- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2006

IN THE BELLY OF THE GREEN BIRD:THE TRIUMPH OF MARTYRS IN IRAQ

By Nir Rosen

Free Press, $26, 288 pages

Unless you’re a steadfast prowar or antiwar partisan who believes Iraqis are all jolly little creatures merely flashing into existence when it’s time to dip their fingers in magical purple voter’s ink or, conversely, that the country’s entire population is either imprisoned at Abu Ghraib or the victim of a suicide bomber, it’s likely you’ve been craving a fuller perspective on the complicated state of affairs in Iraq for some time now.

At first blush, Nir Rosen’s “In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq” seems a legitimate contender. Aided by what he describes as a “dark complexion and grasp of Iraqi Arabic,” Mr. Rosen descends deeper into the bowels of the Iraqi insurgency than any previous American reporter, delivering a fascinating series of behind-enemy-lines vignettes replete with short-yet-revealingportraits encompassing everyone from radical Shi’ite preacher Moqtada al-Sadr to al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Zarqawi to Kurdish hero Gen. Rostam Hamid Rahim.

While mostly allowing insurgent leaders to have their unmolested say, Mr. Rosen nonetheless happily scoffs at rank-and-file Islamic militants’ mystical tall tales of AK-47s firing for hours without reloading and giant spider-like monsters running around the outskirts of Fallujah eating infidel American soldiers. Have you heard that if you hold up the Coca-Cola logo to a mirror it reads “No Mecca, No Muhammad” in Arabic? Not content simply to control global capitalism and the media, the catchall Middle Eastern Jewish boogeyman has apparently begun fiddling with soft-drink logos.

Curiously, however, when it comes to even secondhand or third-hand Iraqi accusations against American soldiers this skepticism/ironic detachment quickly evaporates. Mr. Rosen begins sentences with qualifiers such as, “As Americans continued to shoot what friends they had left …,” and generally — though not without exception — portrays American soldiers in a sinister light.

“The fear of death was constantly there when the soldier in a Humvee or armored personal carrier in front of you aimed his machine gun at you,” Mr. Rosen writes, “when aggressive armed white men in the SUVs raced by, running you off the road, scowling behind wraparound sunglasses, shooting at any car coming too close, when the soldier at the checkpoint aimed his machine gun at you …”

Setting aside the rank demagoguery of employing a lazily insidious phrase like “aggressive armed white men,” such sentiments may thrill antiwar warriors to no end but do precious little to establish Mr. Rosen — unimpeachably intrepid though he may be — as a serious interpreter of the overall situation in Iraq. It also belies the fact that Mr. Rosen’s most harrowing moments of bloody chaos throughout the narrative are courtesy of insurgent or terrorist, not American, barbarity. Indeed, at times it seems as if one of the major triumphs of the martyrs has been in gaining the author’s sympathy.

Doubtless some Americans have been guilty of atrocious excesses in Iraq, but the wider Mr. Rosen goes with his critique the less tenable the position becomes. “It was the Americans who provoked Iraq’s Sunnis into resisting the occupation,” he declares. How? Obviously a legitimate argument can be made that it was not America’s place to overthrow Saddam Hussein. When the post-war choice becomes either letting a sect of Iraqi society accustomed to imposing tyrannical minority rule have undue influence in the new paradigm or be miffed over the realities of representative government, though, that’s a provocation necessary in the interest of justice.

Sadly, the clear bias against any and all American efforts in Iraq casts a shadow on some of Mr. Rosen’s more salient points: For example,the much-overlooked fact that many Shi’ites view democratic processes as a means to an illiberal, theocratic end — which should be unacceptable to an American government still battling Taliban remnants in Afghanistan — or the U.S. government’s ill-preparedness for the post-war occupation. (Is it hilarious or tragic that Mr. Rosen finds “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Koran” in the bathroom of “an important Washington-based and U.S.-funded democratization institute”?)

Mr. Rosen allows initial Iraqi elections were a small victory — or, “Iraq’s Pyrrhic success,” as he prefers — but is quick to add “the entire American project had long since lost its credibility.” Iraqis, fledgling democracy or not, he writes, “continued to live in a republic of fear.”

Any intentional reference therein to Kanan Makiya’s “Republic of Fear,” an oftentimes horrific personal account of life under Saddam Hussein’s police state, seems unlikely. It’s difficult to imagine anyone reading Mr. Makiya’s book being so eager to trumpet “the end of the American dream for Iraq,” whatever the missteps and damnable abuses along the way.

Shawn Macomber is a free-lance writer.

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