Today Colonel Steve Townsend, the American commander of the 3-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, presided over a meeting with Iraqi Army officers and former insurgent leaders. The insurgent leaders who seem to be sincerely working toward peace are now collectively referred to as “the Baqubah Guardians.” I was allowed to attend the meeting, but was—understandably—not permitted to photograph or videotape the proceedings.
Colonel Townsend clarified the purpose of the meeting; it was not to formalize relations or to establish a chain of command, but to work out ways of cooperating to bring better days to Baqubah.
Colonel Townsend’s staff had prepared a slideshow that started off with a draft of “7 Rules.” The final version of the 7 Rules were open to discussion and suggestions from those in attendance. The rules were followed by an Oath, also still in draft.
First Colonel Townsend reviewed the 7 Rules, presented here verbatim from the slides:
1) Protect your community from AQI, JAM and other terrorist militia.
2) Accept both peaceful Sunni, Shia and others.
3) Stay in your neighborhood/AO [area of operations] for your safety.
4) Take an oath of allegiance to the Constitution of Iraq.
5) Register with Iraqi Security Forces and Coalition Forces [biometrics for CF].
6) For your safety, wear a standard uniform and markings [an example was proposed].
7) Receive hiring preference for Iraqi Police and Army.
Then came the Oath, also presented here verbatim from the slides:
1) I will support and defend the Constitution of Iraq.
2) I will cooperate fully with the Iraqi government.
3) I will guard my neighborhood, community and city.
4) I will bear no arms outside my home without coordination of Iraqi Security Forces or Coalition Forces
5) I will bear no arms against the Government of Iraq, Iraqi Security Forces or Coalition Forces.
6) I will not support sectarian agendas.
After the proposal for the 7 Rules and the Oath were presented, the most interesting—fascinating, really—part of the meeting unfolded.
The Iraqi Army commanders and “Baqubah Guardians” then gave their input, and some of that input was as follows:
Some attendees did not like that AQI and JAM were singled out, citing that this only validated those organizations, while not fully recognizing the problems from terrorist groups such as the Badr or IAI. Other attendees disagreed and thought the groups should be named, but finally it was decided to strike the names AQI and JAM.
After some intelligent discussion, the Iraqis wanted this changed to “Accept all peaceful Iraqi citizens without discrimination.”
This needed clarification: Colonel Townsend was not saying they should not travel from their neighborhoods, but that they should not operate out of their neighborhoods, and the attendees agreed.
Now it got interesting. One Iraqi said that even under the Saddam regime, bad as it was, the constitution still kept them together. He made no mention of the wars against the Kurds or Shia. But he went on to say that the current constitution tended to divide Iraq. No serious arguments were put forth on this today, but it was clear that fourth rule could lead to months or years of debate. After all, our own Constitution remains a work in progress, having been amended more than two dozen times. Each time that Americans bring this fact to forefront, it seems to assuage some of the “Constitutional-angst” among Iraqis, but that doesn’t change the fact that their government is about as solid as fog.
The “biometrics” part of #5 was an issue partly because Coalition Forces do not share biometrics with the ISF, and so in fact we are asking Iraqis to submit to photographing, fingerprinting and retinal scans for our use. The Iraqis politely offered their consensus that this was not a good idea, and Colonel Townsend chuckled, saying even Americans wouldn’t go for that. [Can’t blame him for trying.]
The uniform idea was fine with the Iraqis, especially so since we killed at least six of their militia members in the last 30 days. I saw our guys shoot four 1920s guys a few days ago on Sunday, killing two of them. The shooting was the fault of the 1920s guys: had they been wearing uniforms, they would be alive today. The Iraqis agreed that uniforms are a good idea.
Point number seven received nods of approval.
On the Oath, the matter was more interesting:
Discussion around Point One of the Oath was similar to that around Point Four of the 7 Rules.
Point two received some pushback, but again, imagine asking all Americans to swear that “I will comply fully with the American Government.” It would be un-American to agree to that! And here in Iraq, if I were an Iraqi, I would never agree to “I will cooperate fully with the Government of Iraq.” What government? The one in Baghdad that refuses to send legal food shipments to Diyala Province? I saw this with my own eyes and videotaped officials in the “Iraqi government” refusing to help the Diyala Government, calling Diyala (verbatim) a “terrorist province.” Even though Diyala has been a province riddled by terrorists lately, that still doesn’t change the fact that people here went without food because of the government people in Baghdad they are now supposed to pledge allegiance to. No smart person was likely to sign that line.
The other points were subject to briefer discussion and easier agreement, although the easiest of all parts of the Oath was point Six—I will not support sectarian agendas. Every Iraqi in the room immediately was aboard on this one, and they even seemed enthusiastic about it.
I’ve saved an unmentioned point for last. The Iraqi flag appeared on some of the slides. But the graphic showed an Iraqi flag without the traditional words “God is Great.” This was clearly a potential flash point. In fact, one of the Iraqi interpreters nearly recused himself from the conversation. LT David Wallach, whose native tongue is Arabic, told me after the meeting that Saddam had put “God is Great” on the flags so that Iraqis would stop grinding the flags into the dirt with their feet. He said that Iraqis would never trample on anything that had those words written on it.
But other than the interpreter’s sudden jitters, I detected no overt emotion among the Iraqis. In fact, they were all calm, professional, and very polite. An Iraqi Colonel was generous enough to offer that he believed it to be just a mistake that “God is Great” was left off the flag that was used on the slides. But the Iraqis all agreed that nobody was going to sign anything that displayed an Iraqi flag without the phrase “God is Great.”
This might seem ominous to us. “Allah u Akbar!” are, after all, words that we have become accustomed to hearing when someone is doing something bad, like burning an American flag, or blowing up Americans. But these issues are more like the intense legal and media battles over the words “In God We Trust” on the money in our pockets, or the ongoing furor in some sectors over the phrase “One Nation, Under God, Indivisible . . . ” in the Pledge of Allegiance. (Not to mention the dust storms kicked up by the Pledge itself.)
Seeing “God is Great” written on the Iraqi flag might provoke some to protest “Why did we come here just to stand up a country who would write such things on their flag?” But I sat there in that meeting, which was completely civil and professional, and I thought about another flag, the one flying over South Carolina. Some people call that flag “heritage,” while others call it “hateful,” “painful” and “demeaning.” And today in that meeting, I thought about the descendants of slaves who are now top military commanders in the American Army, and in that moment I knew that Iraq could make it.