North Iraq fears pullout
By Betsy Hiel
Sunday, September 2, 2007
SULEIMANIYAH, Iraq -- Three years ago, Ahmad Rikaby started Dijla, an independent radio station in Baghdad. For many listeners, its talk shows became a unifying voice in the din of growing sectarian bloodshed.
That ended in May, when al-Qaida gunmen attacked and blew up the station, killing a security guard.
Rikaby, a Shia who supported the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, is back on the air -- this time from the relative safety of Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.
He believes only divine intervention can save his country. If America's war weariness or presidential politics force the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, he expects the violence will worsen.
"We will have a more divided country and I think we will see more blood," he says. "Somehow, the U.S. presence is contributing to a balance."
In scores of interviews across northern Iraq, Kurds, Arabs and Assyrians, Sunnis, Shia, Christians and Mandaeans alike, insist their voices are not heard in the debate over Iraq's future.
Many of them came north to escape the sectarian- and terrorist-driven slaughter in the south. Most Kurds express gratitude and support for the United States, as well as dread of even more catastrophic violence if U.S. troops leave.
Nazar Jirjis, an Assyrian and Chaldean Christian, fled the blood-drenched Doura area of Baghdad with his family in 2006 as the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group for Sunni Islamist insurgents, moved into the neighborhood. A chemist, he settled in Irbil, the semi-autonomous Kurdish region's largest city.
"If America leaves Iraq, the blood will flow just like a river," he says. With no militia to defend them, he and other minority Christians "will have to leave between the legs of these savages."
Jerjis Shamu Oshana, an Assyrian restaurant manager, was kidnapped and briefly held by Sunni insurgents before fleeing to Suleimaniyah. Without a U.S. presence, "it will be a real civil war between the Sunni and the Shia, and all the minorities will leave," he says.
Since the U.S.-led invasion, Omar Younis, 28, a Sunni from Baghdad, has sponged up everything he can about computers and become a fan of Michael Jackson. He fled to Suleimaniyah last year with the rise of the Mahdi Army, a Shia militia, in the capital.
"They look at your ID, and if it shows you are Sunni, they will kill you," he says.
Although he opposed the U.S. invasion, Younis does not want U.S. soldiers to leave now.
"What would happen if the Americans left is that each (Iraqi) politician would divide up areas of Iraq, and the Iranians would supply the Shia with more weapons," he says.
Kurds tout their region as "The Other Iraq" in a slick marketing campaign, complete with commercials thanking America for saving them. It is the war-torn country's one stable area. It has all the trappings of a state, with its own parliament, flag, school system, intelligence service, even a special Kurdish entry stamp at its two new airports.
It also is a safe haven for tens of thousands of refugees. Many of those are Iraqi Christians, such as non-Arabic Assyrians who make up an estimated 3 to 5 percent of the country's populace.
The Kurds are openly allied with the United States. They welcomed the U.S. invasion and still thank American visitors for freeing them from Saddam Hussein's brutal rule. And they see themselves as a vital ally in the international fight against terror.
Many believe a U.S. withdrawal will collapse the central government in Baghdad, along with the north's Kurdish Regional Government.
"It will be a disaster," says Muhammed Tofiq, of Wusha, a Kurdish research organization. He says that 95 percent of the Kurdish government's revenue derives from the Baghdad government.
Again and again, Kurds and other Iraqis here say they would welcome a U.S. military base. Other countries meddle so much in Iraq now, they say, that Iraqis will be at their mercy after a U.S. withdrawal.
They point to Iran's support of Shia militias and Sunni Islamist groups, Syria's allowing Arab insurgents to cross its border, Saudi Arabia's financing of Sunni insurgents, and Turkey's threats to invade.
"If the U.S. troops go back home, it (leaves) this country in chaos to extremist groups and the neighboring countries," says Asos Hariri, editor-in-chief of Aweina, a leading independent Kurdish weekly newspaper. "We have stability in this area. Who can guarantee this will continue with the U.S. troops leaving?"
At the Assyrian Democratic Party headquarters in Ankawa, a Christian enclave near Irbil, former parliamentarian Shmuel Benjamin says U.S. mistakes in Iraq have been deadly to the fleeing Assyrian community in particular, and to Iraq in general. Yet he, too, fears a U.S. withdrawal.
"This will be a third world war," he says. "Iraq is a wealthy petrol country. It will be divided by Iran and Turkey and Saudi Arabia."
Nawad Hadi Mawlood, Irbil's governor, terms a U.S. withdrawal a "tragedy" and predicts more bombings such as an Aug. 14 terrorist attack against the minority Yezidi religious sect that killed more than 500 people.
"Be sure that Turkey and Iran, and also these terrorists al-Qaida, will come to destroy everything," he says. "They want to have the United States stay, because they know what will happen."
Boulous Shamoun Ishaq, the president of Ankawa's Chaldean Culture Center, says his son is a U.S. Army officer serving in Iraq. Like others, he believes Baghdad's government cannot defend itself from its neighbors. He believes the United States has an obligation to Iraqis.
"America removed the statue (of Saddam Hussein), so they should continue until the end," he says. "America is the only one who can finish what it started."
Jirjis, the refugee chemist in Irbil, agrees.
"America must do something for Iraq before leaving. If they left Iraq before doing anything, it means that America lost and it failed," he says.
"If America leaves Iraq, it means that al-Qaida wins the war."