They don’t know how to do contracting. They spent lots of money, but so much was wasted. They did not know who was good and who was bad. Many projects were not implemented well. Others were not sustainable. The Brits last century left us with railways, roads and bridges. What have the Americans left us? My friend tells me about his companions, what they do and how he knows them. When I ask them where they are from, I discover that one woman is a Kurd who was born and bred in Baghdad, two are Sunnis, and the others are Shia, and all have relatives of different sects. We are Iraqis, they tell me.

It is midnight. I lie back on the swing chair, wrap myself up in a blanket and fall asleep on the banks of the river. My peace is rudely interrupted at 2 a.m. by a massive explosion which shakes the ground. For a moment, I wonder if we are being attacked. Then I speculate that perhaps there are still some Americans on a nearby base. I don’t move and quickly fall back to sleep.

I awake at 5 a.m. when the sun rises, and see a fisherman pass in a small boat. I doze back to sleep until I awake again from the heat of the sun. The caretaker has also slept outside. He brings me tea. He tells me he has been guarding me through the night, making sure I am safe, and keeping the dogs — which look like wolves — away from me. I thank him. He chats about the river. The Americans had bases here. Our people attacked them. Gangs. The Americans did not know who was good and who bad. One time, he was up a palm tree picking dates when Americans shot at him. He giggles as he recounts how he fell out of the tree. Another time, he approached an U.S. checkpoint and they demanded he take off his top, then his pants, then his underwear. They made him walk stark naked. Another time, he thought gangs were breaking into the plantation so he opened fire. In fact, it was American soldiers and he wounded one. The Americans arrested him and sent him to Bucca prison near Basra. The caretaker tells me about his life today. At home he only has a few hours of electricity a day. The electricity comes on for one hour and then goes off for four hours. During the hour that it is on, he makes his room as cold as possible. It is very difficult for people. They sleep out on the roofs. He talks about the “time of the British,” and the “time of Saddam.” He has already consigned the American period to history.

I climb up on the jet ski and speed up the Euphrates. The dust of the previous day has cleared and the sky is brilliant blue. I wave to people on the banks and they wave back. I pass the Iskandriyya power station which once served as a U.S. base. Further up to the left is Jurf as-Sakr. The Americans used to called this area the “Triangle of Death” due to the levels of violence. I remember landing by helicopter on numerous occasions on visits to the troops, receiving briefings of insurgents moving down the river. Now it is me on the river, and the U.S. bases have gone. I jump off the jet ski into the water and swim back down the river, floating with the current.

Out the back of the house, surrounded by sheep and chickens, the Caretaker is busy barbequing a fish that the fisherman brought us. My friend gutted it earlier, washing it in the river and then opening it up in half to put under the grill. One of the women places the ‘masgoof’ on a tray, and brings it out to the table on the river bank. We stand around, eating the fish with our fingers, and dipping freshly baked bread into the salads. It is delicious.

* I am invited to an Armenian family for lunch. They live in part of Baghdad which used to be a Jewish area. Before the founding of the State of Israel, over 130,000 Jews lived in Iraq. In fact, the 1917 census put the Jewish population of Baghdad at 40 percent. The Armenian family bought the house in 1954. On the walls are hung rifles, hand-guns, tapestries. Against a long wall, shelves are crammed with books. My friend lives here with his wife and son, and his parents. His mother, an elegant well-dressed woman, tells me of how the Armenians escaped to Iraq as refugees from the genocide in Turkey. Many Armenians were taken in by Arab tribes. The Arabs were so kind and generous to us, bringing up orphans as their own children. We will always remember how good they were to us. We will never forgive Turkey. The number of Armenians in Iraq has halved since 2003, and is now down to around 10,000. She believes this is the end of Christians in Iraq. She laments that so many are leaving for the United States. What will they find there? Life may be easier, but here in Iraq is where we have our families, our history, our culture. She sighs that everyone had such high hopes after the fall of the regime. No one expected it to turn out how it has. But even in her most depressed moments, she never wishes Saddam back. My friend’s wife has cooked a feast of Armenian foods, and I sample every plate. When I leave, she gives me a doggy bag that will feed the Arab family that I am staying with for days.

