As the Bush administration struggles to right its Iraq policy, Frontline correspondent Martin Smith travels across the Iraqi-Turkish border to Kurdish Mosul and Kirkuk, across the rebellious Sunni lands of central Iraq to Baghdad and finally farther south to the Sacred Shia cities of Karbala and Najaf, to take a long, hard look at the Iraq to which the president vows to bring democracy. In this diverse and fractured land can his experiment work?
Smith was online Friday, Feb. 13 at 11 a.m. ET, to discuss his report and encounters with tribal sheiks, ayatollahs, politicians, aid workers, soldiers, and U.S. authorities, and the film which reveals just what the United States is facing.
"Beyond Baghdad" airs Thursday, Feb. 12 at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings).
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Excellent reporting. How often do you plan on returning to Iraq to follow up on this? Also, did you have much contact with the coalition contractors who are responsible for much of the rebuilding? How can we gauge the effectiveness of their progress?
Martin Smith: I hope to be going back, however, I will be covering the elections for Frontline here in the U.S., so my next program will be on in October, called "The Choice."
As far as contact with contractors, we were there at a time when much of the work had stopped or slowed down. So we didn't spend as much time observing ongoing projects as we would have liked. We did correspond with a number of civil affairs officers in the U.S. military and tried to make arrangements to spend time with them, but the nature of our program put us on a very tight schedule and we were never able to hook-up. There was also simply less reconstruction going on than we expected to find.
South Glens Falls, N.Y.:
Is life getting better for the average Iraqi?During the Vietnam War, we were always trying to win "the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people". Are we winning the "hearts and minds of the Iraqi people?" Is the electrical power situation improving? Are the lines for gasoline shorter? Can people buy heating and cooking oil easier? What about the food and job situation?
Martin Smith: Those are all the right questions. I was there in the summer on two trips. The gasoline lines, the electricity situation, varied from week to week. But I was shocked to see that as late as November, gas lines were longer than ever and electricity was still on only about half the time in most places.
As to whether life is generally getting better, that's difficult to answer. Business and commerce in general are picking up. For industrious, motivated Iraqis there seem to be more opportunities. Unfortunately, the security situation continues to be a problem. It's not the amount of violence so much as it is its randomness that makes life extremely stressful.
I keep hearing we are going to do this, yet, I want to know exactly how are we proposing to devise a government that will allow democracy while protecting the rights of minority populations? How do you assure the protection of the Kurds? What protections are there that a new majority government will not slowly manipulate the system into another brutal government?
Martin Smith: Well, the protections are those of any representative democracy. As people in any multi-ethnic state know, the protection of minority rights is best accomplished through some sort of coalition building among groups. Iraqis are going through the difficult and painful process of learning these ropes. By most accounts, the Shia make up 60 percent of the population. Sunni Arabs make up about 20 percent. Kurds and other groups make up the rest. Minorities are going to have to find ways to form alliances and find common interests. Both Kurds and Sunni Arabs are fearful of a democracy. At the same time they recognize there are opportunities.
I keep hearing about a transfer of authority from the US to Iraq, and the scheduling of elections in Iraq, but nothing about the establishment of a constitution. How can Iraq have any authority without a constitution; how can there be elections? Shouldn't they be sending delegates to a constitutional convention, and soon?
Martin Smith: Yes, the original idea was that a constitutional convention would be called in late 2003, but Iraqis were slow to organize and this didn't happen. At one point, Secretary Powell had issued an ultimatum on the constitutional question, but finally the Bush administration had to alter its plans and call for elections before the constitution could be written.
This is, as you point out, backwards. Some within the administration believe we should be moving more slowly, getting a constitutional convention before elections. Unfortunately, elections in the United States this fall are putting pressure on the process.
In his interview with Tim Russert last week, President Bush was asked about what would happen if the Iraqis elected a government that would rule in a way similar to the government of Iran, and he insisted that would not happen. Is this naive? Or do the majority of Iraqis want a secular government?
Martin Smith: I was struck by the president's answer as well. It seems clear that if Iraq is to have a real democracy, then they are free to elect whatever kind of government they wish to have.
As to whether or not Iraqis want a secular government or not, we don't know. That's why we need to have elections. Sistani is seeming to say that he wants a government that respects Islam as the law of the land, but that would be secular in nature. Remember that in Islam, there is no separation of church and state. Ayatollah Sistani, the senior grand Ayatollah, is both a spiritual and political leader, therefore.
