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08.31.10

An Iraqi's Take on Obama

One refugee tells former Iraq correspondent Louise Roug what he thought was missing from Obama’s speech announcing the end of combat operations.

After the president spoke of emerging “out of the ashes of war” in a speech on Tuesday, announcing the official end to the seven-year combat mission in Iraq, I called an old Iraqi friend, Suhail, an older Sunni Muslim man who I worked with during the years I lived in Baghdad as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

I was interested to know what my friend thought of the speech, given that he has paid the highest price in this war: the loss of a child. Shortly before Christmas in 2005, his oldest son, who worked for the U.S. military as a translator, died after a roadside bomb hit the American convoy he was traveling in.

Suhail said the speech didn’t answer the biggest question. “My bottom line is: Was it worth all those sacrifices, both for the American people and the Iraqi people?”

To Suhail, Obama’s speech was most notable for what the president gave scant attention to: “I would have loved to have heard the president talk about the innocent Iraqis who died.” He added that the speech didn’t answer the biggest question. “My bottom line is: Was it worth all those sacrifices, both for the American people and the Iraqi people? Was it worth this huge sacrifice? Billions of dollars spent, both Iraqi money and American money. Was it worth all that?”

More Daily Beast writers on Obama’s speech

Ten Iraq War Legacies
Suhail hasn’t seen the country that President Obama describes, a place with “the opportunity to embrace a new destiny,” a country without Saddam’s Mukhabarat, or intelligence service, and without American soldiers. Because today he lives with his wife and their three kids in Maryland, having been forced to flee Iraq because of the family’s association with the U.S.

I saw some of that reality, though, when I last visited Baghdad, in August last year. Already then, the American troops had disappeared from the streets as part of the planned withdrawal, and Iraqi soldiers now manned the city’s checkpoints, decorated with garlands of pink and yellow plastic roses to celebrate the American withdrawal.

I had come back to Baghdad because I was curious about how Iraqis felt now about the American invasion that brought about a civil war and approximately 100,000 dead, including more than 4,400 American troops.

“Bush had a project in the Middle East,” said my friend Raheem, “and the politician who wants to do something, he has to create his justifications, his excuses, to do it.”

Raheem, who lost a son to a stray American bullet a few years ago, is a pragmatic and pious Shiite Muslim who argues that while the cost of the invasion was high, Iraqis now have their first opportunity to do what they want—whether that means building a secular democracy or a religious autocracy.

“We feel that Bush has done something good for us, despite all the mistakes,” said Raheem, as we made our way through the dusty streets of Baghdad. “It’s politics. In politics you look at your interests. OK, many Americans were killed, and many Iraqis were killed. But still, if he hadn’t interfered, Saddam would have stayed, and we would have been ruled by his sons, his daughters, and his grandchildren.”

A few days later, I talked with my friend Salar, a Sunni Kurd. “At the moment, it’s not utopia, but the situation is incomparably better,” he said, sitting in his office, where he had tagged a Schopenhauer quote to the wall: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

Salar paused for a moment to puff on his oversize Cuban cigar, looking like a general who had come through a war.

“For years we were imprisoned in this hotel. It was hell,” he said. “But as Churchill said, ‘If you’re going through hell, keep on going.’”

Louise Roug is an editor at The Daily Beast. She previously worked as a foreign and national correspondent for The Los Angeles Times, living in Baghdad and the Middle East for several years. She is a Pulitzer finalist and a recipient of a Hal Boyle Award from the Overseas Press Club. She just finished her first book.