As I drive with my Armenian friend back across town, we hear news of a complex attack on the provincial council in Diyala which has left 8 killed and over 20 wounded; and of the assassination of an Iraqi General in Baghdad.

* I catch up with some Turkish friends and feast on food prepared by their Turkish cook. They tell me that Iraqis are blaming Turkey for their water shortage and are demanding that Turkey lets more water flow into Iraq’s rivers. But relations between Turkey and Iraq — particularly with the Kurdistan region — are good, largely due to the vision of the Turkish Ambassador and the investment of the Turkish private sector. Turkish companies are operating from north to south of Iraq and have developed a good reputation for getting things done. It is largely Turkish companies that have beautified the Green Zone, renovating the Republican Palace, laying down roads and building a guest house for the Arab Summit that never happened. Today in Iraq, Turkey is seen as the main competitor to and balancer of Iranian influence.

* I take a tour of Baghdad with a senior Iraqi official. He is an old friend from whom I have learned so much about this country over the years. We visit old haunts. I can clearly observe the changes that have taken place in the last nine months. The local economy has improved. The private sector is certainly taking off. More shops are open. New cars are on the roads. People are busy going about their everyday affairs. Many concrete T-walls have gone. Security forces are less visible.

As we drive along I ask him what are his main concerns. He responds: the direction of the political process, corruption, and assassinations. We discuss the different paths Iraq might head along and indicators of each:

Dictatorship. Will Prime Minister Maliki and the Dawa party be able to sink their tentacles deep enough to exert control over the organs of state and the unofficial shadow state — the old culture of Iraq re-exerting itself, but with different beneficiaries? Maliki now serves as the Minister of Defense, Interior, and National Security. There is no longer a selection committee for promotions within the military. So those seeking promotion, pensions, and protection cosy up to political leaders as they have no confidence that the system itself will recognize their merits or provide for them. Maliki has placed his people as deputies and advisers through all the ministries. But power is too diffused in Iraq these days making it hard for anyone to assume total control. And this goes against the Arab Spring trend influencing the region.

Oligarchy: Will the political elites maintain the current political paralysis but create an oligarchy, as in Russia? Iraq’s political elites live in big houses, receive good salaries and pensions, can afford private generators for their electricity consumption, and are well guarded. They have their noses in the trough and access to large contracts. But are the elites competent enough to capture the State? Will the level of corruption and absence of the rule of law make this path unlikely.

Haves versus have-nots: Will armed groups fight the State for a share of the country’s oil resources, as in Nigeria? Rumors abound that militias are raising their heads once more, and the power of the Sadrists in the south continues to increase through coercion and intimidation.

Democracy: The Parliament is growing in capacity, with members drafting laws and debating issues. Meetings of Cabinet and sessions of Parliament — albeit edited — are shown on TV. The media is flourishing, although there are attempts to control journalists. But the sectarian construct of the political system and corruption hinder the movement in this path. Perhaps in a decade or so, once the current political class have been replaced, there will be more hope.

Civil war: Will Iraq plunge once more into sectarian conflict? While this is always a risk, Iraq’s political leaders, institutions and security forces are stronger than they were in 2005 and all wish to avoid this direction.

We conclude that Iraq might follow a mixture of these paths. It seems unlikely that Iraq will avoid the ‘resource curse’, the paradox whereby a country with oil wealth has less economic growth and worse development outcomes than a country with less natural resources.

I watch the Iraqi national tennis team practice. They are excellent players. What impresses me most is how they interact with each other, offering words of congratulations or commiserations on particular shots. I speak to them during the interval. They are from different parts of Baghdad, are of different sects, were inspired by their fathers to play, and are proud to represent Iraq on the international stage.

I sit with a good friend, a female member of Parliament, in a café in Baghdad. We reminisce about 2007 and how we worked together closely to help bring down the violence that ravaged the country. It seems such a long time ago. We discuss the problems facing the country today. How much longer will the patience of Iraqis continue, I ask her? She tells me that the people are tired. They want electricity and jobs. They want to eat and sleep. They want normal lives. There is injustice. The country is rich, but the people do not see the benefits. The Iraqi people have been so oppressed for years that we are like sheep. Iraq today is so far away from the vision that people had after the fall of Saddam. I describe to her my trips to Egypt and Tunisia and how people feel empowered because they removed their regimes themselves, with little bloodshed, are debating their constitutions, and new politicians are coming to the fore. She tells me that in Iraq people do not feel that same sense of empowerment. They did not remove Saddam themselves, many of the politicians who were put in power were Islamist exiles returning from abroad, there was little public debate over the constitution, and elections did not bring about change but kept the same dysfunctional arrangement in place.

