From the Street: An Iraqi's Anniversary Advice to the Next President

In this season of Iraq assessments, much of the comment in the mainstream media has been from above. Senior Iraqi and American politicians have weighed in with their opinions on the op-ed pages. Think-tank bodies from inside the Beltway who have never been to the country or who, if they have, stayed in the Green Zone and never ventured out without a heavy security detail have also been given the opportunity to pontificate for us. The view missing as General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker meet Congress and the news replays the shots of Saddam's statue coming down is the view of ordinary Iraqis. So I thought I would share the comment below.

It is written by my friend Salam Islam (a shorter version is at Post Global). Salam is an Iraqi born in Kurdistan and a Muslim. He would say that we was a human being before he was any of those other labels but he is proud to be an Iraqi Kurd and devoted to his faith. His voice is the voice familiar to me from my reporting there ... I won't say it is the voice of the "ordinary" Iraqi because Salam is an extraordinary man. But his thoughts would be shared by many of his countrymen, even if they could not express them in English. I urge you to give them some thought. More important I would urge the candidates running for President to whom Salam speaks directly to give them some thought. (You can also hear more thoughts from the street here
-- Michael Goldfarb

From the street: An Iraqi's Anniversary Advice to the next President

by Salam Islam

In January 2003, as war approached, I wrote an article for an Iraqi opposition newspaper in my hometown of Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. It said that the overthrow of Saddam by the US will not be a wise step. It would be better if the Iraqi people could do it from inside. This did not prevent me feeling happiness when Saddam's statue was torn down on April 9th, 2003. But still, deep inside, I felt sadness that Iraqis were not even able to take down the statue of tyranny. We needed an American soldier to cover the statue's face with the US flag and an American tank to pull it over. We couldn't do it ourselves because we didn't have then a united, trusted leadership who could gather all Iraqis and move them toward change.

Today, five years later we still don't have this leadership. I have been a democracy advocate since the 1990s, working with students and youth in particular, trying to spread awareness of democratic principles so we can raise a generation that believes, acts and participates in building a democratic society in Iraq.

We need to work this way, even if it takes time for the younger generation to mature, because the existing political parties in Iraq have failed at their own internal democratic reforms in this new era. Iraqi political parties are seeing everything from their very selfish, narrow, individual interests. Sometimes, it is the interest of one family, or even one person. They are corrupted and politicians are doing very good business. They will not let free media breathe. They are occupying everything. Inevitably, people's trust in political parties is disappearing.

In this environment, if there is any chance to build democratic institutions, values and practices, it has to be through civil society organizations. These groups are the bridge between politicians and ordinary people. Iraqi civil society is very new yet it has huge potential to act the role of sparking, inspiring, mobilizing and organizing the society towards a real democracy. Iraqi civil society organizations are doing very well in fighting extremist ideas and building the concept of citizenship and coexistence in the mosaic that is Iraqi society.

These anniversary thoughts have come as I finally realize a great dream and visit America. It has opened my eyes to how the war in my country is perceived. Over the last six weeks I met many people from different perspectives and backgrounds and many of them were anti the U.S. presence in Iraq. I totally understand this view and I feel sorry for all the blood and money spent there for the military operations. But the U.S. had no plan for the after-Saddam era. This created a mess and that obligates the U.S. to stay on but with a new strategy starting with: no more military solution.

If the next American president would read my words, I would tell him or her:
Reduce your military forces gradually from Iraq and especially reduce patrolling on the streets in hot spots. Let the Iraqi army take the responsibility and face its own challenges. Train them well and keep an eye on the financial corruption in both sides.

Enhance the U.S. political and diplomatic presence in Iraq. It is the only guarantee for my country not to enter the tunnel of civil war. This means pay more attention politically to violations against human rights done by the main Iraqi political parties and Iraqi government. This can be achieved by being more open to all Iraqi political and civil society groups, not only the familiar faces. The familiar faces are losing their credibility because of corruption and the US government is accused of supporting corrupted people.

Have a sincere will towards supporting democracies in Iraq and the region. Focus on that more than seeking after your own financial and strategic interests. People still have faith in your support to help them for more political freedoms and defending human rights, do not lose this trust.

The next president should also work at educating Americans about the society they are trying to help change. Have a plan to make both sides understand each other. Perhaps use your influence to encourage Hollywood to skip over the stereotype picture of Muslims. Even the non-committed person will be provoked if he sees something bad about his culture. We are fragile societies in the Muslim Middle East and this kind of critique drives people crazy. People like Bin Laden use these issues and emotions to lead people towards disasters.

Five years after the overthrow of Saddam, in spite of the violence and bloodshed, a democratic future is still possible for my country. So much in Iraq has changed and much of it has not been for the good. But one thing that hasn't changed is that it would be better for Iraqis to build their country themselves. But we still need your help because building democracy is not easy. We need your help because people have to overcome their fear of day to day life. Violence has touched everyone.

My father in law, a newspaper editor in Mosul, was murdered shortly after the overthrow of Saddam. On the first anniversary of the dictator's statue coming down an American journalist asked my wife was it worth getting rid of Saddam, even if you lost your father? After a while of silent thinking she answered: "Yes, I think it was worth it."

Five years after the democratization process began in Iraq, I stlll say it was worth it but his martyrdom will only have meaning when Iraqis come together, take responsibility, embrace democratic principles, return freedom to Iraqi citizens and build a humane state.

Salam Islam is a grass roots political activist who has lectured on building a democratic society all over Iraq.