Saturday, July 4, 2009

Independence Day I: I.E.D. on the Tigris

Within days of the celebration of the birthday of the nation that occupies it militarily, the Republic of Iraq has quietly, then boisterously, celebrated its own re-independence day:

On Tuesday, the United States began the process of withdrawing its armed forces from 15 major cities and municipalities of Iraq, leaving the Iraqi army to protect the nation from the insurgents who have recently revived the bloodshed that’s been a hallmark of Iraqi urban life for far too long.

"This day, which we consider a national celebration, is an achievement made by all Iraqis," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in Baghdad. "Those who think that Iraqis are unable to defend their country are committing a fatal mistake."

As of Tuesday, U.S. military commanders were required to either ask permission from the Iraqis to participate in combat missions, or be invited to participate by the Iraqi military. It's a sea change from the wars past when American might called the shots form beginning to end.

Tuesday, which the Iraqi government has called National Sovereignty Day, was the same day that at least 40 people were killed in a bomb blast in a crowded market in Kirkuk, the northern Iraqi city that’s long been one of the points of resistance to American entreaties for calm. It was the same day that the U.S. military command announced the deaths of four more U.S. armed forces, south of Baghdad.

What started with circumspect statements from the prime minister soon turned jubilant in Iraqi cities and towns. The Iraqi people had to fight for their right to party; when the deal went down, they did just that. People hit the streets; police and military vehicles bore streamers and banners.

At a Tuesday outdoor concert at Baghdad, Ahmed Ebrahim, 35, explained his feelings to The Guardian UK: "No words can describe how I feel. The occupation stayed in Iraqi hearts for six years and this is a big occasion that deserves to be a permanent national day in future.”

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How this Inchoate Explosive Democracy taking shape on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers fully manifests itself isn’t really a matter of being “anyone’s guess.” It’s anyone’s certainty. No matter whether you predict more anarchy and bloodshed, or more steady progress toward political and social stability — either way, you’re right.

For better or worse, and maybe better and worse in the short term, the Iraqi nation has cast its lot with at least making a serious attempt at participatory democracy. Chastened by six years of war, and no doubt looking at the widening gyre of unrest within neighbor Iran, the Iraqi people have decided that their future problems, and there will be many, are best resolved “within the family.”

They’ve also decided that, despite all the dire warnings from various think tanks and analysts within the region and outside it, sooner or later the best time to determine the strength of a democracy is after that democracy’s military guarantors have vacated the scene.

Then we’ll know for sure. Until then, and despite the challenges facing the young Iraqi government in its first urban summer without the U.S. military, the Iraqis are marking National Sovereignty Day with red letters.

Americans could do the same: As U.S. military action in Iraq winds down, as American men and women pull back to smaller, less physically concentrated areas, as the price tag of lives is less frequently in need of an update, National Sovereignty Day may be an independence day for Americans in all but the name.
Image credits: al-Maliki entourage: Still from AFP.

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