New narratives are being created about life before the fall of the regime and life under occupation. People have started to claim there was no ‘Sunni-Shia’ before 2003. Many blame the Americans for introducing sectarian/ethnic quotas in the way the Governing Council was established, and for excluding key segments of the population. But it was the exiled Iraqi elites who advised them along this path. And while political parties claim to not want quotas, they all fight to maintain them. And during elections, Iraqis mostly voted along sectarian and ethnic lines. And while Iraqis criticize corruption, they pay the bribes. The gap between the political elites and the Iraqi people seems to be growing even wider. Safe in the Green Zone, I hear some elites talk about “Shia power,” while others now discuss creating a Sunni federal region. The elites have not developed consensus on the nature of the state, nor moved towards building a more just society, focusing too often on revenge and accumulating power rather than on national reconciliation. And so the political elites squabble among themselves over the spoils of the country’s wealth. Each group watches the TV channel that aligns with their bloc. The government channel portrays the Cabinet discussing progress in their ministries over the 100-day period, development projects across the country, beautiful scenery, happy members of the public out shopping. In sharp contrast, Sharqiyya TV constantly criticizes the government for lack of progress, highlights electricity shortages across the country and how many hours a day are received from the national grid, and shows brutality of the state security forces. While the politics are so polarized, there will inevitably be levels of violence aimed at achieving political outcomes, the institutions of state will remain weak, and economic development will be hampered by the absence of the rule of law.

* I luncheon at the home of another female MP who is active in promoting human rights in Iraq. I ask her what is the way to make politicians hear the voices of the Iraqi people? She says it is very difficult. Iraqis still do not have their basic needs. Electricity is the most important thing for them. It is hard for them to access the internet, to create networks on facebook, when they have so little access to electricity. The society needs to become less militarized. Space needs to be made for the voices of youth and women, and minorities. This is very hard in Iraq. The Americans did not invest enough in promoting democracy, she laments. People are too scared to demonstrate — scared of the government and of the terrorists.

On Friday, people gather in Tahrir Square to demonstrate. I watch for a bit on TV. I am initially confused as the demonstrations look nothing like what I have seen elsewhere in the region. Sheikhs are shown demanding the death penalty for terrorists. I discover that these are the ‘pro-government’ supporters bused in from Karbala and other provinces and security guards from inside the Green Zone who have been told to go out and demonstrate in support of Maliki. They carry placards with a red X through a photo of Allawi. The smaller number of ‘pro-democracy’ supporters are a mixed bunch of youth, communists and others, inspired by the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia to seek more freedoms. Government officials accuse them of being Baathists and terrorists. I later hear from Western journalists on the scene that some ‘pro-democracy’ demonstrators were beaten up by plain clothed men with batons — while the security forces stood by watching — and two including a woman were stabbed.

In response to the demonstration, the Iraqiyya leader Allawi delivers a harsh speech criticizing Maliki and the Dawa party. Allawi is regarded as the main loser from government formation, unable to capitalize on his election victory. Earlier in the month, there were rumors that he would agree to head the National Council on Higher Policies (although disagreements remain over the title of the post, and whether it would receive approval of the COR) and that agreement was close to appointing the security ministers. But discussions have broken off again, and relations have deteriorated even further. With the two main blocs of State of Law and Iraqiyya unable to reach agreement and with their leaders apparently irreconcilable, the Kurds and Sadrists play the kingmakers.