1. How long do the Iraqis (you talked with) think our troops are going to remain in Iraq? And does the opinion differ depending on whether they are Sunni, Shiite or Kurd?
2. Do the Shiites want a war (of revenge) against the Sunnis? And in the event of our departure, how likely is it that Iran would intervene in a Sunni vs. Shiite war?
Martin Smith: Most Iraqis believe the U.S. is there for a long time. I think a lot of Americans misunderstand the nature of the transfer of sovereignty. It does not mean Americans are coming home. There will simply be a change in the definition of our role there. A change from an occupying army to some kind of peace-keeping force. Iraqis understand better than Americans do that coalition forces will be there for a long time.
The question of widescale civil war breaking out in Iraq is a tricky one. Most Iraqis don't want more war. They've suffered through three of them in the last 20 years. However, with high unemployment and seemingly endless random violence, populist politicians and clerics can easily exploit the fears of their countrymen. I think a country-wide civil war is not so likely in the immediate future. But smaller scale riots, revenge killings and other kinds of violence are likely to continue in many towns and cities. As long as coalition forces are in the country, it seems unlikely that Iran would want to get involved.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa :
Did you get to meet with any representatives of Grand Ayatollah Ali-al Sistani's and what do you think of him? And the nice female Army officer was saying they were out of money for getting more Iraqi police in the city she was in, is that going on a lot? And do you know if things like this have gotten any better for our troops since then? Thank you for your excellent reporting.
Martin Smith: Thank you. I didn't get to meet with Sistani. I only had a conversation with a spokesperson outside his office door that you saw in the documentary. I did meet with another grand Ayatollah, Modar Essi, whose views I think are similar to Sistani's. I found him to be impressive in the scope of his understanding of not just Iraqi problems, but of Western concerns. He spent time in Europe and America. Like Sistani, he is adamant on the question of popular elections. Nothing short of this will have credibility.
In October and November, discretionary funds ran dry. But in December, there accounts were filled again. For now at least there are not the kind of shortages that we saw in the fall. The lieutenant you referred to is still there, continuing to train policemen, but still experiencing sabotage and attacks.
New York, N.Y.:
How could the American government have been
so sure of the presence of the seemingly absent
WMD? Did your travels across Iraq shed any light
on this lingering controversy? Also, what role if
any did our 'allies' the Saudis play in the Iraqi
nuclear weapons program?
Martin Smith: I've heard stories about Saudi involvement, but I haven't investigated them. So I can't comment on that.
As far as how the administration could get its facts wrong on WMD, I refer you to our previous program, "Truth, War and Consequences." We covered this in that program, as well as another more recent program, "Chasing Saddam's Weapons."
The truth is that the U.S. government as as whole did not get things so wrong, really. I say that because if you look at all the intelligence, there were plenty of warnings and caveats coming from many quarters telling officials that the intelligence was anything but clear. What happened was that the administration ignored much of the advice of their own intelligence analysts. They came out with statements that had a degree of certainty that wasn't justified by the actual intelligence.
West Seneca, N.Y.:
As I tuned in last night, I noticed that many
Iraqis displayed a sincere animosity
towards Americans. In your opinion, what
might happen if we cannot squeeze in
elections by July? Some experts have
been saying civil war, and that does not
bode well for our troops over there.
Martin Smith: I think there's as much a fear of what happens if we don't squeeze in elections by July as there is legitimate fear about rushing to elections before all parties have a real chance to organize. The sooner you have elections, the more likely it is that the results will be dominated by religious parties. Secular parties have not had as much of a chance to organize. In other words, the elections have to take place on an even playing field.
So, I think we should pay close attention to the counsel of those in the administration who believe we may be going to fast. Unfortunately, as I said before, election politics in the U.S. are driving this process.
Do the Iraqi women actually know that they are going to lose the status they once had?
Martin Smith: I don't think that it's a given that women are necessarily going to lose their rights. That may happen if certain religious parties prevail. But among moderate Shia there's great respect for women.
I watched Grand Ayatollah Modar Essi chide his followers for not doing more to advance the role of women. It is true that even in the secular city councils that women play a very small role, but again, they need time to organize. More than that they need peace and security to do so.
