Commentary Magazine


Letter from Baghdad

The most hated man in Iraq today is Senator Joseph Biden. Iraqis (except for Kurds) are outraged at the Senate’s adoption of a Biden bill, prescribing “federalism” for Iraq in terms that Iraqis take to mean partition of their country. My explanations—that Biden chose the anodyne word “federalism” because he couldn’t get support for “partition,” that the House was unlikely to pass a similar measure, and that even if passed, this bill was not binding—all fell on deaf ears. Sunni and Shiite politicians outdid each other in their denunciations. And some Iraqi lawmakers spoke of turning the tables by calling for the U.S. to be partitioned into sovereign black, white, and Hispanic nations.

During my stay in Baghdad I am bunking at CPIC (Combined Press Information Center) of the MNF-I (multinational forces in Iraq), where journalists are housed after catching either a “helo” or the “rhino” (armored bus caravan) from “BIAP” (the Baghdad International airport). The fortunate few get “manifested” in advance, but most have to travel “space A” (based on availability of space). A U.S. Army manual lying around our quarters gives this directive for dealing with the media: “avoid jargon, acronyms, slang and technical terms.” (The application for a press badge at CPIC asks, inter alia, for my “tribe” and “clan.” I figured I could put “Hebrews” for the former, but “clan” stumped me until the young lady soldier in charge told me I could leave those boxes blank.)

I am sharing space with journalists from Icelandic television, here to cover the exodus of their country’s contingent from MNF-I. Antiwar advocates will surely point to Iceland as yet another desertion from Bush’s coalition. But the significance is easy to overestimate. As the film crew informed me, they were here to cover the “withdrawal of the troop.” When I said, “troops,” they corrected me. There was only one soldier, a pretty 27-year-old blond. After spending the day filming her they returned to CPIC to tell me that she enjoyed her job training Iraqis and regretted being called home.

To help soldiers pass their off-duty hours, bookshelves at this base are crammed with dog-eared paperbacks. Among the mysteries, romance novels, and sci-fi were two items that appeared much less worn. They turned out to be James P. Cannon’s History of Trotskyism in America and a 2005 edition of the journal published by his Socialist Workers Party, announcing, of course, the crisis of capitalism, now in its 160th year of imminence. Interviewing onetime members of the Baathist youth movement, I am reminded that such cockamamie western ideas provided intellectual cover for violent self-aggrandizement in societies bereft of peaceful political norms.

The principal thought on the lips of most Iraqi politicians I spoke to was the urgency of saving their country from domination by Iran. The dominant parties of Iraq’s Shi’ite government are viewed as subservient to Tehran. The new security services have been thoroughly penetrated by Iranian agents. The Sunni chief of a secular party told me that he had received offers of funding from Iran’s ambassador. When he reminded the ambassador that he was outspokenly anti-Iranian, the man replied suavely that Iran wants to help all Iraqis.

Much has been written in recent years about the decay of the U.S. intelligence in its collection and analysis functions. But what about the operational side, i.e., counterintelligence and covert action? One hopes against hope that it is equal to the power struggle in which we find ourselves. Ironically, while America is obsessed with Iraq, Iraqis are prone to see their plight as being the epicenter of a larger struggle. Iran is at war with us for dominance of the Middle East. Iraqis see it. Iranians see it. When will we notice?