Saturday, April 09, 2005

The Year of Discontent: My Iraq Experience

This 9th of April is the 2nd anniversary of the Fall of Baghdad, an event that lead to controversy worldwide as well an internal controversy within me. I have just spent a year in Iraq and it was difficult experience to describe or forget. The experience of having to oscillate between hope and despair was an emotional roller coaster. And here is my story - no sugar coating - just unadulterated truth.

As the talk of war was raking up in late 2002, I knew that I would be involved eventually since I was a reservist. I expected to be called up for the invasion but it did not happen. The invasion went without me and with great success. I was sent in for later occupation, a far less successful event. I was called up for Iraq in 2004, known as Operation Iraqi Freedom II. I remember distinctly crossing the border from Kuwait into Iraq and was hopeful. Hopeful that I would play a positive part in this unfolding drama, a drama loaded with dangers but full of promise. Children waived, adults too. I felt like a liberator. Then we hit the Sunni heartland and for a little while I felt like an occupier. The waives were replaced with blank stares. We were hit with road-side -bombs, better known as IED (improvised explosive device) and rocket propelled grenades. My vehicle was never hit but I could hear it over the tactical radio when other vehicles were hit. One soldier perished on that trip -- the first day he was in Iraq. The memorial service for him was difficult, for me and for others. It heightened my own sense of mortality.

After that incident, my sense of concern I had earlier on the trip became more prevalent. It was clear we did not know how to do an occupation. Reconstruction was far more difficult than it appeared. The cost of reconstruction was high and the pace was slow. Despite our best effort, it was difficult to start a civil project. Security, or the lack thereof, seemed to be the culprit. Projects and those who worked on them were frequently the targets of insurgents. The end result was less willing contractors, less willing workers, and ultimately at a high cost and painstakingly slow progress. The government was in no better shape. The Coalition Provisional Government, commonly known as CPA, was in Baghdad and it seemed like they never left the comfort of the Green Zone, a protected section of Baghdad. The civil government existed in the Green Zone and nowhere else. Everywhere else the US military were responsible for providing, assisting, or constructing the government. One must ask how does an average US officer training prepare soldiers for running a civil government? It doesn’t and it was evident in their lackluster attempts.

To make matters worse, the CPA decided to eliminate the Iraqi government infrastructure through the process known widely as "de-Baathification." This process sought to eliminate all Baathists of certain rank from their government positions, leaving many unemployed and bitter. The disbanding of the Iraqi Army resulted in more unemployed young men, who were armed, disgruntled and dangerous. Iraq became increasingly more violent. In April of 2004, it peaked when four US contractors were killed. Soon, the city of Al-Fallujah openly revolted resulting in Sunni insurgents having control of the city. Soon after, the cities of As-Samara and Ar-Ramadi followed. Then, Muqtada Sadr and his Shiites started an insurrection, effectively taking over Najaf and Karbala. Summer 2004 was the Summer of discontent. And for me the discontent lasted the whole year. We were still driving around Iraq without properly armored vehicles and continued to have no armored vehicles for the rest of the year. The prospect for peace and reconstruction was low.

To get out of the occupation business, late Summer 2004, the CPA turned over sovereignty of Iraq to the Iraqi Interim Government. Things did not get better. In addition to targeting Coalition Force, insurgents began to target the Iraqis who they considered collaborators. And it didn’t take much for one to be qualified as such. An Iraqi who cleaned the Coalition base, civil servants, interpreters, laborers on reconstruction projects, vendors who sell goods and services to Coalition, and anyone who was deemed sympathetic toward the new Government or the Coalition Force. Even Iraqis trying feed and cloth their family were randomly and violently murdered. A string of decapitations --foreigners and Iraqi alike, -- broadcasted over the internet, quickly became a popular format for insurgents to project terror. I and many of my brethren-in-arms were dishearten and desponded. We came to Iraq to make it a better place and it was not a better. In fact no one seemed to know if Iraq was the same or worse. Being in the middle of the chaos, violence, and destitution, I was leaning toward things being worsen. Reconstruction projects were at a stand still. Service such as electricity and water was worse than pre-war level. But the issue that caused much despair was security. Public safety was a great concern for everyone. Kidnaps for ransom were rampant. Frequent highway banditries added to the chaos of the insurgency. Lawlessness was the prevalent condition. The earlier low estimation of the insurgency was overly optimistic if not unrealistic. The number of insurgents was revised from 5,000 to 20,000. It seemed then to be no light at the end of the tunnel.

Toward the end of Fall 2004, the tide seem to shift - and there was a glimmer of hope. Muqtada Sadr's insurgency imploded due to Coalition offensive and unpopularity among the people. The South was again at peace. As-Samara was retaken by Coalition and Iraqi Armed Forces, then Ar-Ramadi. The only city left was Al-Fallujah, the very heart and symbol of Sunni insurgency. It had to be taken prior to the General Election scheduled on 30th of January 2005. The concern for civilian casualties and collateral damage caused wide spread protest worldwide. But the offensive went forward and the city was retaken. The offensive stirred much controversy for the destruction of houses of worships as well general infrastructure destruction. The capturing of Al-Fallujah did not seem to stem the tide of the insurgency. Fighters from Al-Fallujah simply dispersed and brought violence to other cities, notably Mosul. A string of successful attacks against police stations were carried out in Mosul, paralyzing the city. In many police stations, the police units were completely wiped and police officers massacred. Randomly, bodies of people were found throughout the city. And in one single day, eighteen US soldiers were killed when a suicide bomber detonated a bomb inside a dinning facility.

The upcoming election concerned me a great deal. I was not sure if it would go smoothly, if people would participate, not to mention the probability of increased violence. If the election failed, we would have lost. All the sacrifice would have been in vain. But we would not be there for the election. My unit was sent home a month before the election. I was happy to go home but saddened that we accomplished so little - having spent so much time reacting to unforeseen crisis. I was home, in front of my television on January 30th, anxiously awaiting the results. A year spent in Iraq made me cynical. I feared for the worst. The initial result surprised me. People actually came out to vote. But I did not dare to hope for fear of crashing disappointment. But more people came out to vote. And then there were long lines with people waiting the whole day to vote. Those who voted walked out with purple stained fingers and tears in their eyes. The sight of the purple inks washed away all my despair. So it began the Purple Revolution. For more than a year since the day I entered Iraq, I dared to hope. Iraq was saved, not by the 150,000 US soldiers, or billions of dollars on reconstruction, but by purple ink and the courage of average Iraqi taking charge of their future. They succeed in spite of our failures. The credit goes to them and them alone. I turned off my television and it was my first undisturbed sleep in a year.

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