As I watch the news and see the continuing violence in Iraq, I can’t help but noticing that a lot of the stories focus on the province where I lived and worked. Baquba is the capitol city of Diyala Province and it features in at least half of the now-regular reports of bombings and deaths. Thing is, while we were there, it wasn’t really all that bad. It had been previously–with a healthy dose of Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds, it was a good spot for insurgents to try and take advantage of ethnic and religious divisions–but the American units had done a pretty good job of restoring a bit of order and security.
And the Iraqi Army wasn’t half bad–they had an old guard who had been in the military for a long time and they tended to be pretty devoted to the idea of a strong government (most of the coups in Iraq had a strong military angle. Sure, some of it was people wanting power, but some of it was because they believed in a thing called Iraq, which is kind of a big deal in the Middle East or Afghanistan where belief in religion or ethnicity or family often trumps nationalism). The Diyala Operations Commander, General Tariq, was particularly fantastic. He was old school and gruff. Religion and ethnic ties meant so little to him that I was never entirely certain if he was Sunni or Shia (or both). Why? Because it didn’t matter. What he wanted was a strong, stable Iraq.
While there, I got to attend a bunch of ceremonies where the Americans turned over bases or official security to the Iraqis. Everyone was always a little nervous about the aftermath, but there was still a lot of pride in Iraqis taking back control of their own places. In one, they even had a giant wooden key (a couple of feet long) that the American Commander handed over to his counterpart. General Tariq did his best to instantly take charge, even if that might sidelining the Americans who were still there to help him. To be fair, he did so in a very friendly sort of way, as he was the kind of person who was quick to laugh. (Probably still is.)
But obviously, even if we weren’t in charge any longer, the American presence helped maintain a bit of security. In Iraq, I guess it’s a trade-off between security and sovereignty, which is fine. Because when you got out and talked to everyday people, even when you asked them about their concerns about security, it turned out that’s not what they were worried about.
Me: “So how safe are you here? Do you feel more or less safe than before? What do you think will happen in the future?”
Iraqi Villager: “Security is fine, we aren’t worried about that. That is all in Allah’s hands. What scares us is the government. They are big and corrupt and take everything but give us nothing when they’re supposed to take care of us. They arrest us for money. It’s like a mother eating her own children.”
Like a mother eating her own children.
I was floored, and sadly, it was not the last time I heard similar phrases. They didn’t fear violence. They feared their own government.
I wonder, though, what those same people would say now?