A July 4 History Lesson

There was a cake as big as a dining table, with the familiar fife-and-drum patriots painted in the frosting. There were speeches focused on some really hard times--the American Civil War, World War II, the era of Saddam Hussein--as encouragement for the fight facing Iraq today. And there were no fireworks. The crowd had already started filing out by the time the first alerts for incoming fire were broadcast over the public address system: "Duck and Cover. . . . Await further instructions." The order went largely unheeded and no blasts followed. Luckily the U.S. Independence Day celebration seemed to be a light day in terms of mortar or rocket attacks on the Green Zone.

Still, the intersection of guests at the July 4 party at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said a lot about the cross-section of Iraqi politics. U.S. soldiers, Muslim clerics and sheikhs rubbed shoulders over their finger food. American embassy staff buzzed around their Iraqi government contacts. There were Shiites and Kurds, diplomats and troops from Australi, Britain, Poland and elsewhere, but few Sunni Arab Iraqis--who are currently boycotting most of their minority posts in the government.

"There is nothing swift and there is nothing easy about establishing a free and democratic state, not in America and not in Iraq," U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker told the crowd of perhaps 700 "slightly more than half of those invited. As host, he ticked off the litany of problems plaguing the country, such as terrorism and economic deprivation. The holiday was flush with reassuring comparisons for Iraqis. Crocker noted George Washington's dark days when his army suffered losses at Valley Forge. Gen. David Petraeus, U.S. commander in Iraq, talked about the problems countries in transition face in staying united. Crocker noted how the U.S. Capitol was set ablaze in the War of 1812, clearly drawing an unspoken comparison to the fires of Baghdad's daily bombings. It made for a somber tone. No mention was made of how in 1776 it was the small indigenous army that prevailed over the superpower, a history lesson many Iraqis fear is playing out before them today.

It was a decidedly Green Zone crowd and heavily screened and searched--pens tested, lip gloss opened--before boarding shuttle busses for the palace that houses most of the embassy's offices. The vast majority of Iraqis were men and few of the Iraqi women who did attend wore the head scarves typical outside the Green Zone. A high percentage of those attending were former exiles, many who now hold top posts. The ballroom, usually used as an embassy café and lounge, was decorated in red, white and blue.

Capping the unreal ambience was the original floral motif--favored by Saddam's decorators "that includes enormous representations of puffy date palm trees in green and brown marble. It was a chance for mass networking in a safe environment. Human Rights Minister Wijdan Salem mingled with Basam Ridha, one of the coordinator's of Iraq's execution system. Saddam's prosecutor, Jaafar Mousawi, along with two other jurists on the war crimes tribunal made the rounds. Sycophants lined up to take camera-phone photos with Finance Minister Bayan Jabr, an elusive and controversial sectarian figure who now holds the country's purse strings.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told the crowd that America and Iraq are joined in a fight against a "common enemy" of terrorists and extremists. He said, through a translator, that Saddam's dictatorship allowed the rule of one party and "one sect," a reference that Sunnis might dispute. He and Talabani offered congratulations to the American people and President George W. Bush.

Talabani said the United States had made "a habit" of liberating people throughout its history and that American troops are still needed in Iraq. Petraeus asserted that Iraq and the United States "will be forever linked by what we are striving to accomplish here." Certainly, those ties were inescapable today.