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In Speech, Much for Obama to Overcome
Legacy of Haditha, Abu Ghraib Looms

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.

"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.

"They understand justice in the United States, but they've never applied it here," said Sundus Yahya, a clerk at women's clothing store in the Baghdad neighborhood of Karrada.

"At least he has to apologize," said her colleague, Ghofraan Dhiaa. "He can either apologize himself or on the behalf of his predecessors. But there needs to be recognition."

Obama's choice of Cairo as the venue for his speech may make that difficult.

Since making peace with Israel, Egypt has emerged as a key American ally and cornerstone of U.S. policy, receiving more American aid than extended under the Marshall Plan to Europe after World War II. But Hosni Mubarak, the 81-year-old president, has ruled longer than any Egyptian leader since the founder of the modern state, Mohammed Ali. Mubarak's government has relentlessly crushed opposition, arresting and jailing hundreds of opponents, both religious and secular. By virtue of new legislation, and through a vast network of patronage, his ruling party seems sure to retain power long after he dies.

"The problem is if Obama apologizes for these past endeavors, he will undermine the U.S. positions vis-a-vis current oppressors," said Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi American environmentalist and educator. "He will be insulting his host. It's not doable."

Obama's own popularity may prove a challenge, as well. In addition to reaching out to Arab and Muslim audiences, his decisions to close the Guantanamo prison, to avoid the term "war on terror" and to end torture in U.S.-run prisons have won praise. His election still seems to impress people, although many wonder how a U.S. public could elect both Bush and Obama in a span of just four years.

"You have never seen a president who has raised expectations so high in the Arab and Muslim world, for the good," said Ibrahim Kalin, a scholar in Ankara, Turkey, and adviser to the Turkish prime minister. "People see in him something they would like to see in their own leaders, and that, in itself, creates huge expectations."

"I cannot deny that we are expecting something from Obama," said Ahmed Abu Haiba, the founder of a video channel in Egypt for devout youth. "And because of that, I'm afraid. I'm afraid he can never meet the expectations of people."

"We all know that there are no magic words that are going to solve everything," he said. "Sometimes it's much better not to have hope than to have hope and lose it."

Indeed, meeting expectations might require a reorientation of U.S. policy that seems unlikely, at best. Obama may tussle with Israel over expanding settlements in the West Bank, but no one foresees a shift in strong U.S. support for the Jewish state. Despite woeful records on civil and human rights, Egypt and Saudi Arabia remain crucial U.S. allies, even as the divide grows between ruler and ruled in each country.

Even in its early months, the Obama administration has adhered to its predecessor's tendency to choose sides in conflicts in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon. In visits to Beirut, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Biden made clear their preference for a coalition aligned against Hezbollah and its allies in parliamentary elections this month, with Biden warning that U.S. aid depended on the outcome of the vote.

"They choose sides, and they choose extremes," said Carmen Geha, an activist in Beirut. "It causes people to be even more polarized and to cooperate even less."

Ali Fayyad, a senior official with Hezbollah in Beirut, was blunter.

"Is the American administration ready to reconsider its policies toward the Arab and Muslim world? Are they ready to admit their mistakes? Are they ready to apologize and promise not to interfere in our internal affairs?" he asked. "I don't think they are."

Some in the region hold out hope that Obama, in the Cairo speech, may signal the direction his administration will take on the question of a Palestinian state, still the most resonant issue in much of the Arab world, with the possible exception of Iraq.

"The Palestinian question is still the leading one," said Khalid al-Dakhil, a scholar in Saudi Arabia and frequent critic of the government there. "It has been with us for too long a time. Everybody now is just getting tired. They feel they are lost at this point."

Dakhil pointed out that history would record Bush as the first American president to back a Palestinian state. But he would be remembered, too, for calling former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon -- a reviled figure in the Arab world -- "a man of peace," and in the end, the two sides seemed no closer to an agreement than when Bush entered office.

Obama, Dakhil said, would have to match his rhetoric with concrete steps. "If it's not accompanied by a substantial change in policy, it doesn't mean anything," he said.

To him and others, the plight of the Palestinians, the spectacles of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and the killings in Haditha all eventually return to that same question of justice, a principle that seems to require acknowledgment and redress in equal shares.

"They're the strong and we're the weak. What can we do?" asked Yusuf Eid Ahmed, whose four brothers were killed in Haditha. "We have to leave it to God."

He stood in the bedroom where the Marines killed them.

"Talk does nothing. Everyone has talked. I talked, others talked. The entire town has talked," he said. "What have all those words brought us? It's just talk."

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