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Obama Has Much to Overcome in Middle East Speech

In the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, graffiti depicting abuse at Abu Ghraib prison includes a reference to President George W. Bush.
In the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, graffiti depicting abuse at Abu Ghraib prison includes a reference to President George W. Bush. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
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By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

HADITHA, Iraq -- The dirt overturned to bury some of the 24 people killed by U.S. Marines here in 2005 has turned to dust. The graves where women were interred with their children along the Euphrates River are bereft of tombstones. Weeds mark the passage of time, though not the pain of memories.

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"No one cares whether an Iraqi dies," said Yassin Salem, whose brother and uncle were killed here in their homes on a single day, Nov. 19. Bitterly, he looked down at the plastic bottles and newspaper that now litter the cemetery. "What does it matter?"

When President Obama delivers his address to the Middle East on Thursday from Cairo, he will face the legacy of names like Haditha, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, places that have become more symbol than geography over nearly a decade of perhaps the most traumatic chapter in America's relationship with the Muslim world.

More than any other president in a generation, Obama enjoys a reservoir of goodwill in the region. His father was Muslim. His outreach in an interview with an Arabic satellite channel, a speech to Turkey's parliament and an address to Iranians on the Persian New Year have inclined many to listen. Just as important, he is not George W. Bush.

But Obama will still encounter a landscape in which two realities often seem to be at work, shaped by those symbols. There is America's version of its policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, Iraq and Afghanistan, and Islamist movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah, defined in recent years by the legacy of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. There is another reality, from hardscrabble quarters of Beirut and Cairo to war-wrecked neighborhoods of Baghdad, where distrust of the United States runs so deep that almost anything it pronounces, however eloquent, lacks credibility, imposing a burden on Obama to deliver something far more than the unfulfilled pledges of Bush's speeches.

Haditha is an instance, writ small, of that divide. No one disputes that 24 people were killed in this forlorn but picturesque town along a majestic stretch of the Euphrates.

For the U.S. Marines, they were in a town as dangerous as any in Iraq when a devastating roadside bomb killed one of their own along a strip of asphalt bordered by olive trees and pink oleander. In time, they came under fire from insurgents, they said, and followed the rules of engagement in answering a threat. Eight Marines were prosecuted, but since then, charges have been dropped against six. Another was acquitted. The last Marine, Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, still faces charges of voluntary manslaughter.

In Haditha, no one calls it a crime. No one refers to it as a killing. The only word used is "majzara," or "massacre." Nearly every villager seems able to recall even the most minute details of what they see as Marines, bent on revenge, killing unarmed men in a car, then men, women and children, including a 1-year-old girl, gathered in three houses.

"Only God can bring justice," said Khadija Hassan, whose four sons -- Jamal, Marwan, Qahtan and Chasib -- were killed that day in a room still scarred with bullet holes.

The word "freedom" is heard in the Arab world, often as sarcasm. In Iraq, the refrain goes: "This is the freedom Bush brought?" The word "justice," a pillar of faith, is uttered much more often, framing attitudes from the Palestinian territories to Iraq. For those who feel they are without it, it becomes even more pronounced.

"I am hoping to hear words of reconciliation," Michel Kilo said of Obama's speech. A writer and activist in Damascus, Syria, he was freed last month after three years in prison on charges of weakening national morale. "I want to hear the word 'justice.' "

The blacks and whites of U.S. policy always seem to give way to a far greater ambiguity in the region. Lies by a generation of authoritarian Arab leaders to their people have given many a healthy skepticism of any public statement, whatever the source. Footnotes of U.S. history have become seminal events in the Muslim world. A half-century on, few people are unaware of the U.S. role in 1953 in helping overthrow Mohammad Mossadegh, the nationalist prime minister in Iran. Many blame the U.S. resupply of Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war for delivering Israel a decisive advantage. Even in Iraq, the narrative before 2003 was rarely the United States against President Saddam Hussein, who enjoyed U.S. support during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. To many Iraqis, it was them against Hussein and the Americans, who backed devastating U.N. sanctions. In their view, he was overthrown only when he was no longer useful.


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