Suddenly, It’s ‘America Who?’
Through 22 months of occupation nd war here, the word “America” was usually the first word to pass through the lips of an Iraqi with a gripe. Why can’t the Americans produce enough electricity? Why can’t the Americans guarantee security? Why can’t the Americans find my stolen car? Last week, as the euphoria of nationwide elections washed over this country, a remarkable thing happened: Iraqis, by and large, stopped talking about the Americans.
With the ballots still being counted here, the Iraqi candidates retired to the back rooms to cut political deals, leaving the Americans, for the first time, standing outside. In Baghdad’s tea shops and on its street corners, the talk turned to which of those candidates might form the new government, to their schemes and stratagems, and to Iraqi problems and Iraqi solutions.
And for the United States, the assessments turned unfamiliarly measured. “We have no electricity here, no water and there’s no gasoline in the pumps,” said Salim Mohammed Ali, a tire repairman who voted in last Sunday’s election. “Who do I blame? The Iraqi government, of course. They can’t do anything.” Asked about the American military presence here, Mr. Ali chose his words carefully. “I think the Americans should stay here until our security forces are able to do the jobs themselves,” Mr. Ali said, echoing virtually every senior American officer in Iraq. “We Iraqis have our own government now, and we can invite the Americans to stay.”
The Iraqi focus on its own democracy, and the new view of the United States, surfaced in dozens of interviews with Iraqis since last Sunday’s election. It is unclear, of course, how widespread the trend is; whole communities, like the Sunni Arabs, remain almost implacably opposed to the presence of American forces. But by many accounts, the elections last week altered Iraqis’ relationship with the United States more than any single event since the invasion.
Since April 9, 2003, when Saddam Hussein’s rule crumbled, Iraqis have viewed themselves more or less as American subjects. American officials ran their government, American soldiers fought their war, American money paid to rebuild Iraq. Indeed, the American project to implant democracy in Iraq often seemed to be in danger of falling victim to the country’s manifest political passivity, born of a quarter-century of torture centers, mass graves, free food and pennies-a-gallon gasoline. The more the Americans tried to nudge the Iraqis towards self-government, the more the Iraqis expected the Americans to do. As the insurgents wreaked more and more havoc, and sabotaged more and more of the country’s power supply, the Iraqis, not surprisingly, blamed the people in charge. Day by day, many Iraqis’ gratitude for the toppling of Saddam Hussein seemed to harden into bitterness and contempt.
After June 28, when American suzerainty here formally ended, not many Iraqis bought the notion that the interim government of Ayad Allawi was anything other than a caretaker regime, hand-picked by the Americans and the United Nations.
All that seemed to change last Sunday, when millions of Iraqis streamed to the polls. Few if any Iraqis had ever voted in anything approaching a free election, yet most seemed to know exactly what the exercise was about: selecting their own representatives to lead their own country.
This, obviously, is what we all hoped for. Honestly, I though the change would occur gradually–and certainly not until after the new government took power.
Of course, I’m always a little skeptical of anecdotal accounts of journalists. Those of us who supported the war often discount such reports when they over-emphasize the negative. We should be careful about getting too excited about a couple that go the other way. Still, this is an encouraging sign.