History in a Hard Land
America's challenge in Iraq is more than sectarianism and insurgency
In his new book, The Foreigner's Gift, Contributing Editor Fouad Ajami, Majid Khadduri professor of Middle East Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, unravels the complex weave of hopes and frustrations arising from the American venture in Iraq.
The capture of Saddam Hussein was a milestone. The insurgency was not put down, but the American commanders and their civilian counterparts could be forgiven their moment of jubilation and perhaps the thought that jihadists pondering a passage to Tikrit or Fallujah across the Saudi or Syrian or Jordanian borders would have taken notice of the despot's surrender. What wealth the despot had stashed away in his hide-outs was anyone's guess. For yet another moment, Americans and a majority of Iraq's people had an occasion for common joy. Americans were beyond innocence this time, but while it lasted, the sense of deliverance from the despot recalled that buoyant, brilliant day months earlier when the dictator's statue in Firdos Square had been taken down in what seemed like a genuine coming together of Iraqis glad for their liberty and Americans thrilled to have provided it.
The large questions about Iraq's unity as a nation-state were still there the morning after. The evasions and the denials of sectarianism were still there, that debilitating insistence that sectarianism was alien to the land and an import brought to it by the foreign occupiers. The Sunni Arabs had yet to acknowledge the abnormality of what had passed for the familiar order of things under the despotism. But there were cracks even in the epicenter of Tikrit. As that Sunni stronghold hailed the anti-American insurgency, an undercurrent of pragmatism could be discerned in Saddam's birthplace.
It was a pragmatism born of fear that Sunni maximalism may leave the Shiites as the principal beneficiaries of the American interlude in Iraq. Raw power played its part. In the first year after the fall of the regime, the 4th Infantry Division was headquartered in Tikrit, then the 1st Infantry Division had relieved it, and the town came to a realistic sense of the balance of forces on the ground. Though no wholesale break with the Baathist legacy had swept Tikrit, there could be seen, in that town, the beginning of a separation from that legacy. A month after the dictator's surrender, an Arab reporter for Al-Hayat, Halim al-Aarji, found in Tikrit those second thoughts and the desire to be rid of the stigma of that association with Saddam Hussein. A man of 80 years took the reporter by the hand and pointed to the Tigris nearby. "Saddam Hussein deprived us of the joy of the river and its banks. He took from us the places of our fathers and forefathers to build palaces, which have now become fortresses of the occupiers." A younger and more educated man split the difference with the new order of things. Tikrit, he told the reporter, was a city proud of its history, aware of its responsibilities. This was why, the man added, it dealt with the anti-American insurgency with "some caution and reserve: It neither condemned the attacks against the Americans nor sanctioned them. None of its prayer and mosque leaders called for jihad against the occupier. Had they done so, they would have drowned the occupier in a sea of blood."