A Tale of Two Springs

Facilitating peace, development and banking in Mosul, Iraq

Basra 2012

with 6 comments

At Basra Land today it was Kids Day. I wish the one million Americans who served here over the past decade had the opportunity to see this Iraq. I am not sure we can ever say the war in Iraq was won by anyone. But if there is victory, I think it looks like Kids Day at Basra Land.

Fifteen months ago, while I served the State Department in Mosul, on the other side of Iraq, we would arrive at all
meetings in full battle rattle. A convoy of US tanks would arrive, buttressed by Iraqi escorts, with gunners scanning the area from above, our American support platoon would rush out and into our destination, clearing the site of any threat prior to our entry. Then we would walk into a meeting, with Iraqi government or business leaders. The Iraqis usually drove to the meetings in their cars, parked outside and walked into the building. And the Iraqis who hosted us occasionally expressed to me that we should stop playing these war games, that the world they lived in was so entirely different from the war-torn nation that we perceived that they lived in, and our overstated presence was bad for Iraq and for America. We were living and working locked in a Bronx police precinct, I once told a friend, and saw everything in our world through that veil.

Most of us who served in Iraq, in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation New Dawn, never saw this Iraq. When I spoke yesterday to an Iraqi-American translator friend of mine who lives in the Green Zone in Baghdad, we spoke of different Iraqs. He has worked for the State Department in Iraq for over five years and, though he grew up in Iraq, is not allowed outside of the Green Zone. He has been taught, like I was, that to step outside the American fortress is to enter a world of mass kidnappings and danger. When Western media come here, they often view the country through this same dark cloud of insecurity. No doubt, bombs still explode here. Violence does periodically flare and the politics remain unstable, but Iraqis seem to view the war as history. Their Iraq, their daily lives are in an Iraq far from the Green Zone, far from military bunkers and checkpoints, foreign and domestic. This is the Iraq where nearly all Iraqis live.

This afternoon, not knowing it was Kids Day, Adnan and I walked up to the entrance of Basra Land, a Saddam-era park refurbished and reopened three years ago with support from both Iraqi and Kuwaiti investors and a short walk from the house where I stay. Basra Land security told us we could not enter. Kids Day. All girls today. No boys allowed. Darn.

Adnan spoke to them. I was a visitor, he told them. They asked for my nationality. Uh oh. This could end badly. Their eyes lit up when Adnan said I was American. Suddenly, I had a special escort through the park. I could go anywhere I pleased. I was offered lunch and treated like royalty. I prodded Adnan for some political justification for their kindness. A statement on the war? Their views on Saddam? Opinions of Obama? Nope, none of that. “It is Iraqi hospitality,” Adnan told me. “And it has been building up inside Iraqis for decades. They are eager to use it.”

My militarized introduction to Iraqi society makes the ordinary extraordinary to me. For the next four hours I saw kids playing. We played with them, riding the Crazy Dance and the ferris wheel, bumper cars and the scary as **** Vortex. Yes, for the first time in Iraq I truly thought my life was in danger.

And I was reminded, locked in our American bunkers, how little we understood Iraq. In Basra decades ago, according to my Basrawi co-worker Adnan, very few women would cover their heads. After the Americans arrived, Sadr’s Mahdi Army moved in. And religious extremists governed Basra, dramatically limiting freedoms. There was a specific campaign of violence against women, and a woman could not walk outside in Western clothing without endangering her own life. According to Adnan, nearly all true Basrawians hated this new regime, after generations of comparative cultural freedom, and were happy when the Americans and Iraqis re-captured Basra in 2008. Now people do what they want, without fear, and, though most in public cover their heads, Adnan expects to see a dramatic change, a liberalization in dress and in women’s freedoms, in the next few years in Basra and throughout Iraq.

