Try to remember

The fig was blooming

The orange blossoms rose aloud from every orchard

The din of death did not calm down...

In 1979, when Saddam Hussein was the new president of Iraq and a friend of the United States, Jeanne and I met an Iraqi poet named Yaseen at the International Poetry Festival near Lake Ohrid, between Albania and Macedonia in what used to be Yugoslavia. He was a charming and witty man with intense protruding eyes, and we became friends. One evening we were in an elevator together when two other Iraqis got on, and we all descended in silence. When they got off before us, I asked Yaseen why he didn't talk to them.

Yaseen leaned toward us in his most conspiratorial manner. "Whenever two Iraqis meet," he whispered, "each one thinks the other's a thief."

We laughed, of course — this was 1979 — but I remembered that exchange while thinking about one outcome of the toppling of Saddam Hussein: Iraqi poets are publishing again, although nervously. As London-based poet Saadi Youssef observes, there's still a kind of "bullet censorship"; it's so dangerous to live in Iraq, many poets — along with our soldiers — are pulling out, if they can get a passport and money to move their families.

But Yaseen's light remark underlines the major roadblock in creating this "democracy" that so many Americans have died for: the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites don't trust one another, to put it mildly, for historically good reasons; and they, like the Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims in the old Yugoslavia yoked together by Tito, are engaged in a low-level civil war. Right now the Shiites, allied to the Iranian conservative mullahs, are back in power, as Iraq struggles to form a democratic government, Insha' Allah. Lots of luck.

Today, in our current political din, Americans need to remember that it's not Social Security, but the unpaid cost of the Iraq war, that drives our debt upward. Our social programs help people become healthy and productive citizens; the Iraq war money waters a poison tree.

In the same vein, we bolstered the Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak, for three decades; now as the Egyptian people erupt against his corrupt regime, they know full well we supported him: America has no credibility. Here, as in Iraq, democracy in action may not be to our liking.

The recent return to Iraq, from three years of voluntary exile in Iran, of the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is a bad sign. After over 4,000 American soldiers killed, 32,000 seriously wounded and a bill approaching the trillion-dollar mark, the end result of the Bush-Cheney tragedy looks darker every day.

Muqtada is far more popular than our puppet, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Maliki is a "moderate" Shiite, while Muqtada is a holy figure to the urban poor, with his own built-in troops — the Mahdi Army militia — who battled us in the various ghettoes in Sadr City, Najaf and Basra.

In the aftermath, or "Obama phase," of the Iraq war, the Kurds are temporarily staying aloof, while the Sunnis and Shiites plant roadside bombs in each other's neighborhoods. With Muqtada back in the country, the situation will get more violent, and the right wing will blame President Obama, no matter what he does.

Obama's a natural conciliator, a "community organizer": it's his nature to reason and compromise with his opponents, rather than go on the attack. That's good, but Obama needs to keep reminding us how we got into this lose/lose situation: with false stories about weapons of mass destruction and Hussein's support of terrorists (see England's recent Chilcot report).

These days, Sarah Palin and company ridicule those who link her political rhetoric to the Arizona murders with "no evidence whatsoever." She's right: there's no specific evidence to connect her or other ranting voices (right or left) — but with even less evidence Republicans had no trouble whatsoever believing in Iraq's link to WMDs and Al-Qaida, despite what the world was telling them.

Americans have short memories, and the president, as he completes our messy exit, needs to describe how we got into this inherited swamp, going over the facts yet again. And like John Boehner chanting Job-killing Health Care! Job-killing Health Care!, he has to repeat it like an advertising mantra. The worse thing for us would be to charge back in. So far, he's holding to his promise to remove our troops. Now's the time for him to earn his Nobel Prize for Peace.

I suffer loss. Who saves me now?

Where shall I run to? In my bedroom

There is a wolf.

(from "Wolf," by Yaseen Taha Hafiz)

Peter and Jeanne will read, show slides and discuss their work at Lewis House (ASPEC), Eckerd College, on Thursday February 10, 2:45 pm, free.

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