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The Hard Place

What the Frontline documentary "Beyond Baghdad" gets right--and wrong--about Iraq.

11:05 PM, Feb 10, 2004 • By CHRISTIAN LOWE
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FROM THE LOOKS OF THE PRESS RELEASE accompanying the review copy, I thought I was in for yet another harsh critique of America's Iraqi "quagmire."

It's almost become a cliche to zing the war and its aftermath--to dramatically point out the impossibility and futility of the Bush administration's democratic experiment in the Middle East. The deadly assaults on U.S. troops and the terrorist car bombings on innocent Iraqis offer a grim tableau upon which America's daily failures--and successes--in Iraq are portrayed.

With all of that in mind, however, tonight's airing of the Frontline documentary "Beyond Baghdad" is far from its billing as one more bloody reminder of American failure. As the PBS press release pitching the documentary states: " 'Beyond Baghdad' reveals a seriously fractured Iraq, where modest successes in nation-building have been offset by widespread inter-ethnic and sectarian rivalry, frustration and violence."

In fact, whether award-winning documentarian and producer Martin Smith intended it or not, "Beyond Baghdad" is a refreshingly fair portrayal of the complications coalition forces in Iraq face and shows the intricate tribal and ethnic fractures that run throughout the Middle East.

Kurds in Northeast Iraq, long the victims of ethnic cleansing by Saddam Hussein, want back their sense of community and the recognition they deserve for resisting Saddam and standing at America's side. Shiites in the south, abandoned by the first Bush administration, are leery of America's commitment to their majority status and are furiously clutching at the strings of democracy for fear that they may be jerked from their grasp once again. The Sunnis, bitter at the defeat of their iconic leader, Saddam Hussein, and their loss of government leadership are busy trying to stymie U.S. efforts to empower anyone else.

And who said building a democracy virtually from scratch would be easy?

While "Beyond Baghdad" clearly illustrates the "unique set of problems" (as the PBS press release cries) that the reconstruction of Iraq presents to coalition forces, it's a far cry from the stinging rebuke of the occupiers' policy many might expect. In fact, the documentary is, well, rather even-handed. Smith does a good job explaining the cultural landscape and its embedded squabbles--reasonable and irrational.

BUT THERE'S CLEARLY LIGHT at the end of the tunnel. The interviews with radical Shiites in both Kirkuk and Najaf show more bark than bite and lack the sort of dark-eyed creepiness you see in speeches by Hamas or Hezbollah fundamentalist zealots. Kurds in the northeast are angry that transplanted Arabs live in their towns, but they stop short of calling for their forced removal. Businessmen in both Mosul in the north and even the far more restive Fallujah in the south--despite their protestations--see the presence of American troops as their only ticket to real prosperity.

And that's probably the most striking aspect of "Beyond Baghdad." Interviews with American military commanders from Mosul to Tikrit to Kirkuk show how intelligent, sensitive and enlightened our military leaders on the ground really are.

Explaining to a Kurdish leader that he can't simply kick out resettled Arabs from Kurd lands, the commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Col. Bill Mayville, says: "If you don't recognize that the Shia, the Kurds, Turkmen and the Arabs are all victims, then you're going to be fighting one fight after another. Your children will be fighting. And you will see the same cycle of fighting that this land has always known. Because you are going down a road, you're going down a road with this ultimatum that will be your undoing."

There's also a disturbing sense that the U.S.-appointed civilian administrators of Iraq have left the military holding the bag, lending credence to a growing sentiment that the Coalition Provisional Authority has seriously dropped the ball. Gen. Ray Odierno, the 4th Infantry Division commander who orchestrated the capture of Saddam Hussein, explains how his unit ran out of money last fall and couldn't pay the fledgling Iraqi police.

"We were just beginning to see people reacting to the successes. . . . We had the momentum," Odierno says. "And so we've somewhat lost that a bit. . . . I can't tell you why it happened. . . . It's water under the bridge."

More than his words, it's Odierno's face that paints the clearest picture of betrayal.

Noticeably absent from Smith's documentary, however, is the widest fracture Iraq's population faces today. With the recent spate of suicide bombings and the seizure of an alleged note to al Qaeda leaders pleading for assistance in a losing insurgency against the coalition, the influence of terrorist groups in Iraq poses perhaps the biggest challenge to the military forces there. Nowhere in the documentary does Smith mention the infiltration of Iraq by terrorists connected to al Qaeda and other "freelancers" like Jordanian Abu Musab Zarqawi as a possible motivation for the violence or as an influence on radical Shiite and Baathist rhetoric.

The growing danger posed by terrorists in Iraq--who recently incinerated more than 50 would-be Iraqi soldiers for cooperating with the coalition--shows that, as the title of tonight's Frontline documentary foretells, the focus of America's occupation of Iraq has clearly moved beyond Baghdad.

Christian Lowe is a staff writer for Army Times Publishing Company and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard. He spent six weeks on assignment in Iraq last summer.