The amusement park felt so peaceful. Just kids playing, laughing, so dramatically different from what I saw in 2010, from what I heard in my daily morning security briefings. At the end of my visit, I asked Basra Land’s security chief if they had had any security incidences in the three years since the park re-opened, in an area known for years, since the Iran-Iraq War, as the venue of gruesome battles.

“Yes,” he said earnestly. “We do occasionally have problems. Boys and girls sometimes get in small fights.” Looks like kids in Basra are free to be kids again.


Written by treadingupthetigris

March 12, 2012 at 4:48 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses

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  1. Sounds like you had a wonderful time — You’re just a 6foot 3inch kid, after all!


    March 12, 2012 at 5:21 am

  2. Great insight for the many of us that has no idea of what goes on in the Iraq of today beyond what NBC tells us. Keep pieces like this coming.


    March 12, 2012 at 9:46 am

  3. A really intriguing idea. Have you got more arguments? Work with, it will be a good blog down the road


    March 15, 2012 at 4:39 am

  4. Could you please e-mail me.

    I saw your comments at Mojo’s place.

    I hope your colleagues in State don’t take this the wrong way, however you have no doubt heard the sheer scorn and condescension with which many MNF-I soldiers talked about the State Department employed in Iraq, including their obsession with force protection on steroids. About how clueless, out of touch, culturally clueless, even borderline racist the State boys and girls were compared with soldiers and Marines.

    Many said that kicking the State Department out of Iraq would help win the war. Another critique was that most State Department civilians and their obnoxious contractors should be fired immediately and replaced by much smarter, much more multi-cultural, more common sense oriented, more Iraqi society aware GIs.

    A similar critique was made by combat line battalions of GIs in FOBs. To a lesser degree ISF embedded combat advisors offered a similar critique of conventional MNF-I troops.

    The US army similarly critiqued the British Army and with cause. The Marines also comparably critiqued the US army in Iraq, and in many cases their critique had validity.

    Many ISF advisors did get out there and experience life through ISF eyes. Which gets to one question I have for you.

    In your opinion, to what degree did the 650,000 Iraqi Security Forces understand Iraq and the perspective of Iraqi civilians 2003-2008? How aware are the ISF now?

    Your description of Basrah matches what many Iraqis say.

    Regarding Ninevah, much of the success there 2006-2008 was because of then BG Muttah’s 2nd IAD and then BG Kirshad’s 3rd IAD. By late 2006, there was only one MND-N brigade minus assigned to Ninevah, At Tamin and Northern Salahadin province. They served as embedded combat advisors to about 20 times as many ISF. Ninevah has been ISF and GoI lead ever since.


    March 26, 2012 at 8:30 am

    • anan — Thanks for your comments. In brief, while with the State Department I worked with quite a few soldiers, diplomats, aid workers and contractors, from Iraq, the US and other nations, who did quality work that pacified Iraq and built a better future for Iraqis. There were problems with the war effort from the outset and with the design and execution of the peace-building efforts. Much of the dissention and many of the disagreements between diplomats and soldiers emanated from poor planning by Americans in Washington or Baghdad. Diplomats and soldiers come from very different cultures with very different objectives, ecosystems and work schedules. Throwing everyone in the sandbox naturally created enmity. Looking forward, the Iraq I see is full of peace, prosperity and, hopefully, some sembalance of unity and democracy. And the US hopefully will enter future conflicts and rebuilding efforts with considerably more planning, forethought and critical thinking than it did the Iraq effort.


      March 27, 2012 at 3:38 am

      • Would love to touch base offline if possible.

        Agreed on some of the causes of dissension between state and combat soldiers. However, the observation of soldiers that they were the ones visiting and socializing with Iraqis in restaurants and their homes, traveling in small groups, and that they better understood Iraqis than State employees [protected as they were by large security details] was often spot on. ISF advisors, more so than combat soldiers.

        How well do you think the 650,000 ISF understood Iraq? How distorted was their view? Has that changed over time?


        March 27, 2012 at 3:57 am

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