Standing in front of 40 religious leaders in Najaf, Iraq last summer, I wondered how they would react to my presentation. I was an unarmed American spending five weeks in Iraq with the Muslim Peacemaker Teams (MPT). That night I was presenting at a “cultural council,” a group that gathers periodically to discuss cultural and political issues. My topic was the relationship between Iraqis and Americans and the possibility of “reconciliation.”
During the five weeks I spent in Iraq in June and July of 2011, I lived in Minneapolis’ Sister City of Najaf at the home of my friend and colleague, Sami Rasouli. Invited by Sami, I helped teach English classes and visited the homes of artists, businessmen, farmers, university professors, and others. All welcomed me with big smiles. Most were eager to see the American military leave, but also eager to work with American civilians to rebuild a better future for their families and children.
While the US military withdrawal in December marked a symbolic end to almost 9 years of war and occupation, it’s not “over” for the people I met. They, their children, and future generations of Iraqis (as well as Americans) will live with the consequences of the war on Iraq.
In Iraq, at least 100,000 civilians died from 2003 to 2011 as a result of the war. Some estimates put the number at over 1 million. Approximately 4.7 million Iraqis were displaced by the war, including 40 percent of the middle class. Seventy percent of children in Iraq suffer from trauma-related symptoms and there are perhaps five million orphans in Iraq. Electricity comes and goes every couple of hours and 7.6 million still lack access to clean water. According to Transparency International, Iraq was the eighth most corrupt country in the world in 2011 – a legacy of both previous power structures and the American occupation.
Nearly everyone I talked to while in Iraq had a friend or relative killed, injured, or tortured during the last 8 years. Torturers included the Iraqi Army, American forces, Saddam Hussein’s henchmen, Al Qaeda, and sectarian militias. One of the students I helped teach, Muhammad, played on Iraq’s national tennis team. In 2007, his coach and three of his teammates were stopped in the car they were driving, ordered to get out, and executed “for wearing shorts.”
When Sami and I visited Baghdad, he said, “Look what’s happened to this city. It was such a beautiful place when I visited it growing up.” I saw buildings riddled with bullet holes, concrete walls and military checkpoints still dividing neighborhoods, and garbage covering street corners.
Iraq’s slow fall from regional leader in health and education to ruined state did not begin with the United States, but American involvement in Iraq over the last few decades (including bombing during the 1990 -91 Gulf War, international sanctions, and the most recent war and occupation) completed the destruction.
Yet Iraqis are working hard to rebuild. Iraqi dentist Mahdi Al-Faraaon, part of a medical delegation to Minneapolis last fall organized by the Muslim Peacemaker Teams and the organization I work for, the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project (IARP), came to the United States to build relationships with healthcare professionals and help rehabilitate Iraq’s medical system. “Otherwise we are talking for nothing,” he said.
The withdrawal of the US military from Iraq brings new opportunities to build peace—and a greater imperative to work toward reconciliation. Sami, MPT, and the Iraqis who welcomed me were willing to focus on a shared future. What about Americans? Will we forget about our war and its consequences, or will we work for reconciliation, helping to rebuild Iraq and a shared future?