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We may have fought for the wrong reasons, but there is more good than bad in post-Saddam Iraq
Julie Flint Sunday October 5, 2003 The Observer
Half a century ago, in a blistering denunciation of the Korean war, the British war correspondent Reginald Thompson wrote: 'It was clear that there was something profoundly disturbing about this campaign and something profoundly disturbing about its commander-in-chief.' Thompson's words could equally well apply to the US-led campaign in Iraq and its commander-in-chief: George W. Bush, head of a cabal that seeks to install a client regime in Iraq as a first step to bringing the region under American-Israeli control. As last week's report by the Iraqi Survey Group makes clear, the stated rationale for the Anglo-American war - destruction of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction - was at best exaggerated and at worst plain wrong. There was a case for deposing Saddam, the Pol Pot of the Arab world, but it was not the case made by George Bush and Tony Blair. They could have pleaded Saddam's past use of WMD against his own people; the present threat, from his security services, to every Iraqi man, woman and child; the future threat from WMD, and biological weapons in particular, for, as the ISG report also makes clear, Saddam was concealing work on two BW agents and conducting new research into two others. But they didn't. Their unilateral war may make Iraq more safe, but the wider world less so. Disturbing, indeed.
But there is something disturbing, too, about the way that post-war Iraq has been portrayed. Visceral distrust of Bush/Blair has created a disregard both for fact and for the victims of Saddam. Arab commentators have had no shame in urging Iraqis, exhausted by three wars and more than a decade of sanctions, to launch a new war 'of liberation' against their liberators. Western commentators have luxuriated in the setbacks of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), as if wishing failure upon it - and by extension, the Iraqi people.
Disaster has been prophesied, self-servingly, at every turn: the war would be long (it wasn't, and most Iraqis had no direct experience of it); tens of thousands would die in the battle for Baghdad (they didn't); there would be a fully-fledged humanitarian disaster (there wasn't). Now, we are told, Iraqis fear the very real prospect of civil war. Not those I know. Not yet. Nor those polled in Baghdad last month by Gallup: 62 per cent thought getting rid of Saddam was worth the suffering they've endured; 67 per cent thought their lives will be better five years from now.
From the very beginning, the anti-war lobby has refused to listen to those Iraqis who supported war over continued tyranny. Banners saying 'Freedom for Iraq' were confiscated at anti-war rallies and photographs of Halabja, where Saddam gassed 5,000 Kurdish civilians, were seized. No voice was given to people such as Freshta Raper, who lost 21 relatives in Halabja and wanted to ask: 'How many of you have asked an Iraqi mother how she felt when forced to watch her son being executed? How many know that these mothers had to applaud as their sons died? What is more moral: freeing an oppressed, brutalised people from a vicious tyrant or allowing millions to continue suffering indefinitely?'
In the summer I spent more than a month in Iraq. What I found did not correspond to what was being reported - most crucially, that the liberators were already widely denounced as occupiers. As a rule, that simply wasn't true. In Baghdad, where US forces had permitted looting (although not as much as reported) and where security and services were virtually non-existent, attitudes towards the Americans were mixed. But even in Baghdad, even with Saddam and his sons still at large, the sense of relief at the toppling of the regime was palpable.
A university lecturer living above a bakery where colleagues were burned alive told me: 'I feel as if I have been born again. Iraq was a prison above ground and a mass grave beneath it.'
Outside Baghdad, in the Shia south, the mood was overwhelmingly upbeat. In Basra, ordinary people gave the thumbs-up at the mere sight of a Brit. In Najaf, a waiter blew kisses.
The occupying forces admittedly got off to a wretched start. In stressing stability, the first US administrator, General Jay Garner, opened the doors of the new Iraq to discredited servants of the old Iraq. His successor, Paul Bremer, went to the opposite extreme, disbanding the entire Iraqi army and in so doing making enemies of half a million serving and retired officers and NCOs.
But Bremer has belatedly accepted the need for greater reliance on Iraqis in the field of security - more than 55,000 are now enrolled in law-enforcement services - and has set about transforming a bankrupt economy burdened with a Stalinist industrial structure and three decades of mismanagement.
He has yet to announce a timetable for restoring sovereignty to Iraqis. But he has ushered in an Iraqi governing council that embraces a range of opinion unequalled in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and an Iraqi cabinet that is not without virtue. 'These are people who have been to Harvard, Oxford and MIT... educated people!' says an Iraqi archaeologist who opposed the war. 'Some of Saddam's Ministers hadn't got beyond primary school.' All Iraqi cities and 85 per cent of towns have fully functioning municipalities. The nine district councils of Baghdad that form the city council meet regularly and appear to work harmoniously.
'The degree of transparency and cooperation in the work of the council is impressive,' says Rend Rahim Francke of the Iraq Foundation, a non-governmental organisation working for democracy and human rights. 'Self-government, long advocated for Iraq, appears to be working well when put into practice.'
For the first time in almost half a century, Iraq has no executions, no political prisoners, no torture and almost no limits on freedom of expression. Having a satellite receiver no longer means imprisonment or even death. There are almost 200 newspapers and magazines that require no police permit and suffer no censorship, and more than 70 political parties and dozens of NGOs. Old professional associations have held elections and new associations have sprung up. People can demonstrate freely - and do.
Unemployment is still a huge problem, but more people have jobs and salaries have risen both for qualified people seeking work in the private sector and for civil servants. Shops are overflowing with imported goods. Food prices are lower thanin Saddam's last years. In Baghdad, the electricity is on more often than off. (In Lebanon, that took years to achieve.) More Iraqi policemen are on the streets, directing traffic, guarding buildings and enforcing the law. Approximately 85 per cent of primary and secondary schools have reopened. Outside Baghdad, security and services are better and crime is lower.
Western reporters detail, quite properly, the misdeeds, the crimes even, of the occupying forces. But this is only part of the story. 'The behaviour of US occupation troops has indeed at times been unacceptable, but on many more occasions it has been innocuous,' says Mustafa Alrawi, managing editor of English-language weekly Iraq Today. One line being peddled today is that there is growing popular support for a war of resistance against the CPA and Iraqis working with it. The number of violent deaths is unacceptable - among Americans and Iraqis alike - but this doesn't mean that there is a popular Iraqi resistance.
Iraq is not Vietnam. At the root of the current instability are the very people most Iraqis reject - the remnants of Saddam's Baath party, and extremists flooding in from neighbouring countries in hope of establishing religious rule. They, not the liberators/occupiers, are the real threat to peace in Iraq and stability in the wider region today.
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