Outlook: Lying Low in Baghdad, Then and Now

Cameron W. Barr
Washington Post Deputy Foreign Editor
Monday, May 12, 2008; 1:00 PM

"Emad T. Yousif enjoyed some personal prosperity and a whispered, furtive liberty under the Baathist regime, always striving to avoid any undue attention from the vast intelligence apparatus that helped keep Hussein in power. Balding, oval-faced, eyes slightly downcast, Yousif played the gray man well. Five years into the U.S. effort to remake his country, Yousif, now 53, plays that role still. If the essence of freedom is the opportunity to assert oneself, Iraq has a long way to go. Now as then, Iraqis who want to survive shrink back into themselves, lie low, let attention find someone else."

Washington Post deputy foreign editor Cameron W. Barr was online Monday, May 12 to discuss his Outlook article on one Iraqi's methods of survival under the Hussein and current regimes, how his life has changed since the U.S. invasion, and what he sees for the future of his country.

A transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors


Cameron W. Barr: Greetings. I'm Cameron Barr and I oversee the Post's Middle East coverage. In March I visited our bureaus in Baghdad, Jerusalem and Cairo, a trip that produced the Outlook piece on Emad Yousif. I'm eager to take your questions, so off we go.


Peaks Island, Maine: Re "Yousif had once been pained at the thought of U.S. intervention; he now appeals for its continuation. If there is a rapid U.S. pullout, he said, 'the scenario is very clear: The Kurds immediately will spin out. In the south, the Shia will spin out immediately, from eastern Baghdad to the south.' "

Does Mr. Yousif believe (and if so on what basis) that prior to the 2012 U.S. presidential election, the Kurds and Shia will have lost their desire to "spin out" respectively in the north and south?

Does it concern Mr. Yousif that U.S. troops endure great danger and suffer substantial casualties and that American taxpayers foot the bill while there is not a critical mass of Iraqi people willing and able to make the compromises of a kind that would bring about conditions such that he will no longer believe necessary an American military presence?

Cameron W. Barr: One of the hardest things to read about present-day Iraq is the strength of the centrifugal inclinations of many Shiites and Kurds. I think what Emad was trying to say is that continued U.S. engagement is key to preserving a unified Iraq for the time being. No one is under any delusion that these centrifugal inclinations will disappear. The thinking is that if these groups can see the benefits of unity over time, they will gradually accept that they will do better as part of a unified Iraq than as a mini nation state. In the Kurds' case, theirs would be a mini nation state in a very hostile region.


Arlington, Va.: How did you find Yousif? Did you find him with the intention of writing an article like this?

Cameron W. Barr: I knew him from a trip I made to Iraq in 2002. I also met up with him in August 2003 after the U.S.-led invasion. So I was very eager to see him again when I went to the Middle East in March. I was surprised and impressed that he was in Baghdad, since clearly he has the wherewithal to live in exile. Instead he chooses to build his business and to divide time between Iraq and Jordan.


Washington: Cameron, how and by what apparatus does the subject of your Outlook article continue his civic engagement/business enterprise without undue attention from violent special interests in Iraq?

Cameron W. Barr: He keeps his head down -- he stays away from politics, avoids ostentation, and resists interactions with people who might draw him into any sort of corruption that might expose him to risk.


Mons, Belgium: Thanks for the chat.

Mr. Yousif seems like someone who would vote for secular and non-sectarian parties in the elections. Yet religious parties won the last elections overwhelmingly, while Allawi or Chalabi fared very poorly.

Do you have any idea whom Mr. Yousif voted for, and intends to vote for in the future? How representative is he of Iraqis overall?

Cameron W. Barr: He voted for a Shiite party, but he declined to tell me which one. As the elections showed, many outside observers of Iraq overestimated the potential appeal of former exiles such as Ahmed Chalabi and Iyad Allawi. For Shiites such as Emad, I think it was hard to resist supporting groups that had endured "the Saddam time."


Anonymous: Nice piece. What about something similar on the position of women in post-war Baghdad?

