Violence Takes Iraq Back to the Drawing Board

Apr 13, 2004 by

Christina Asquith
Special Middle-East Correspondent

Baghdad– Each day life becomes smaller here. I used to drive to Basrah, Iskandariyah and Suleimaniyah freely, interviewing teachers of all religions, tribes and levels of anti-American sentiment. Since the Shia uprising began on April 4 th followed by the US invasion of Fallujah on April 5th, militia groups have set up check points along the highways to rob and kidnap foreigners. Journalists, aid workers and businessmen are being kidnapped from their residential houses in Baghdad. Many have gone missing. College campuses are too volatile for foreigners to even walk through.

Christina Asquith

Why go out anyway? Schools have been closed for a week. Universities are shut down.

This is the life now in Iraq. All progress has come to a screeching halt with the violence. A threat to foreigners that once came from tiny bands of anti-American resistance now comes from professors, school children and a large swath of Iraqis. The US turned a corner this week. It turned an entire nation against them. I fear this will go down in history as the week the US lost the war.

I’m sorry to be so pessimistic. But the situation here is dismal. The team of Americans educators in Iraq to help the educational system can’t even leave their heavily-fortified headquarters, the Green Zone. Saturday, I moved out of my residential house into a hotel-complex surrounded by concrete barricades, barbed wire and armed gunmen. My translator quit after he received a threat for working with a foreigner. The Westerners working here are increasingly living in pockets of militarized zones throughout the city, and venturing out, if at all, with armored convoys.

Western women try to tuck their blond hair underneath the cloak of abayas. The men wrap their heads into red and white checkered scarves. If the Americans and the Iraqis can no longer work together, then why are we here at all? A question I have asked myself with increasing frequency since the siege of Fallujah is: how much longer I can stay here?

Let’s remember the good that could come out of this. Ever since US forces easily rolled over Iraqi forces a year ago, it has been clear that winning didn’t mean defeating Iraqis militarily. “We defeated the Flintstones” columnist Thomas Friedman liked to say. There were no WMDs, so Iraq wasn’t a big global threat. But there was an opportunity to free the Iraqi people from a dictator, and help them build a free-thinking, democratic nation that, by example, would have helped defeat terrorism in the rest of the Arab world.

It’s been a popularity contest between democracy and fundamentalism, the modern and the traditional. It’s been about showing the Iraqis-and Arab nations-that siding with the West is a better choice than siding with anti-American terrorists.

That’s why this Fallujah siege has been a public relations nightmare that could doom US efforts.

The US siege of Fallujah, which recent reports say killed 700 Iraqis, mostly women, children and elderly, has made it impossible for Iraqis to keep siding with the US. Blood, national identity, family ties and heritage have been challenged, and no one, anywhere in the world, will forsake those ties.

“If I see my students killed, I have to support them. I have no choice,” says a top administrator at Al Mustansiriyah University. “Every one person the Americans kill, they lose hundreds of others.”

I have known this scholar for many months now, and he has always felt that hope lies with siding with the Americans. But now he says students come into his office asking: How can you side with the US when they are killing our children?

What can he tell them? That the US had to attack Fallujah in order to ‘hunt down’ those responsible for the brutal killing and dismembering of four US security contractors? But, 58 Fallujan children under 5 years old were killed. 157 women died. 70 US marines were killed. How has violence answered by violence improved anything? Worst of all, it has ensured a more frightening future.

And we had come so far. In the education front, the US was winning the war. After 35 years of repression, the majority of Iraqi academics, professors and most students overwhelmingly said: we want academic freedom, we want to be released from bureaucracy of centralized educational ministries; we want a curriculum that is separate from politics and religion. We want much of what makes the US schools and, particularly, the universities, so successful.

The US was doing a good job helping Iraq education. Criticism from back home that the US was meddling or interfering was ill-informed and wrong. In the lower schools, the Iraqi Minister of Education, Dr. Alwan, is currently overseeing the appointment of curriculum committees to debate the rewriting of history and other texts. All appointees will be Iraqi, and they will include professors, religious leaders and educational scholars.

In higher education, the U.S. advisor to the Minister of Higher Education was instrumental in organizing a Council of Iraqi Presidents to make major university decisions, and writing policies that forbid discrimination of the basis or religion or politics. The Iraqis deeply appreciated the influences of the West, and complained it wasn’t enough. (I don’t know if the Americans have been as standoffish in the Iraqi Ministry of Oil or Finance.) But with regards to the field of education, the current chaos has left me feeling an overwhelming sense of regret: I never appreciated how far the school system has come in the last year, or how bright the future looked for Iraqi schools.

Now, as I write, thousands of refugees from Fallujah are pouring into Baghdad. They are wounded, livid, seething from the Marines siege which killed 700 of their townspeople. Baghdad families are sheltering them, and every one will hear stories of US aggression. The Fallujans are not defeated. They are roaming around Baghdad, looking for revenge. If they can’t take it on a US tank, they will kidnap a US aid worker. Just yesterday, armed men broke into a private residence in Baghdad and kidnapped seven Russian businessmen. Who knows what will happen to the 3 Japanese hostages.

In a very simple way, the US strategy here brings to mind my days teaching in Philadelphia in 1999-2000. I worked as an emergency-certified teacher of 6 th grade in the city’s lowest-scoring public middle school, in a neighborhood rife with drugs, shootings and unemployment. Our school led the city in arsons. It was chaotic.

What I was surprised to learn from my first hand experience in the schools was that of the 800 students, 95 percent were not troublesome. They were eager to learn, attentive and desperate for approval. The school’s problems came primarily from only 5 percent of the students, many of whom were learning disabled, and suffering from a host of emotional scars. In a sense, this small group terrorized the entire school.

The principal’s response to that 5 percent made a bad situation worse.

The principal tried to ‘crack down’ on all the students to show her authority. She instituted a ‘no jackets in class’ rule, banned locker use during the day, instituted automatic suspensions, screamed at everyone during assemblies. By treating all the students like the enemy, she turned all the students into her enemy. The school became a war zone, with teachers pushed and punched and constant student fights. I suspect that many school principals try ‘cracking down’ as a solution to the problem of a few terrorists in the classroom. I’ve never seen it work.

What does work? Let’s stop the violence. No doubt there will be a surge of anti-American violence in the ensuing weeks. If the US responds, they will only drive more Iraqis to take up arms against them. The US military can’t detain and kill 26 million Iraqis, all while telling the world they’re preserving Iraqi freedom. Conversations with US soldiers are already eerily reminiscent of Vietnam, in which many are wondering whether anyone back home supports them. Rather than increasing troops, we should be withdrawing them.

The US must go to negotiations. Take legal avenues. The US has nothing to prove militarily. They should focus on offering average Iraqis a 3 rd way; a choice other than armed resistance or humiliating US occupation. The US must target their efforts on winning back the mainstream Iraqi population. We’ve offered them a few Fulbright scholarships, and sent in some journals and programs, but there needs to be more-a full-on public relations push.

Otherwise, we’re going to create a quagmire that descends into civil war and with global terrorism on the rise, the consequences much more dire than the days of Vietnam.

Next week’s column : Education Minister Dr. Alwan navigates the chaos to bring together Iraqi’s disparate groups and improve the schools.

Christina Asquith’s is the author of the upcoming book “The Paper School” , about her experiences as a new, uncertified teacher in a Philadelphia school.

Her previous columns and articles on education in Iraq can be found at

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