With all the ethnic diversity and low tollerance that the various groups in Iraq have, and the fact the Kirds would really rather have an independent nation, is there really any realistic hope that Iraq will be able to survive as a nation or will it end up being divided up among its neighbors?
Martin Smith: Most Iraqis that I talked to, from all ethnic groups, expressed the desire to have some kind of Iraqi nation. Kurds are certainly the most reluctant, however. Under the protection of U.N. sanctions and a no-fly zone, the Kurds have had it relatively good for the last 12 years. Now, they're being asked to throw in their lot with the rest of Iraq. It doesn't look like a good deal. I don't think we can predict yet whether or not Iraqi Kurds will obstruct the formation of a workable Iraqi state.
But there are numerous reasons why Kurds are not likely to separate. Most prominent among them, their allies the Americans will not tolerate it. Nor will their neighbors in Turkey or Iran.
So while Kurds would very much like to have a separate Kurdistan, they have no real outside supporters.
You passed through a few Kurdish refugee camps outside of Kirkuk, but didn't really touch on the issue of refugees at all. During the time of your visit, several thousand Iraqis were returning from Iran and Saudi Arabia. UNHCR had minimal presence in the country, and from all reports, the CPA was escorting return convoys to specific locations. Did you encounter or discuss returning Iraqis, and if so, can you tell me about any involvement (positive or negative) of the coalition forces? Also, how were the Kurdish camps near Kirkuk being managed?
Martin Smith: There's two questions here. We didn't deal with the question of Iraqis returning from other countries, so that's not an issue I can address here.
We did spend time in several Kurdish refugee camps around Kirkuk. These Kurds are not coming in from other countries, but simply from other parts of Iraqi Kurdistan. They're returning to reclaim their homes in Kirkuk and the U.S. forces are hard-pressed to mediate their demands. There are many properties in Kirkuk where two or three deeds exist for the same piece of property. Perhaps one held by an Arab moved there by Saddam, another one held by a Kurd who was forced out. There is no existing law, indeed there is no constitution, that can help the U.S. commander on the ground figure out how to mediate these conflicts. It is vitally important that they figure out how to resettle the Kurds that are moving back without forcibly removing the Arabs, many of whom have been there for more than 10 years.
You've heard both sides of the WMD Issue here in the US, how are the Iraqis handling the issue? What's their opinions: good & bad?
Great objective answers to the previous questions.
Martin Smith: Most Iraqis told me that they were happy to see Saddam go and that if WMD was merely a pretense, that was alright with them. I only met one Iraqi who insisted that there would be weapons found. But most Iraqis figured that America had come for other reasons (most people mention oil) and they weren't really that upset about the WMD rationale.
They are, however, disappointed that the occupation grinds on. Safety and security remain problems, and that their very high expectations concerning reconstruction aren't being met. They don't understand why a superpower can't get the lights turned on and gas pumping. They assume that we are willfully being negligent.
One of the most disturbing parts of the broadcast was the bulldozing of the home of the couple where the explosives were found. This practice, done extensively in Israel, does not seem to help in any way. How often is this done? Can it be stopped?
Martin Smith: You raise an interesting question. A question of the legitimacy of collective punishment. When we were filming, some of the soldiers tried to stop us because they knew that the practice of bulldozing houses to extract confessions would be controversial. However, an officer present interceded and said, "This is policy. This is what we do. The coalition provisional authority in Baghdad has approved this policy and we should not hide it."
The officer knew full well that the practice might stimulate debate. I have to say I was impressed that he did not want to dress up the scene for the cameras. So, what you saw is the policy we've got.
I would only add that I think the soldiers are following orders. The policy is set in Baghdad.
Kansas City, Mo.:
Commerce could be the strongest force to bring
Iraqis together, more so than belief in democracy
or fellow feeling, Don't Kurds in the north want to
buy and sell with folks in Baghdad and Basra?
Can trade be stronger than blood feuds and
Martin Smith: I think that's a good point. I think among the best efforts the commanders have made is to use their discretionary funds to stimulate the local economies. As we pointed out in the documentary, the folks at the tannery in Mosul all come from different ethnic groups. The owner told me that as long as there are jobs, they all get along just fine. They eat lunch in separate clicks, but they work fine together. So, I agree, commerce can help.
The problem is that unemployment is still a huge problem in Iraq. We are told this is getting better. I saw some signs of it myself, and I am hopeful.