The sad news that three Minnesota soldiers were killed in a missile attack in Iraq last week brought to mind a warning I heard from a man I met along a roadside near Basra in 2003.
The bearded man, dressed in a dusty dishdasha, said that America never could control Iraq or even fully understand it. Dangerous surprises lurked at every turn in our path there, he warned.
Now, as the United States executes its withdrawal from the bloody conflict, his words ring as true as ever. The death of the three Minnesotans is the latest signal that we cannot hope to slip easily away from the conflict we started in Iraq. Tensions unleashed when Saddam Hussein lost his iron-fisted grip on the country still tear at the region, and they will rip through American politics, too, for some time to come.
Before looking into that abyss, let’s pause to honor those slain Minnesota soldiers, identified by the Defense Department as Spc. Daniel P. Drevnick, 22, of Woodbury, Spc. James Wertish, 20, of Olivia and Spc. Carlos E. Wilcox IV, 27, of Cottage Grove. All three had been assigned to Stillwater-based 34th Military Police Company, “Red Bull” Infantry Division.
The Minnesota National Guard commemorates them with biographies, photos and news links you can find here. And over the weekend, Gov. Tim Pawlenty hailed them while touring Iraq with four other U.S. governors.
When the soldiers deployed to Basra in March and April this year, Minnesotans took comfort from the fact that violence has subsided there since 2007. By the sheer numbers, that is true.
But, nothing is that simple in Iraq.
In 2003, I stood not far from the site where the Minnesota soldiers were killed. Covering the war for the Star Tribune, I had stopped along a road where a British reconstruction team was trying to repair railroad tracks so trains could run from Basra to a seaport 35 miles away.
A crowd of Iraqi men and boys emerged from the surrounding desert. Some wanted to thank Americans and Brits for toppling the government in Baghdad. (They all appeared to be Shiites, who had suffered horribly under Saddam.) Others came to complain that everything was broken — from the power grids to the roads where farmers drove tomato-laden donkey carts looking for markets.
One man stepped close to me, locked in eye contact and warned in reasonably good English, “We can shut down this road tonight if we want to.”
His point, I learned through more conversation, was that Americans would never know for sure whether their road was open or blocked in Iraq because it would be impossible for them to fathom all of the political, cultural and religious currents at play in the country.
He was no official, just a man in a crowd. And his words were out of sync at the time with Washington’s premature victory celebrations. But, of course, they have proven over the years to be on the mark.
Learning to expect the unexpected
These latest killings of the Minnesotans near Basra are but one grim example.
After Saddam fell, the very people Washington assumed would be the most grateful and most helpful, the beleaguered Shiites, formed militias, built strongholds with support from Iran and posed a serious threat to stability in the region.
Last year Iraqi forces with U.S. backing routed them from Basra.
Mission accomplished again? Not so fast — again!
Some apparently have returned, as has intrigue about what truly is happening in Iraq’s southern reaches.
There is no clear sign that the returnees have a ‘militia’ agenda, the Associated Press reported last week, quoting Col. Butch Kievenaar, the top U.S. military commander in southern Iraq.
Iran denies links to the Shiite extremists, and Kievenaar said they no longer receive the Iranian backing they got in the past. Instead, he said, they appear to be “pursuing criminal activities such as extortion.”
But the New York Times reported that two men arrested in Basra last week had trained recently in Iran to plant bombs, scare citizens and destabilize the country. Quoting an unnamed Iraqi security official, the Times said the arrested men knew the people responsible for the missile attack on the base where the Minnesota soldiers were killed.
Confusion over the root cause of the incident leaves U.S. forces with inadequate information to answer an urgent question: What kind of self-defense measures will they need now that American combat troops have withdrawn from most Iraqi cities?
“The incident points ahead to how the U.S. military becomes more vulnerable as its numbers dwindle,” Middle East historian Juan Cole of the University of Michigan said Monday on his Informed Comment blog.
Flash points further north
Look further north in Iraq, and you find different issues but similar levels of uncertainty.
Baghdad is locked in a power struggle with oil-rich, semi-autonomous Kurdistan, and the potentially explosive showdown must be resolved to some degree before U.S. troops leave the country, said Daniel Serwer, executive director of the Baker-Hamilton Commission on Iraq, in an interview this month with the Council on Foreign Relations.
“With the projected withdrawal of American combat forces in 2010, it’s more urgent than ever to get some sort of resolution,” Serwer told the CFR.
As the Iraqi army builds up, the balance of forces is changing against the Kurds, and they are “anxious to get the Americans to stay,” he said.
In other words, they want to preserve the status quo, an option that doesn’t fit any official Iraqi or American plan.
Pilgrims’ progress, Iraqi version
Still, some observers see hope in recent events in Iraq.
Historian Cole is one of them. President Obama’s withdrawal strategy for Iraq got a big bump over the weekend, Cole said, when the Iraqi military and police presided with no major violence over some 4 million Shiites making their annual pilgrimage to a shrine in Baghdad.
The pilgrimage to the gold-domed shrine of an eighth-century imam was considered a crucial test of Iraq’s security forces because Sunni groups had attacked the Shiite pilgrims in previous years.
Iraqi authorities met the threat this time with a 250,000-person security force backed by helicopter gunships. And by several accounts, they proved competent to maintain order.
“That is good news for Iraq,” Cole said. “It is also good news for Obama … Obama could not plausibly withdraw from Iraq unless Iraqi security forces could keep a minimum of social peace.”
Determining destiny on the run
But Cole also echoed the intrigue I heard years ago from that man on the road near Basra.
The imam the pilgrims were honoring, Musa al-Kazim, is a symbol of how destiny can be altered in Iraq, Cole said. Historians believe that his father, Jaafar al-Sadiq, had originally appointed his elder son Ismail to succeed him.
“For reasons that are unclear, Ismail displeased his father. Jaafar al-Sadiq therefore set Ismail aside and appointed the younger son, Musa al-Kazim, as his successor to head the House of the Prophet in the next generation,” Cole said.
“Just as Jaafar al-Sadiq changed his mind about Ismail … Iraq could change its mind about the ongoing drumbeat of social violence,” he said. “We historians take away from the controversy that you’re not locked in by past decisions, even if they seem on the surface to be divine, unalterable ones.”
So while Iraq struggles to determine its own destiny, the only certainty this week is that three more Minnesotans have a place in its history because they died trying to help stabilize the country.
Sharon Schmickle writes about international affairs, science, economics and other topics.