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First light breaks the darkness of a Baghdad night with a sovereign determination that intrudes into the crevices of war-blighted lives stirring to meet the mortal challenges of a new day. The diverse worlds of East and West find common ground in Iraq through a culture of progress, which reaches deeply into the determined energies of American service personnel as well as ordinary Iraqis seeking to bury the memories of a cruel despot named Saddam Hussein. As a cultural specialist, each day last year on my tour during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) brought new challenges to find the light that brightens the path through the uncertain ground we call human terrain.
Mid-September 2009 was no different. One mission during that time, a Key Leader Engagement (KLE) with the Sons of Iraq (SOI) in Abu Ghraib, stands out among the others. The urgency of the moment, the costs of losing a valued partner, and the fact that these friends of the Government of Iraq (GOI) were embittered, all added to that unique moment in time. The purpose of this short essay is to underscore the steps that we as cultural specialists used to successfully engage our alienated partners.
While there is no formula to use in every KLE, there are certain principles that find ready application in many similar occasions. The following steps worked well for us during that critical meeting. These steps will most likely work well for you also.
Step 1: Prepare. Familiarize yourself with the major cultural issues-the history, facts, and events--occurring in your area of responsibility (AOR).
A large portion of the Sunni population prior to 2005 either openly supported Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) or tolerated its presence. This open and tacit support for AQI not only created a major security threat to Coalition Forces (CF) but threatened the very emergence of the GOI, which sought to create legitimacy and public support by creating security and providing a better life for Iraqis. This hostile or permissive population also allowed AQI to have sanctuary for further operations into Shia areas and populations throughout Iraq, thus gaining operational depth.
In general, the Sunni population felt betrayed, marginalized, and angry that it no longer dominated Iraqi politics as it had prior to toppling of Saddam Hussein. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 involved the compliance of Shia political parties and leaders in Iraq (as well as tolerance from Iran at first), particularly the aid of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. The majority Shia population had much to gain and the Sunni population, which dominated Iraqi politics for decades under both the British and Saddam Hussein, had much to lose. The implementation of democracy meant simply this: the Sunni population would be voted out of power. This indeed occurred and the Sunnis compounded the problem by boycotting the early elections. The result was not only a loss of power at the hands of Shia politicians, but also at the hands of Kurdish leaders, who moved into Sunni areas of Iraq and occupied government seats vacated by boycotting Sunni, such as Mosul. Bottom line up front: Many …