Travels With Izzi

Travels With Izzi

If you want to read everything The Nation has ever published on Iraq, click here for information on how to acquire individual access to The Nation Digital Archive.



The conquest of this country, in the military equivalent of a hostile takeover, reached its flood tide with the triumphant tour of occupied Iraq by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the war’s policy theorist, and the (over)killing of Saddam Hussein’s two mad sons, Uday and Qusay, by Special Operations forces and units of the 101st Airborne Division. Only when their father himself is killed will the coalition warriors be more exultant. “Among Iraqis,” said Sa’ad Al-Izzi, an experienced interpreter who once reluctantly translated American movies for Uday, “that is when you’ll see even more grieving and rejoicing.”

The Wolfowitz visit, unlike the stakeout in Mosul that gunned and missiled and rocketed the Hussein brothers into eternity, was marked by discretion and stealth. No bugles, no drums, no motorcade, not even a full-scale press conference.

As we traveled around the deserts of his country, more or less going where Wolfowitz went, though a good deal more slowly and to a number of other places as well, Izzi told me how daunting and time-intensive the American task here will be. “We are a recent country but an ancient culture,” he said, “and we change at the pace of a snail’s grandfather.” An impatient country ourselves, with what the political scientist Ray Salvatore Jennings calls attention-deficit disorder with respect to foreign affairs, the United States faces the prospect (assuming it can’t bring itself to ask the United Nations to take over) of either remaining in Iraq for an indefinite number of years or else admitting failure and returning home, leaving behind a swath of destruction, chaos and anarchy that could make Attila look like Gandhi. Or further else: declaring Mission Accomplished as soon as we vaporize Saddam Hussein, and supporting the re-accession of his own Baath Party (shined up with a new name) as we rush off to the next imperial project.

Izzi, a 29-year-old Baghdadi who has been the man in his family since the age of 10, when his father died of natural causes (a necessary modification in Iraq), might best be called a skeptical optimist. Like my own first journalistic guide, who was also named Izzy, the Iraqi Izzi does not trust the pronouncements of leaders, and he is predisposed against power regardless of who wields it. My earlier Izzy told me that a lot of journalists in Washington knew many things he didn’t know, because they lunched with high officials. “The only problem,” he said, “is that a lot of what they know isn’t true.”

In other words, I did not have lunch with Paul Wolfowitz. (I can’t imagine what the coalition press office did with my request.) He traveled with a select group of embedded reporters, and they have given detailed descriptions of his visits to mass gravesites of Saddam’s victims, where he said, essentially, Never Again, as well as his talks with prominent Iraqis and some American troops, all of whom told him how well things are going.

For the rest of us, the Deputy Defense Secretary was a desert mirage. Unintentionally shadowing his visit to our new colony, I reached Basra, 350 miles south of Baghdad, the day after Wolfowitz visited the British-administered region. A British officer said Wolfowitz was given a rosy report on the local conditions. “Which is all right as long as we remember there’s a lengthy road ahead,” the officer said. “But I’ve been very shocked at the way your government does business, the arrogance and ignorance, and beyond all that the bureaucracy. Everything is so ponderously slow and then goes off in a wrong direction. Why, for example, impose a failing American medical system on these poor people out here?”

Was Wolfowitz told this?

“Frankly, no. He was more interested in politics and security, and of course the security here in Basra is quite decent.” The officer was not ready to give up on the Americans. “When they do get their act together, I’m sure they’ll do things in the big American style.”

At the American air base in Kirkuk, 150 miles north of Baghdad, Wolfowitz was embedded with the generals when I arrived. Would there be a briefing afterward? No. Wolfowitz had, however, mingled with a few of the troops, said a sergeant major from Florida, one of those blunt noncoms who take no pains to frame anything diplomatically. “What I know, I don’t like the man,” the sergeant major told me. “He has no idea what’s going on in this country, or we wouldn’t be operating the way we are, and he doesn’t know what’s going on with the troops. The brass here isn’t going to tell him, and neither are the scared little enlisteds he meets. They’ll say everything’s hunky dandy, but the truth is our forces are stretched way too thin in this country. We don’t know who’s friendly and who’s going to take a potshot at us. In that way it’s like Vietnam. We also need lighter, more mobile vehicles, not those lunky tanks and Bradleys that make real good targets out of us. That’s what I’d like to tell Wolfowitz.”

The mirage moved on to Erbil, 250 miles north of Baghdad, Kurdish territory that has been protected from Saddam by Americans since 1991. Wolfowitz had been reassuring to the Kurdish leader Izzi and I spoke to. “Mr. Wolfowitz told me we were allies in war and now we’ll be allies in peace, so the Kurds will not be swallowed by a united Iraq,” said the business-suited Adnan Mufti, former finance minister of one of the American protectorates in Kurdistan during the 1990s. “He told me the federal system had worked so well in the United States, with each state having its own rights and privileges, that it can work equally well here.” If the doctrine of states’ rights had continued to work so well, of course, African-Americans would not be electing black sheriffs in Mississippi and Alabama, they wouldn’t be voting at all; nor would they have the right to go to the same schools whites attend. Sizing up a man who supported the Americans because they supported him, Izzi said that Adnan Mufti is more Catholic than the Pope.

