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Changing the Course 

by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & M & lt;/span & ost days Spokane seems far removed from meaningful discussion of what to do in Iraq, but that became weirdly different in the last week. First, one of Saddam Hussein's inner circle of military advisors, in this case former Iraqi Air Force Gen. Georges Sada, was in Spokane to carpet-bomb local media about signs of hope for Iraq in the wake of U.S. midterm elections and the abrupt resignation of Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense.





Second, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, released a statement this week urging Congress and the Bush administration to "look for effective ways to end [U.S. troop] deployment at the earliest opportunity ."





This is a refreshing change, of course, especially after a bloody month that saw 101 U.S. soldiers die in Iraq in October and an estimated 1,815 Iraqis executed in Baghdad alone.





It's also a refreshing switch from the policy of sitting in a quagmire that had local Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans penning essays about the folly and the stark human cost of "staying the course" (The Inlander, Sept. 28). But it seems the growing primal drumbeat to "change the course" is likely to be as ill-fated as long as Americans continue to believe that "Iraqi Security Forces" (ISF) have any sort of national stature.





Local soldiers, from specialists to brigadier generals, have told The Inlander that they came away from their deployment finding no sense of a national identity among Iraqis, that the elected central government seems irrelevant outside the Green Zone, and that the ISF battalions are largely formed along tribe, clan and/or political affiliation. Shifting security duties to such troops would be doomed, U.S. troops say.





"I think a lot of people campaigned on a platform of 'We'll get the troops out now and we'll turn it all over to the ISF and we'll get out and lick our wounds.' I don't see that happening," says 1st Sgt. Michael Kish of the Idaho National Guard, who spent 2005 near the Iraqi hotbed of Hawijah, where he and other locals were part of a task force that endured more than 900 roadside bombs as well as a steady diet of sniper, mortar and rocket attacks.





"I think these people are sincere, but they are only saying what they see on TV or they haven't seen the intel reports or they haven't been there," Kish says of politicians citing a midterm election mandate to get troops out in the next six months. "I think they will find it is not so cut and dried."





Too often, visiting politicians only see the Green Zone and "don't see the tensions, don't talk to normal people," Kish says.





The General at the Podium


It's not every day that one of Saddam's former generals spends time in the Lilac City, and he followed strict press conference protocols while here.





Enough coffee, water and "press materials" to supply a platoon of media were precisely arranged at the rear of a downtown motel meeting room. Terry Law, president of the Tulsa-based evangelical group World Compassion, carried several pages of notes to introduce Sada. And the 65-year-old general marched, straight-backed, to the podium when Law finished.





"Hi, everybody," he began. It was surreal, because in the arranged rows of 50 or so seats at the press conference, only two were filled -- and one of the two audience members was Law.





After his prepared remarks, Sada fielded his first question: "Can you come out from there and just sit and talk?"





Saddam's former general, a tall and balding man whose eyes disappear into crinkles when he smiles, was happy to oblige.





Like former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tarik Aziz, who became the "face" of Iraq on American television, Sada is Assyrian and a Chaldean Christian.





Saddam picked a number of Christians among his closest advisors because they had a reputation for honesty and courage, Sada says. But he says he prayed to Jesus for the proper words whenever Saddam asked a tough question. Sada was still was sacked twice and imprisoned once.





The second time, "I thought I was going to be hung," Sada says. The general refused orders from Saddam's son Qusay to execute captured coalition pilots during the first Gulf War, he says.





Perhaps it was the sense of the man having powerful enemies that created the weird sort of tension among Sada's hovering "handlers" from World Compassion, who nixed an attempt to pose the general for a photograph near the war memorial in adjoining Riverfront Park.





Sada spoke eloquently about soldiers and the losses so many Iraqis suffered during Saddam's three ill-chosen wars: the eight -year nightmare of the Iraq-Iran War, the first Gulf War and the last.





And, like Kish, he warns of complexities ahead.





