A History For Iraqis To Write

By David Ignatius
Sunday, July 27, 2008

With characteristic self-absorption, Americans are looking at Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's recent statements about a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops in terms of our 2008 presidential election. We should see this issue instead in terms of Iraqi history.

Modern Iraq was founded on an abhorrence of foreign military occupation. The national self-image is of resistance to British colonialism. That's why Maliki and most other Iraqi politicians have balked at signing the status-of-forces agreement sought by the Bush administration and why the Iraqi prime minister is enthusiastic about a timetable for the departure of most U.S. troops by the end of 2010.

Maliki and his colleagues are being faithful to Iraqi history -- a factor the administration has too often misunderstood. For President Bush, Iraqi history seems to have begun with the invasion of March 2003. U.S. officials saw resistance to American occupation as a malign legacy of Saddam Hussein, rather than as an integral part of Iraq's national identity. They failed to see that nationalism, even if nurtured by the Baath Party, was one of the few forces that could hold the fractious country together.

"Generations of Iraqis have gone to school learning how they rid themselves of British imperialism," explains Raad Alkadiri, an Iraqi émigré who works as a senior director of PFC Energy in Washington. "They are the constituency to which Maliki must bend. You don't want to go down in history as the man who sold Iraq back to the foreigners."

Though this assertion of Iraqi nationalism benefits Barack Obama, it's hardly a triumph for his policy. If Maliki is confident enough now to say no to the status-of-forces agreement, that's largely because the surge of U.S. troops has helped reduce violence and stabilize the country. Obama had a congenial meeting with Maliki in Baghdad, but it's hard to imagine such a tranquil visit if the Democrats had succeeded 18 months ago in forcing a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Rather than fretting about the seeming political benefits for Obama, the Bush administration should seize the moment and declare victory -- or, more accurately, declare the required minimum of success. The arrival of an Iraqi government strong and confident enough to negotiate a timetable for gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces is, in many respects, what we have been fighting for since 2003. The fledgling government's performance will be ragged, and security will be uneven, but under Maliki's proposal, the clock has at least two more years to run.

For Americans who wonder why Iraqis aren't more grateful for the expenditure of U.S. lives and treasure to topple a dictator most of them hated, it's useful to recall a little more history. A good summary is William R. Polk's short book "Understanding Iraq." He quotes a 1918 British proclamation to the residents of Baghdad "to participate in the management of your civil affairs in collaboration with the Political Representatives of Great Britain." Explains Polk: "This statement baffled those Iraqis who heard it. Did it mean that they were about to be independent? Did it mean that they were becoming a colony? Did it really mean anything? No Iraqis could tell."

What the proclamation meant, in fact, was colonial administration, and the British had to fight a bloody war in 1920 to suppress an insurrection against their unwanted rule.

I have a copy of a 1948 "Handbook" prepared for British operatives by the Iraq Petroleum Co. It cautions that despite a 1920 international mandate granting Britain authority in Iraq, the Iraqis were unhappy: "However well-meaning, [the mandate] was always regarded by Iraq's statesmen as inconsistent with their national self-respect, and it was correspondingly unpopular." The British installed a king and a pliant prime minister, but they were swept away in a 1958 coup.

Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party kidnapped modern Iraq and its aspirations for independence. But even through the Baathist years of blood and bitterness, the idea of an Iraqi state survived. That nation is now beginning to reassert itself, in demands for sovereignty and an end to American occupation. Maliki makes his bones in this revived Iraq by standing up to Tehran and by standing up to Washington, too.

The Iraqi government's call for a withdrawal timetable is undoubtedly a boon for Obama. But really, it's good for everyone -- for John McCain, who championed the troop surge that gave Iraqis time to stand up, and for George Bush, who ought to take Maliki's "no" as a positive answer. And it's good especially for the Iraqis, who can resume writing their own history.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.

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