Americans in Iraq: occupiers no longer

By David Tafuri
Saturday, January 30, 2010; 12:00 AM

Getting stuck outside the gate to the Green Zone in an un-armored vehicle would have meant being a sitting duck three years ago. But when it happened to me last month, it didn't feel so harrowing. In fact, the young Iraqi soldier who stopped us provided jokes and bottles of water as we waited for U.S. officials. It was a sea change in attitude, demonstrating a comfort with Americans that did not exist when I lived in Baghdad from 2006 to 2007.

Despite this week's hotel bombings that appeared to target foreigners, we are finally getting it right, and it shows. Both American soldiers and the businessmen who now operate in Iraq have adapted to Iraqi culture in a way that has helped decrease violence, improve the partnership and set Iraq on a path toward stability.

Iraqis, like many Arabs, hope for a couple of basic things in their dealings with foreigners: economic opportunity and respect for them and their unique cultural and religious traditions. The planners of the invasion and reconstruction in Iraq ignored both. When America arrived in March 2003, we moved into Saddam Hussein's palaces, inhabited the country's places of worship and encouraged our male soldiers to search Iraqi women. We dismissed the rank-and-file soldiers and police who depended on the state for their paychecks, shuttered state-owned industries that employed many non-military males and offered Iraqis no alternative for making a living. We also searched Iraqi homes with bomb sniffing dogs, even though dogs are considered inappropriate for homes in the Middle East.

A crucial turning point, one Iraqi said, came when American soldiers stopped manning checkpoints around the city and started letting Iraqis do it. "Before, the Americans were occupiers who we thought would never leave," he told me. "Now, they are invited guests."

Or consider a successful American security and logistics firm I visited in Baghdad. This is not one of the security firms in the news, but one that is thriving, even as the need for them decreases. The manager boasted about how many Iraqis they had made into millionaires by sourcing their needs with local Iraqi firms and hiring and promoting Iraqis within their company -- a far cry from a few years ago, when similar firms would have touted the missions they had completed without losing an American client, or how many armored vehicles they owned. And it has lots of pets -- all of them rabbits and cats. It might sound silly, but it matters.

To be clear, Iraq still faces major hurdles, including the national elections set for March. There will also be periodic setbacks, such as the four truck bombs that went off in Baghdad and killed more than 100 people when I was there recently. A return to the violence of a few years ago is possible.

But as the U.S. has begun to treat Iraq more like a sovereign nation that is, despite setbacks, on a path toward stability and security, there is a growing recognition within Iraq that America could be a friend and ally. Already, when you meet Kurds in northern Iraq, the first thing they tell you is how thankful they are to America for protecting them from Saddam, and, later, removing him. Perhaps one day when you meet Iraqi Arabs, they, too, will thank America -- especially if you start by admitting we made mistakes when we began the reconstruction.

David Tafuri is a partner at Patton Boggs LLP. He was the State Department rule of law coordinator at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 2006 to 2007.

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