Into this toxic mix comes the issue of whether the U.S. forces should remain in Iraq post 2011. The Sadrists are adamant that all U.S. forces should leave by the end of the year. They continue to attack U.S. troops so that they can claim that they have driven them out. They threaten to protest against the government if services do not improve by August, and to revert back to violence if U.S. forces remain beyond the end of the year. The rest of the political elites in private say they wish that some U.S. forces remain to help the air force protect the air space, the navy to protect the oil platforms, and to assist with training of the army and provision of intelligence. However, only the Kurds seem willing to lead the debate in public. Maliki’s Dawa party has put out a statement in which Dawa “reiterated its firm stands toward the withdrawal of all the U.S. forces from the Iraqi land, waters, and airspace on the set time, which is the end of this year.” To gain Iranian and Sadrist support for a second term as Prime Minister, Maliki had to promise them that there would be no extension of U.S. forces after 2011. Maliki is probably hoping that the Parliament will vote to approve some US military presence remaining in Iraq post 2011, so that he will have to go along with their decision. In this way, he will continue to balance both the United States and Iran. Events in Syria are also troubling the elites in Iraq. If the Allawite regime falls and is replaced by a Sunni one, then Iraq will become even more important to Iran and its buffer against the Sunni world. This may also serve to push the trend in Iraq towards Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia regions, all heavily influenced by different neighboring countries.

* I go over to the complex we called ‘Freedom Towers’, where U.S. soldiers once used to enjoy a few days of respite away from the battlefield during their long tours. Today, it is the headquarters of Dr Saleh Mutlak. I say to him: it is amazing to see you here. The last time I saw you was 18 months ago in the Rashid hotel just before you fled the country. He laughs as he puffs on his cigarette. He makes me tell the story to his guests — all of whom of course know it. One of the most popular Sunni leaders in the country and joint-head of Iraqiyya, Mutlak was barred by the de-Baathification committee from running in the national elections. Through a deal worked in the government formation negotiations at the end of last year, Mutlak is now the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq. The head of the de-Baathification committee is dead, assassinated last month. How can anyone predict how things may turn out in Iraq?

* Sitting in a restaurant in Karada, downtown Baghdad, eating pizza and drinking wine with journalist friends, I listen to an Iraqi sing Bee Gee songs. The singer moves me to tears. He sings with such passion, making the songs his own. I invite him over to join us at our table. He sits down with us and as he talks the talented, confident Singer, transforms into a fragile, damaged man. What horrors have those eyes seen, I wonder? What is the trauma he is struggling with? He tells us that he went to the United States for a short period in the seventies when he was a young boy, accompanying his father who had been wounded fighting on the Syria/Israel border and needed plastic surgery. In 2003, he had come forward to work with the U.S. military, but quit after three months when he had been blown up by an IED. I remember the wonderful Iraqis who had come forward to work with the Coalition back in 2003, dreaming of building a new democratic society — many were killed by insurgents for collaborating with the Occupying Authorities and many others fled the country. “I dip,” the singer tells me, bringing out his pouch of tobacco. “Disgusting habit to pick up from American soldiers!” I scold him. He laughs. Things are slowly getting better in Iraq, he assures me. Iraqis just want to live. It is going to take a long time — a very long time.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

A photo collage illustration shows U.S. political figures plotted on a foreign-policy spectrum from most assertive to least. From left: Dick Cheney, Nikki Haley, Joe Biden, George H.W. Bush, Ron Desantis, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Bernie Sanders.
A photo collage illustration shows U.S. political figures plotted on a foreign-policy spectrum from most assertive to least. From left: Dick Cheney, Nikki Haley, Joe Biden, George H.W. Bush, Ron Desantis, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Bernie Sanders.

The Scrambled Spectrum of U.S. Foreign-Policy Thinking

Presidents, officials, and candidates tend to fall into six camps that don’t follow party lines.

A girl touches a photograph of her relative on the Memory Wall of Fallen Defenders of Ukraine in the Russian-Ukrainian war in Kyiv.
A girl touches a photograph of her relative on the Memory Wall of Fallen Defenders of Ukraine in the Russian-Ukrainian war in Kyiv.

What Does Victory Look Like in Ukraine?

Ukrainians differ on what would keep their nation safe from Russia.

A man is seen in profile standing several yards away from a prison.
A man is seen in profile standing several yards away from a prison.

The Biden Administration Is Dangerously Downplaying the Global Terrorism Threat

Today, there are more terror groups in existence, in more countries around the world, and with more territory under their control than ever before.

Then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez arrives for a closed-door briefing by intelligence officials at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
Then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez arrives for a closed-door briefing by intelligence officials at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

Blue Hawk Down

Sen. Bob Menendez’s indictment will shape the future of Congress’s foreign policy.