Cameron W. Barr: We are determined to provide more coverage -- I mean in the news pages -- of women in Iraq but at the moment we do not have a woman correspondent in the country, which inhibits us a little bit. Our very able male correspondents can do some of this work, as Ernesto Londono showed in a piece a few weeks ago about Iraqi women unsuccessfully resisting official attempts to remove them and their families from a Baghdad building where they had sought refuge. But a female reporter would get us behind some closed doors where men can't go.


Winnipeg, Canada: Great article: thanks for putting a human face on life in Iraq.

What struck me most about your article is that in modern Iraq, deciding what make, model, and age of car to drive is a life-or-death decision. I think it's tragic that five years of bloodshed has brought Iraqis to a place where even small decisions must be filtered through their likely impact on personal safety.

Do you get the sense that Iraqis believe that things will eventually get better, or have they just adjusted to a post-invasion reality in which they will never enjoy the level of peace and security that most of the world takes for granted?

By coincidence, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation aired a similar special yesterday on the life of a prosperous Afghan man. He spoke very movingly about the plight of his fellow citizens while he and the CBC correspondent moved around accompanied by a bodyguard.

Cameron W. Barr: Iraqis are one tough people, capable of enduring a very great deal, but the Iraqis I know certainly want the peace and stability that many of the rest of us accept as our right.

It's interesting you mention the choice of car. Perhaps I should have made more of this in the piece, but I now see that his place of safety during the regime -- when I met with him before the invasion, he felt safest in his SUV -- is now a place of risk.

So much of life in Iraq today is about calculating risk, especially in Baghdad but in many other parts of the country as well. One typical internal query: Is this a good time to go the shopping street or will it be crowded enough to draw a suicide bomber?

_______________________ Iraqi Women Take On Roles Of Dead or Missing Husbands (Washington Post, April 23)

Cameron W. Barr: Here's the article I mentioned by Ernesto Londono on the Iraqi women resisting eviction:


Cameron W. Barr: Looking at the comments the Outlook piece has prompted (not in this chat but on the article page), I have to marvel at how people can interpret the same material is such starkly contrasting ways. But of course Emad is a complex figure: He was oppressed by the Hussein regime, but in 2002 he clearly resisted buying into the idea that a U.S. invasion would bring improvements. At the time, I could not fully appreciate his reluctance to endorse U.S. intervention. Now, of course, all the world can see the complications that the U.S.-led invasion has provoked.

And here we are in 2008 and Emad feels he has no choice but to advocate continued U.S. engagement in his country's affairs.


Speaking of cars: Just curious, given how expensive gas is getting here, is it also getting more expensive in Iraq? do you know?

Cameron W. Barr: This is a good question. Last week I asked one of our reporters in Iraq to look at the impact there of rising global food prices and I'll ask him to take a look at energy costs as well.


Anonymous: "If there is a rapid U.S. pullout, he said, 'the scenario is very clear: The Kurds immediately will spin out. In the south, the Shia will spin out immediately, from eastern Baghdad to the south.'"

What is quite striking is that he doesn't cite al-Qaeda as a major threat. That's usually what the war supporters emphasize as the "risk of failure".

To an Iraqi like him, does the "al-Qaeda will take over Iraq" scenario appear preposterous?

Cameron W. Barr: Many Iraqis refer to Sunni insurgents as al-Qaeda, but in recent months the sense of threat posed by the insurgency has waned. Emad did not give me the impression that he sees the Sunni insurgency as something that can jeopardize the unity of the state in the same way that Kurds or Shiites would if either of those groups decided to break away.


Seattle, Taxed Out: Why should we U.S. taxpayers care one whit about Iraqis? They don't pay U.S. taxes, they use their oil money on bribes and insist we spend our hard-earned U.S. tax dollars propping them up, and after five years they still don't have a functioning military that isn't spending half its time doing revenge killings for their families from feuds lasting thousands of years...

Cameron W. Barr: What stuns me is that the questions you are posing are not more front-and-center in our national political debate. Are your representatives fully aware of your views on this subject?


Cameron W. Barr: Our time is up. Thanks very much for reading the story and participating in the chat.


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