If ESWN had not linked to Riverbend’s latest post at Baghdad Burning, I might not have known for another week or so that she had finally left Iraq. She hadn’t written since April. It took me about half an hour to read this last sad letter from a country in ruins. Ten minutes to get past the first two lines. I was crying too much. It’s been three and half years since I started reading Riverbend. Four years since she started writing. Four and a half years since the invasion.
You probably already know Riverbend’s blog. But if you don’t, it’s worth starting at the beginning and reading it like a book. Or you could buy the book that won a Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage. Beautiful, angry, tragic letters from a city that has been torn apart. But she is no longer in her own country. She’s an exile in Syria.
There are now more than two million people like Riverbend. More than four million if you count those who have been driven from their homes, but not yet their country - it’s harder for the poor to leave. Most of the refugees are in Syria and Jordan. Few can ever pass through the hallowed gates of those who “liberated” them.
I chose to pack up and come to China. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you did too. I left for a year, and didn’t go back. Not because it was bad back there at home. I just didn’t want to. I didn’t leave my country because it had been destroyed by foreigners. Hundreds of thousands of my fellow citizens had not been killed because of an invasion by foreign armies.
By a strange quirk of fate, Riverbend went into exile just as General Petraeus was preparing to tell the US Congress that the “surge” had succeeded in making Iraq a safer place. Not an unqualified success because various political goals had not been accomplished, but attacks were down and so were sectarian killings - claims that many others dispute.
So what do Iraqis think? The BBC, ABC and NHK have just conducted another survey to answer that question. When they were asked what effect the “surge” has had on security, political dialogue, the ability of their government to function, reconstruction and economic development, the overwhelming majority said it had made things worse on every count:
So who should we believe? General Petraeus or the people whose country it is that General Petraeus’ army invaded and occupied? Who would we believe if reality were to reverse itself - if the invaders and invaded traded places in space and time.
The occupiers can take one small shred of comfort in this survey: Iraqis now blame al-Qaeda in Iraq very slightly more than the Americans and British for the violence. But is that something to be proud of - “not quite as bad as al-Qaeda”?
The number of Iraqis who want the foreign armies to leave right now has risen since the “surge” began. None of them want the Americans to stay for ever.
But you don’t build military mega-bases and the biggest embassy in the world in a country you intend to leave. The Bush administration has no intention of leaving. Will its successor really be very different?
“After every US military intervention since 1990 the Pentagon has left behind clusters of new bases in areas where it never before had a foothold. The new string of bases stretch from Kosovo and adjacent Balkan states, to Iraq and other Persian Gulf states, into Afghanistan and other central Asian states … The only two obstacles to a geographically contiguous US sphere of influence are Iran and Syria.” (US and UK Forces Establish ‘Enduring Bases‘ in Iraq)
So Iraqis want the foreign jihadis and foreign armies to go home. Instead, it’s Iraqis like Riverbend who have been driven out.