For two years now, the Iraq war has been a hot topic among Americans and the media, which are both on a quest for first-hand information about the war. At last Friday’s Dissent in America Teach-In, a Western diplomat spoke about her experiences in Iraq and Jerusalem.
From the beginning of the discussion, the foreign diplomat, who cannot be named for security reasons, wanted to make clear that she was not an official representative of the United States government.
“I’m not here as an official representative of the government; I’m just here to talk about my own personal experiences,” she said. “Sometimes [this is] a fun job, and at other times it can be a challenging job.”
These challenges became paramount during her time in Iraq.
“Going in, I didn’t really know whether I should trust the President or not, or what I really believed on the matter. At that point I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. At the time we really did think there were weapons of mass destruction, so it was a very trying time,” she explained.
What she encountered was very different from the media’s daily portrayal, partly because most of her experiences were within the first six weeks of occupation in Baghdad, before insurgencies and wide-spread violence were of immediate concern.
Currently, according to the diplomat, those over in Iraq working for diplomacy are unable to get out and about. Instead, Iraqis have to come to them inside the Green Zone, the area in central Baghdad where security is tightest.
Partly as a result of the Iraqi people’s new ability to receive different forms of media and information that wasn’t available under Saddam’s regime, security in Iraq is very different now from what it was under Saddam’s regime. Then, only information censored and put forth by the government reached the public.
“We saw cars with ten satellites on top because people could now get Al-Jazeera and other media,” the diplomat said.
The Iraqis were very genial and welcoming towards the diplomats and soldiers at the beginning.
“I know the media portrays it otherwise, but for the most part, the Iraqis were very happy to see us. It was like being in a parade. The kids would give us thumbs-up, which the soldiers taught them how to do, and the parents were also generally very happy to see us,” she said.
This sense of well-being allowed the diplomats to go abroad without concern for their safety.
“When I was there I would go out and about because no one was telling us what to do. So I went out with the soldiers wherever they went since I spoke Arabic and people were always asking them questions,” she said. “In the beginning it wasn’t a problem. The way the soldiers would take you out was by picking a point on the grid. But most of the time they were not able to find it since they were unfamiliar with the area. So I would just get out of the car and ask questions while surrounded by Iraqis, and that was fine. It wasn’t until later that it posed a problem. Now anyone can come up to you with a gun and shoot you.”
Instead the main problems faced by the diplomat and her co-workers in the first six weeks involved getting information out to the Iraqi public.
When the floor was opened up for student questions, Evan Hoffman was one of the first to question the stability of Iraq.
“Do you think in an election the Iraqis will be able to pick their leader on their own without the leader being sponsored by the United States and being merely a representative of United States ideals?” Hoffman asked.
“Yes, I think there will be an election,” she said. Adding, “the prospects aren’t looking very good… the main problem is the security. Without it, an election can’t go on. You also need a lot of education to promote a democracy, and that can’t happen within the current situation.”
“It’s a real power struggle right now,” the diplomat explained. “Leaders are coming forward, like [Muqtada Al-] Sadr, that want power all for themselves. So I think in order to solve the problem we need to figure out how the system works … But a lot of Iraqis do want to get back to normal. And we won’t get beyond it until Iraqis are trained as part of the Iraqi national army.”
Erin Schlesing can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.