That evening in Erbil, we watched the televised portion of the meeting between the Deputy Defense Secretary and Kurdish leaders. Wolfowitz was at the end of his journey to a country where the temperatures in many places routinely flirt with 130 degrees Fahrenheit (though in the north it is somewhat cooler). In the morning you can feel you’re in a bake oven; by afternoon it has become a blast furnace. The Kurds, used to these conditions and needing to impress their sponsors, wore suits and ties. Wolfowitz was in an open-collared shirt. Because his remarks had to be translated into both Arabic and Kurdish, Wolfowitz was forced to sit and listen to the drone of foreign languages. His features relaxed; he looked heat-wilted, jet-lagged, exhausted and, well, human. Could he possibly have learned in Iraq, as all of us must, that preconceived notions of “the situation on the ground,” as Americans from the government, the military and, sadly, the press have all taken to calling reality, are possibly not precisely what he had wanted to believe? “Where this country goes now,” Wolfowitz said when it was his turn again, “is entirely up to the Iraqis themselves.” This statement, from the man who represents the only true power in Iraq, seemed to signify that he was either ineducable or insincere. In the team of The Righteous Brothers, Paul Wolfowitz wrote the lyrics even though the melody belonged to George Bush. These final sentiments of Wolfowitz in Iraq could be translated into monosyllabic English: As soon as you do what we want you to do we will let you do it.

When the victorious week was capped by the announcement of the deaths of Saddam’s sons, Lieut. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez offered no justification for not taking Uday and Qusay Hussein alive. They might have been able to lead US forces to their father, and their capture at the very least would have demonstrated that Americans, unlike the Husseins themselves, do not butcher people–even butchers–who are trapped. But apparently we do. No waiting them out, no disabling gas lobbed into the house, no cutting-off-electricity-and-water (which would only have put them in the same position as much of their country) siege. With overwhelming firepower against small arms, the occasion became a miniature of the war itself. The sons were monsters, as their father’s regime was monstrous. But at the end they were impotent, helpless, and the order of the day–which no one here doubts came from Washington–was the simple, Conradian, Exterminate the Brutes. And make martyrs out of those who deserve nothing so much as to be forgotten. Dead, of course, the brothers aren’t eligible to become bargaining chips for Baathist supporters who could kidnap Americans and propose an exchange.

A young Iraqi journalist, faltering but intense in his English, sat next to me in General Sanchez’s packed press conference. Not an empty seat in the house, SRO, a Reuters woman and an AP man even had to stand. Give the people what they want. “Saddam Hussein is the manager of evil in the world, my dear,” the Iraqi journalist said to me just before General Sanchez spoke. The young man had spent eighteen months in a Baathist prison, where he was beaten every day. “I have big love for American people. Say me why? Because Americans took Saddam Hussein and made him away. My dear, I hope you stay forever.” For a moment I had a Baghdad mirage of finding myself next year in Pyongyang, sitting next to a North Korean who will thank us for ridding him of Kim Jong Il, while the city around him still burns brightly.

“Each day,” General Sanchez began, “Iraq is closer to its rightful place in this region and in the community of nations.”

After the briefing, Izzi escorted me through a large Sunni district. The previous night, as word spread of the Hussein brothers’ deaths, celebratory gunshots were fired in a number of Baghdad neighborhoods. There were flares and fireworks–mostly rifle shots–much of the night. “Not here,” Izzi said. “The Sunnis here were Baathist supporters, and they didn’t fire a single bullet in this whole section. They hate Americans. They will look for the second coming of Saddam Hussein.” Then there are the Shiite extremists, who want only a purified Islamic state.

The gamble: If we wait and work long enough, we could get a Japan or Germany out of this project, and we could also get the Khmer Rouge.

Should we stay or go? That is the question, and it may be the wrong one. “The point is, you’re here,” Sa’ad Al-Izzi said to me, “and your leadership intends to keep you here. Now what?” The relevant questions may be about behavior: How are we behaving, what is the behavior of Iraqis toward the occupation going to become, will they keep on killing a few of us every week, and what is the likely result of these mutual behaviors?

On his 80th birthday, full of late honor and enough satisfaction to refer to himself as a kosher ham, years after retiring I.F. Stone’s Weekly, yet still writing essays chastising liars in power, my first Izzy responded to a toast by rising slowly to say, “God forgives. The rest of us ought to make up our minds.”

The predicament in Iraq indicates that the policy, strategy and tactics of the United States are designed to produce not conciliation but control, not peace but pacification.

In the forty-eight hours following the deaths of Uday and Qusay Hussein, the flood tide of success receded quickly as five Americans were killed in Iraq, the most in such a short period since President Bush announced the war was over.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy