Seeking Normalcy in Iraq

Stephen DeAngelis

May 12, 2009

For several decades at least, military analysts have been searching for operational measures of effectiveness (MOEs) beyond body counts in areas of conflict. Such measures might include the number of soccer fields that are used on any given Saturday or the number of stores that have reopened in the local market or the number of girls returning to school. There are a few good signs coming out of Iraq that things are improving and moving towards normalcy. There are also some signs that, on the surface, look encouraging, but, on closer examination, may not reflect a healing process at all. For example, some Iraqi Sunnis who quickly took up arms against the United States and became part of the insurgency are now turning to politics instead IEDs [“Iraqi Sunnis Turn to Politics and Renew Strength,” by Campbell Robertson and Stephen Farrell, New York Times, 17 April 2009]. That sounds promising, but Robertson and Farrell report:

“The return of this Sunni political class, some of them suspected of ties with Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, has come via the ballot box. But it prompts crucial questions: whether enfranchisement quickens ethnic healing, or whether the Sunni victors’ hard edge against the Kurds sets up future ethnic conflict. So far it does not look good.”

Nevertheless, most people are happy that political conflict has replaced kinetic conflict.

“American officials here see reasons for optimism, that people who might have used violence in the past have turned to politics. Lt. Col. Guy Parmeter, commander of the American forces in the center of Nineveh, said he felt that fighting among Al Hadba and opposing groups was now less likely.”

Beyond politics — which in this case may be an extension of war by other means — there are other promising signs that things in Iraq may be heading in the right direction. For example, the looted national museum was re-opened in February, some of Saddam Hussein’s houses have re-opened as hotels, and tourist spots are starting to attract visitors. Even these promising signs have their detractors [“Babylon Ruins Reopen in Iraq, to Controversy,” by Steven Lee Myers, New York Times, 2 May 2009]. Myers writes:

“After decades of dictatorship and disrepair, Iraq is celebrating its renewed sovereignty over the Babylon archaeological site — by fighting over the place, over its past and future and, of course, over its spoils. the provincial government in Babil has seized control of much of Babylon — unlawfully, according to the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage — and opened a park beside a branch of the Euphrates River, a place that draws visitors by the busload. … It has begun to charge a fee to visit the looted shell of the grandiose palace that Mr. Hussein built in the 1980s, along with the hill it stands on. And it has refurbished a collection of buildings from the Hussein era and rented their rooms out as suites. For $175 a night Iraqis can honeymoon in a room advertised as one of Mr. Hussein’s bedrooms (though in truth, almost certainly a mere guest room).”

With its gloried past, Iraq’s historical sites are likely to be attractive tourist destinations in a peaceful and prosperous future. Archaeologists, however, want to ensure that such sites are not ruined by increased tourism and lost forever. But Myers points out that politics also play a role in overseeing antiquities.

“The fight over ancient Babylon is about more than the competing interests of preservation and tourism. It reflects problems that hinder Iraq’s new government, including an uncertain division between local and federal authority and political rivalries that consume government ministries.”

The Ministry of Culture, Myers writes, is at odds with the newly created State Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. The name of the new ministry, Myers insists, reflects the current priorities of the state.

“Its power stems not from the Constitution, but from proximity to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who has pressed for reopening historic and cultural sites as symbols of the country’s stability and progress. His government made control of ancient sites a provision in the security agreement with the United States that took effect in January. Next month, the American military will turn over the last of them, Ur, the ancient Sumerian capital in southern Iraq.”

Ur, of course, is significant to Islam, Judaism, and Christianity because it is the birthplace of Abraham, of whom the Bible reports God promised to make “a great nation.” Despite the controversy surrounding the opening of historical sites, such events are evidence of progress. Myers concludes:

“Security in Iraq has improved immensely, allowing the Iraqis to once again think about the past as part of the country’s future, even if Iraq is not yet ready for tourism as most of the world knows it. One visitor, Esma Ali, a university student from Hilla, said she had grown up in the shadow of Babylon, but had never visited it before, and she did so with a sense of awe.”

Another sign that things are changing (though not necessarily improving) is that vices are starting to creep back into the public spotlight [“Secure Enough to Sin, Baghdad Revisits Old Ways,” by Rod Nordland, New York Times, 18 April 2009]. Nordland writes:

“Vice is making a comeback in this city once famous for 1,001 varieties of it. Gone, for the most part, are nighttime curfews, religious extremists and prowling kidnappers. So, inevitably, some people are turning to illicit pleasures, or at least slightly dubious ones. Nightclubs have reopened, and in many of them, prostitutes troll for clients. Liquor stores, once shut down by fundamentalist militiamen, have proliferated; on one block of busy Saddoun Street, there are more than 10 of them. Abu Nawas Park, previously deserted for fear of suicide bombers seeking vulnerable crowds, has now become a place for assignations between young people so inclined. It is not that there are hiding places in the park, where trees are pretty sparse; the couples just pretend they cannot be seen, and passers-by go along with the pretense. … Men gather in cafes to smoke a hookah and gamble on dice and domino games. On weekends, the Mustansiriya Coffee Shop’s back room is crammed with low bleachers set up around a clandestine cockfighting ring. On one recent day, the 100 or so spectators were raucous while watching the bloody spectacle, but they placed their bets discreetly. Gambling, after all, is illegal.”

Taken as whole, the signs are very promising that Iraq’s future is looking brighter. There are still reasons for concern, of course. An Iraqi soldier recently turned his weapon on American troops raising the specter of military infiltration by extremists; but, for the most part, the signs are all pointed in the right direction. Any measures of effectiveness that don’t involve body counts are good measures.