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Iraqi activist visits Bainbridge to urge swift end to U.S. presence in Iraq
In 2003, Raed Jarrar watched Baghdad fall.
Now, he lobbies for the end of the United States presence in Iraq.
"It will take a while, but I think it's the only way out," the activist told a gathering of American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) members last week at the Yonder Retreat Center on Bainbridge Island. "Right now under occupation, we are counting car bombs and terrorism in terms of years in a circle, when we could be counting years toward the solution and stabilization."
About 40 islanders attended Jarrar's talk, which focused on rebuilding Iraq and his own experience during the Iraq war.
Jarrar himself is a product of that war. After studying in Jordan, he became an architect, but the war in his country turned him into an activist.
He vividly remembers an American tank driving down his street and parking in front of his home.
"Bombs fell on my neighborhood, and going to my job became impossible," he said. "I started to do more political work since the war in Iraq became an open-ended engagement."
In the beginning of the war and the U.S. presence in his country, Jarrar, his brothers and his mother, Faiza, began blogging from Iraq on "A Family in Baghdad." Jarrar was also frequently featured in the "Where is Raed?" blog, written by anonymous Iraqi-blogger Salam Pax.
Jarrar and his mother subsequently authored the book, "The Iraq War Blog, An Iraqi Family's Inside View of the First Year of the Occupation." He also made headlines in 2006 after Transportation Security Administration personnel and JetBlue employees denied him from boarding a cross-country flight because a shirt he was wearing featured Arabic script.
He now resides in Washington, D.C., and acts as the Iraq consultant for AFSC, a Quaker-affiliated organization. His Bainbridge talk occurred at the tail end of a West Coast speaking tour.
He told his audience that the U.S. presence in Iraq is the most pressing issue in that country, citing polls in the Brookings Institute's Iraq Index indicating that the U.S. occupation still has an over 70 percent disapproval rating among Iraqis.
"They do not want foreigners to change their problems," Jarrar said. "Despite the fact the majority did not like Saddam, they did like Iraq and they didn't want a foreign nation to bomb them."
Jarrar said most of his country's current problems stem from the occupation, and a government that is seen as inept, incompetent or in collusion.
"People said, 'The U.S. has to stay in Iraq until (Iraqis) are ready to protect themselves,'" he said. "Unfortunately we learned that the hard way – it's been six years of trying and failing to help Iraqis create a fucntioning state."
Born to a Sunni father and a Shiite mother, Jarrar also laments the separation of his country into ethnic and religious enclaves.
"Iraq has a long history of Sunnis and Shiites being in the same neighborhood," he said. "These divisions were introduced after the U.S. invasion – Iraqis were selected to participate in the government based on ethnic background."
Although he admits there will likely be many more acts of extremism after the U.S. leaves the country, Jarrar feels it is an issue that Iraqis can handle and unite behind.
"Iraqis taste terrorism every morning," he said. "They know how painful it is losing loved ones and seeing your own city falling apart before your eyes. These things are happening because Iraq doesn't have a strong central government or support for the government."
Cynthia Sears, one of the organizers of the talk, said it's meaningful to bring different views to a local audience in order to gain insight into larger issues.
"It's so important," Sears said. "When (the AFSC) has representatives, speakers or different concerns, whether they are national or international, we try to host events."
And there may be no other issue that has hit so close to home for many Americans and Iraqis.
The Iraq conflict may soon be coming to an end for Americans; both U.S. and Iraqi governments agreed to a withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq by August 2010 and all remaining troops by December 2011.
According to Jarrar, only then can the country begin the process of reconciliation.
"When you step on someone's foot, you first remove your foot and then apologize," Jarrar said. "I think with Iraqis it is the same thing."