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An Iraqi in Philly wonders whose war is it, anyway?

An Iraqi rips American's attitude toward the war

Here's something we call can all agree on: Some positive news came out of Iraq today. The monthly death toll for American soldiers over there dropped in May to  21, the lowest such tally since February 2004. The uptrend is for a lot of reasons, include some savvier American counter-insurgency strategy, although I think it's a lot more smart politics on the ground than the so-called "surge" of troops.

I call it positive news because the trend is positive, but I would never call the fact that 21 Americans gave their lives in this nonsensical war "good news." For one thing, everyone agrees that the relative calm is fragile. But more importantly, it's increasingly clear that even people on the inside know the war was a mistake from Day One -- Scotty McClellan is just the latest to say so. As I've argued here before, one American is too many to die for a mistake, and so May 2008 is horrific by a factor of 21.

What's more, there's more to measure the catastrophe of U.S. policy in Iraq by whether our own casualties are up or down. What about the millions of Iraqis whose lives have been turned upside down, not just the tens of thousands of dead but an estimated 4.7 million displaced citizens there?

Which brings me to the excellent (and very long) cover story that's in Philadelphia's City Paper this week, entitled "What Bassam Sees." It's the story of 27-year-old Bassam Sebti (top), who survived the first three years of the war in Baghdad and then moved here to Philadelphia, where he is enrolled in a writing program at St. Joseph's University. His view of what happened in his homeland and its 2003 "liberation" is a lot different from what you or he might see on Fox News (which he calls "a horror" and "the American al-Jazeera"):

The distance Bassam felt from the war in Iraq was elongated by the experience of trying to follow events as an American. Trying to watch on television, as many Americans do, was maddening to him: He rarely heard anything, for instance, about 4 million Iraqi refugees, and felt that coverage was disproportionately geared toward the American military. During the days of "the surge is working," he was so overwhelmed by positive talk that he called his parents and asked them, "Is it really good?"
"Are you crazy?" they said. "Baghdad is segregated. ... There are no more people to fight. But if you're a Shiite and you go to a Sunni neighborhood, you'll get killed."

The American disconnect really gets to Bassam:

He heard the president making some version of his argument that we're "fighting the terrorists there so we don't have to fight them here," and it was deeply, deeply offensive to him. Why should America fight its enemies near his parents' home? Those enemies weren't there to begin with; America drew them there. And innocent people had their lives destroyed as a result. Why should America get to do that? Were American lives more valuable? American lives. American life. The television he could put off, the politicians, tune out. But it was a struggle for him to go about his daily life amongst people whose country had started a war, but who were decidedly not experiencing it.

Pennsylvania, and the Philadelphia area in particular, is going to be a different kind of battleground over the next five months, a key political background between Barack Obama and John McCain. I'd like to see both candidates find time in their schedules to meet with Bassam Sebti, but I think it's a little less important to meet the guy who knew this war was the wrong fight back in 2002 than the guy who wants to keep American troops on this soil, maybe for the next 100 years or so. Yes, it's about our troops and it's about "the surge," but it's also about giving Bassam and millions of others their country back.

Now that would be some good news out of Iraq for a change.