Veterans Day is meant to honor all who have served. Being out-and-about in Iraq for the past week and not sequestered in the U.S. Embassy or Green Zone like most of our diplomats, this Veterans Day is all the more meaningful as I get to see the results of the sacrifice.
Certainly, not all is positive. Television cameras don’t lie, of course, but they seldom give the full perspective. Sure, the Islamic State continues to occupy Mosul, but the Iraqi Army and the Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Shaabi) have liberated much of Salahuddin, the home province of Tikrit and Beiji, and Iraqi television has been claiming significant inroads in Ramadi. Indeed, in Baghdad, I bumped into some Anbari tribal leaders who have just returned from Amman to discuss governance and other practicalities on the day after liberation. Mosul and Ramadi are not the entirety of Iraq, however; and even if their fall represents a failure on a number of fronts — both American and Iraqi — the areas under the Islamic State’s sway still represents only a relatively small slice of society.
The rest of Iraq is a different story. It is heartening to see just how far society has advanced since 2003. Southern Iraq is relatively free and starting to thrive. Karbala and Najaf — two cities I visited this trip — are undergoing building booms and real development, even if infrastructure is still years behind what it should be. In many ways, Najaf and Karbala remind me of Erbil and Sulaymani — Iraqi Kurdistan’s two biggest towns — in 2000, during my first visit to Iraqi Kurdistan.
Not everything is about the tangible. In Karbala, I watched a protest in front of the governor’s office. Both protestors and police were relaxed and respected each other even as the protestors hurled invective at Governor Akeel’s administration. Fifteen years ago, such a protest might have led to a massacre. Today, it’s par for the course in the provinces of southern Iraq that, unlike Kurdistan, have seen multiple peaceful transfers of power and a real democratic blossoming rather than simply oligarchic maneuvering.
Lukman Faily, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, has thanked American veterans in the current issue of Stars and Stripes:
Over the past 12 years, American and Iraqi soldiers have fought alongside each other, bled together, died together and wept together to mourn our fallen comrades. On this Veterans Day, we should honor all the brave fighters who risked their lives and limbs, often making the ultimate sacrifice, to liberate Iraq from tyranny and terrorism. Iraqis understand why the service and sacrifice of so many Iraqis and Americans must not be in vain…
From my experience in southern Iraq and in Baghdad, Ambassador Faily’s voice is not an outlier. Baghdad and Shi‘ite southern Iraq may not be as press savvy as are the Kurds, but Iraqis remain grateful and, indeed, four years after the U.S. withdrawal, many do wish to have the Americans back — not as occupiers but rather as partners and friends.
While Iraqis remain frustrated at the perception that the United States is less than serious about defeating the Islamic State or constraining allies like Turkey and Qatar, which actively support the group, most Shi‘ites remain grateful for the ouster of Saddam Hussein and his hated regime. That’s despite the saturation of more than a decade of often unanswered Iranian propaganda. The opportunity for liberty and freedom of religion are powerful sentiments.
U.S. veterans should be proud about what they accomplished in Iraq. They planted the seeds but did not stick around to witness fully what they sowed. If they could visit Basra, Karbala, Najaf, Amarah, and Nasiriyah, they would be proud of what they would see — a society getting off the ground. Corniches, parks, and playgrounds; commerce; solar power to supplement the still-poor electric grid; and even electronic billboards advertising the latest wares. They would see Iraqis embrace religion, but still value independence from their neighbors (and, indeed, complain bitterly about Iranian arrogance and the corrosive effect of Tehran’s dumping of cheap goods). They would see children playing without fear, and learning without indoctrination. Iraq still faces massive problems (more on that in the coming days) but, most importantly, they would hear people express gratitude. It is well deserved.