Alex from Minnesota asks: Based on your experiences in Iraq, do you believe that Iraq can remain a “whole” country in the long term, or will it split up into Kurdish, Sunni and Shia entities? Given that a civil war is already taking place between the Shiites and the Sunnis, do you believe these two religious factions will ever be able to live in peace with one another in the same country?
Laura Poitras: I think the U.S. media tends to represent the current sectarian violence in Iraq by saying that Iraqis hate each other and can’t get along. I think this thinking fails to put the situation into context.
When looking at the current sectarian violence, it is important to remember that there has been no functioning central government in Iraq since the U.S. invasion, resulting in a power vacuum that is entering its fourth year.
Imagine if the U.S. had no functioning central government — no security, no basic utilities, and no infrastructure. Groups would retreat to their ethnic/religious differences, creating the kind of anarchy we are seeing in Iraq.
Would that then mean the people in the U.S. are incapable of coexisting and should divide into separate ethnic/religious groups? I don’t think so. The first question would be to ask: is it possible to establish a functioning central government? I think the same is true of Iraq.
I am not trying to downplay the sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni, I just think it is important to remember that Iraq did not have death squads and suicide bombers before the U.S. invasion and occupation. Here is something that Dr. Riyadh said about the current sectarian violence:
“Before we lived and worked together, but now we are losing trust in each other. It is like a phobia. I don’t know why I hate my brother and my brother hates me. The people themselves have changed.” He continues, “Iraq is now a victim. Anyone who wants to fight the U.S. will do it on our soil. You have security in the U.S., but here there is only killing.”
I think the question of the Kurdish north is different. The Kurds in the North of Iraq have been positioning for independence since the end of the Gulf War in 1991. They speak a separate language and have a distinct culture, so I would not be surprised if a separate Kurdish state was created, but I’m not sure that will happen in the immediate future because of political pressure from neighboring counties with large Kurdish populations such as Turkey, Syrian, Iran.
Richard and Lana from Rhode Island ask: Many Americans agree that the occupation of Iraq exacts a terrible toll on both the occupied and the occupiers, but what can Americans do to help? We sympathize very much with Dr. Riyadh and his fellow Iraqis. Is there something we can do? Can we offer financial support to Dr. Riyadh’s clinic? And what can we do overall to improve the situation in Iraq?
Poitras: I am trying to set up a way for people to help Dr. Riyadh and his clinic. Please visit my web site and I will post information in the coming days: http://www.mycountrymycountry.com/.
Margot from Michigan asks: What are some of the surprising things you observed about the interaction between men and women in Iraq, specifically in Dr. Riyadh’s family, whom you lived with for a time.
Poitras: What has been most surprising is how surprised American audiences are about the outspoken women in Dr. Riyadh’s family. Iraqis who’ve seen the film are not surprised at all — they know how independent Iraqi women are.
Fred from Nevada asks: Dr. Riyadh believed that Iraq can and should be an Islamic Democracy. Considering that under Islamic law, non-Muslims cannot have rights, do you think his hope is possible? Or is the idea of an Islamic Democracy a contradiction in terms?
Poitras: I agree that Dr. Riyadh’s vision of democracy is one that many Americans reject for its failure to establish a separation of religion and state. However, I wouldn’t say it is a contradiction in terms. Democracy is about self-determination, and for Dr. Riyadh and many Iraqis, the principles of Islam are central to how they want to govern their lives.
I am not an Islamic scholar, but I do know Dr. Riyadh and I’m sure he does not advocate for a government that would exclude Iraqis, non-Muslim or otherwise. In the film he argues for justice and says that region is the best mode for achieving justice. He argues: “All religions preach justice. They don’t call for others to occupy, kill, rape, abuse or marginalize people. These things should not exist!”
A.A. From North Carolina asks: In the U.S., much of the debate on Iraq focuses on whether to withdraw the troops sooner or later. Do you have a sense of how the Iraqis you know feel about this question? Do they think the situation would be better or worse if U.S. and Coalition troops leave immediately?
Poitras: Iraqis are terrified about the lack of security in the country. Dr. Riyadh has long advocated for an end of the U.S. military occupation; however, he is now very concerned about the militias and death squads roaming the streets of Baghdad and wants the U.S. military to help restore order.
Personally, I think the question is not whether U.S. troops should stay or withdraw, but rather what the U.S. can do to help restore security. I think this will be very hard to accomplish with an ongoing U.S. occupation, and that we should think about using the resources we are committing to Iraq in other ways, for instance, to reach out to the international community to help stabilized the country.
Phyllis from Maine asks: Thank you for this excellent documentary. It created a level of intimacy with Dr. Riyadh’s family that is unlike any other documentary about the situation in Iraq. What is the current status of their family? Have they remained in their same quarters? And is Dr. Riyadh still practicing medicine in Baghdad?
Poitras: Yes, Dr. Riyadh and his family are still living in Baghdad and he continues to practice medicine. However, the security situation is terrible and people are being assassinated on a daily basis. He sent me an email yesterday, November 5th 2006. Here is part of what he reported:
“Since yesterday the 4th of November many mortar shells fell in different parts of Adhamiya crowded neighborhoods. I was at the hospital. We received 7 dead and 20 wounded. Today at 9 am, three Katusha missiles fell in the most crowded areas of Adhamiya. All beds at our hospital are occupied by injured people. American tanks wander in Adhamiya with the Iraqi National Guards. Baghdad is living in a very tense condition. Most politicians are expecting a civil war. Last month’s daily record of forensic medicine center in Baghdad is 50 unidentified bodies of murdered persons.”
Ferrell from Texas asks: I enjoyed watching My Country, My Country. When the film ended I wanted to know about what peaceful Iraqis thought about the Iraqi insurgents. Did they feel more threatened by dangerous Iraqis, or by American troops? What would they like for the U.S. Led coalition to do next?
Poitras: I recently did a radio interview on the Diane Rehm Show and there was a Kurdish Iraqi on the show. He is living and studying in the U.S. He described the current situation well: He said that under Saddam, there was systematic terror. During that time, Iraqis had an idea of what the danger was and how they might be able to avoid it. Now, he said, the situation is random terror — you don’t know if you are going to be killed by a nervous U.S. soldier at a checkpoint or by the bands of militias and death squads roaming the streets.
I think this description indicates that is it not a question of either/or, but rather an overall overwhelming lack of security in all areas in life.
I would also like to address the use of the terms “insurgents” to describe the violence in Iraq. When I was in Iraq, I didn’t hear Iraqis talk about “insurgents” as a group in the way that the U.S. media does. Dr. Riyadh would speak about “terrorists,” (i.e., foreign jihadis); he would speak about “the resistance,” (i.e., Iraqis using violence against the U.S. military); and he would speak about criminals and militias.
I think it is important to note that each of these groups have distinct goals and targets, and that lumping them together on the banner of “insurgents” does not help us think about how the violence can be ended.
Find out more about the circumstances that led Laura Poitras to capture some of the pivotal scenes in My Country, My Country, including her first meeting with Dr. Riyadh at Abu Ghraib, her access in the Green Zone, what it was like to travel around Baghdad alone and her recent experiences traveling in the United States after showing the film abroad in the Production Journal. »