For the U.S. to get out of Iraq, Sada says, the country must have a government in fact instead of on paper, and "there are now about 20 militias in the country, and they must be eliminated immediately."





Sunni Arabs who were in Saddam's ruling Baath Party have no confidence in the Shia-dominated central government. The Shia are ready to pounce on any group that gets in the way of their long-awaited majority rule. In fact, Shia militias are sometimes hard to tell apart from official army units, given the sect's close ties to the Ministry of Interior.





Some ministries, including Interior, have set up their own private armies, secret prisons and death squads. Some of the scores being settled with these revenge killings go back a millennium, Sada says. Others are traced directly to 1991 when the first President Bush declined to send Americans into Iraq after the Gulf War, which emboldened Saddam to crush rebellions by Shia and Kurds.





"Americans leaving in 1991 ... that was a big crime," Sada says. "Thousands were killed, and it renewed the revenge and the hatreds that go back 1,400 years.





"And then you put an American -- 19 years old -- into the middle of this and say stop it," Sada says. "American soldiers should never have to do this. This is the duty of the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Police."





Or it should have been until Rumsfeld's "man in Iraq," Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul Bremer, disbanded the Iraqi Army as one of his first acts in 2003.





There may be no easy answers. Like Humpty Dumpty, a national army cannot be easily put back together again, Sada says, yet he insists this is the best hope for a free Iraq. In one breath Sada says the U.S. can achieve a province-by-province handover to Iraqi troops, yet in the next he admits this is probably doomed to failure if Iraqis cannot rally around a central government.





"Before, Saddam caged it by iron," Sada says of a united Iraq. Once the dictator was gone, Iraqis began looting and the country began fracturing.





"Now you say break it up into three provinces, serving three pashas," Sada says. "This is difficult because you have the north that has oil, the south that has oil and the Sunnis have nothing -- only desert."





Blue Dogs and Bishops


Democrats in Congress are still giddy at the sudden reversal of fortunes during last week's midterm elections. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee spoke this week about U.S. troop withdrawals in four to six months.





According to the transcript of a Nov. 13 press conference forwarded by his office, Levin says, "Most Democrats share the view that we should pressure the White House to commence the phased redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq in four to six months -- to begin that phased redeployment, and thereby to make it clear to the Iraqis that our presence is not open-ended and that they must take and make the necessary political compromises to preserve Iraq as a nation."





If we threaten to leave, he says, the Iraqis will get off the stick and form a strong central government. Others doubt this will happen, but still there is truth in Levin's next sentence: "We cannot save the Iraqis from themselves. We've been told repeatedly by our top uniformed military leaders that there is no purely military solution in Iraq; there is only a political solution in Iraq."





Spokane's Bishop Skylstad warns there is also a moral solution in Iraq. The coalition of bishops is "trying to redirect the thinking on the issue to a rational and civil debate rather than divisive and partisan debate we saw prior to the election," says Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, chair of the USCCB's International Policy Commission.





Speaking from Baltimore, where the Catholic bishops are meeting this week, Wenski says, "We don't have the military expertise to outline concrete steps, but Bishop Skylstad is offering some benchmarks for a morally responsible transfer of authority: Foster an adequate level of security, curb the wanton killings, curb the terrorist attacks, strengthen the rule of law," and continue reconstruction efforts.





Unlike Levin, the bishops offer no timetable and suggest a U.S. pullout would probably work better if it were later rather than sooner. But not long enough to stay the course.





"A responsible transition is a little bit more complicated than saying 'cut and run,'" Wenski says. "Cutting and running would be a disaster with unforeseen consequences. Staying the course is not an enlightened policy because it doesn't take into effect that it shouldn't be our policy to stay there forever."





"The question is, how do we enable the Iraqis to have a future of hope?" Wenski asks.





"Iraqis will never forget what Americans did -- liberating 27 million," Sada says. "I am sad because this is happening in my country. I want my land to be at peace ... but how?"
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