Iraq: January 22, 2005


The war in Iraq is a clash of cultures in ways that are often not reported. For example, the United States is very keen, compared to their opponents, on protecting the lives of its troops, and insuring their comfort. This means much effort and resources goes into building and staffing well protected camps. American infantry are very well trained and equipped, by any standard, and when they leave these camps, they are ready to fight, and win, against any hostiles they encounter. But in order to keep the troops as safe as possible, they do not mingle with Iraqis in Sunni Arab areas. This makes it difficult to break down cultural barriers, and establish better relations with the people, in those areas where the anti-government forces are most active. As a result of this, it is often reported that American troops are not able to find the hostile gunmen hiding among the people. This is not true, as U.S. intelligence forces are able to gather a great deal of information about which Iraqi groups are hostile, where their members are and what they are up to. Hundreds of  raids are conducted by American troops each month, arresting thousands of terrorist suspects and seizing large quantities of weapons, documents and other materials. But to most Iraqis, these American soldiers might as well be space aliens landing from another planet, and then departing back to their well protected bases. There is no easy solution for this problem, as the anti-government forces would kill any American troops they found wandering around Sunni Arab areas. This did happen back in the Summer of '03, and U.S. troops were then restricted to their bases when off duty. This was not the case for American troops in Shia Arab and Kurdish areas, but the majority of U.S. forces are in Sunni Arab central Iraq, where most of the resistance and fighting is being done. 

As the U.S. gets more people into Iraq that speak Arabic, and develop a larger number of trustworthy local translators, more Americans become aware of how much corruption is practiced in the area. This is one aspect of Iraqi culture that no one really wants to talk about. For one thing, there are real cultural differences over exactly what is corruption and what isn't. In Iraq, it is considered perfectly understandable, and permissible, to take care of your family, clan and tribe by handing out jobs to these people. Stealing money is still stealing, but there's more tolerance for it in Iraq, especially if the thief shares the booty. Saddam Hussein was an expert practitioner of this, using cash and goodies to maintain loyalty, or simply placate potential opponents. Americans have a problem with this, while most other nations on the planet do not. When the United States sought to impose honest business practices worldwide in the last several decades, it was discovered that major trading partners, like Germany and Japan, had no laws against many practices considered corrupt in America. For example, until recently, insider trading (of stocks) was legal in Germany. Many forms of political contributions that are allowed in Japan, are considered corruption in the United States. Iraq, and Arab nations in general, are even father away from the United States in terms of what practices are corrupt, and which are not. Arabs are bemused as how excited Americans get over these issues. 

Iraqis do not consider the corruption all that great a problem. Iraqis note that there is much corruption in Jordan and Kuwait, two long time allies of the United States. So what's the big deal in Iraq? The problem is that, in Jordan and Kuwait, there is not an armed and hostile minority trying to overthrow the government with violence and terrorism. Jordan did have such a problem back in the 1970s, with Palestinian refugees. But a short, sharp, war was fought with the hostile Palestinians, who were driven out of the country. This was possible because the Palestinians were considered foreigners, while in Iraq, the Sunni Arabs are very much natives. Most Iraqis believe that, once the elections are held, and Shia Arabs and Kurds are in charge, the new government will create sufficient security forces to defeat the Sunni Arabs. 

This raises another "difference" issue. While Iraqis get indignant over the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse issue, many privately thought that the Sunni Arab prisoners got off easy, that in Saddam's day, they would have been killed or mutilated, not just humiliated. It is feared that once the Iraqi security forces are able to deal with the Sunni Arab terrorists, it will be done in a particularly brutal fashion. Such brutality is common in the region, and considered a proper approach because such  brutality is part payback, and part intimidation to discourage continued resistance. This spotlights another cultural difference. Iraqis hold Westerners to a higher standard of behavior than they do themselves. Part of this is gamesmanship. Iraqis note the higher moral standards of the Americans, and use it against us. But when they have to take care of business, they explain away more brutal methods as, "that's our culture." Well it is, and as more of these differences hit the news, expect the reports of torture and murder by Iraqi security forces to increase. Iraq now has about 120,000 people in the security forces (police and army), and wants to double that. When this happens in the next year, along with an increase in personnel quality and experience, the Sunni Arab terrorists will be on the defensive. Al Jazeera, and the rest of the Sunni Arab dominated Arab media, will be outraged. But the outrage will be mainly because Shia Arabs and Kurds are keeping Sunni Arabs out of power, not at how they are doing it. But Western media will be appalled at the brutality of the next stage of the Iraqi civil war. Brace yourself. 


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