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The Real Iraq By: Amir Taheri
New York Post | Friday, July 18, 2003


Open up almost any American or European publication these days, and you'll be bombarded with grim news about "horrific" conditions in Iraq - and America's "poor handling" of the post-war reconstruction effort. All of which, it is claimed, is made all the more tragic - because President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair maliciously exaggerated the threat from Iraq. They may have won the war, but they're losing they peace.

Author and Middle East expert Amir Taheri spent several days on the ground in Iraq last week and found reality to be starkly different from what is so ubiquitously reported.

Here is a first-hand account of an Iraq that is rapidly moving forward in nearly every aspect of life - political, economic and cultural. And a people that, while understandably skeptical after decades of tyranny, is nonetheless hopeful - and grateful for their liberation.

---- New York Post Editors

BAGHDAD, IRAQ

'THE Iraqi Intifada!"

This is the cover story offered by Al- Watan Al-Arabi, a pro-Saddam Hussein weekly published in Paris. It finds an echo in the latest issue of America's Time magazine, which paints a bleak prospect for the newly liberated country. The daily Al Quds, another pro-Saddam paper, quotes from The Washington Post in support of its claim that "a popular war of resistance" is growing in Iraq. Some newspapers in the United States, Britain and "old Europe" go further by claiming that Iraq has become a "quagmire" or "another Vietnam." The Parisian daily Le Monde prefers the term "engrenage," which is both more chic and French.

This chorus wants us to believe that most Iraqis regret the ancien regime, and are ready to kill and die to expel their liberators.

Sorry, guys, this is not the case.

Neither the wishful thinking of part of the Arab media, long in the pay of Saddam, nor the visceral dislike of part of the Western media for George W. Bush and Tony Blair changes the facts on the ground in Iraq.

ONE fact is that a visitor to Iraq these days never finds anyone who wants Saddam back.

There are many complaints, mostly in Baghdad, about lack of security and power cuts. There is anxiety about the future at a time that middle-class unemployment is estimated at 40 percent. Iraqis also wonder why it is that the coalition does not communicate with them more effectively. That does not mean that there is popular support for violent action against the coalition.

Another fact is that the violence we have witnessed, especially against American troops, in the past six weeks is limited to less than 1 percent of the Iraqi territory, in the so-called "Sunni Triangle," which includes parts of Baghdad.

Elsewhere, the coalition presence is either accepted as a fact of life or welcomed. On the 4th of July some shops and private homes in various parts of Iraq, including the Kurdish areas and cities in the Shiite heartland, put up the star-spangled flag as a show of gratitude to the United States.

"We see our liberation as the start of a friendship with the U.S. and the U.K. that should last a thousand years," says Khalid Kishtaini, one of Iraq's leading novelists. "The U.S. and the U.K. showed that a friend in need is a friend indeed. Nothing can change that."

In the early days of the liberation, some mosque preachers tested the waters by speaking against "occupation." They soon realized that their congregations had a different idea. Today, the main theme in sermons at the mosques is about a partnership between the Iraqi people and the coalition to rebuild the war-shattered country and put it on the path of democracy.

Even the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr now says that "some good" could come out of the coalition's presence in Iraq. "The coalition must help us stabilize the situation," he says. "The healing period that we need would not be possible if we are suddenly left alone."

Yet another fact is that all 67 of Iraq's cities and 85 percent of the smaller towns now have fully functioning municipalities. Several ministries, including that of health and education, have also managed to get parts of their operations going again. The petroleum industry, too, is being revived with plans to produce up to 2.8 million barrels of crude oil a day before the year is out.

To be sure, life in Iraq today is no bed of roses. But don't forget that this is an immediate post-war situation. There is no famine - in fact, the bazaars are more replenished with food than ever since the late 1970s - while food prices, having jumped in the first weeks after liberation, are now lower than they were in the last years of Saddam's rule.

MOST hospitals are functioning again with essential medical supplies trickling in for the first time since 1999. Also, some 85 percent of primary and secondary schools and all but two of the nation's universities have reopened with a full turnout of pupils and teachers.

The difference is that there no longer are any mukahebrat (secret police) agents roaming the campuses and sitting at the back of classrooms to make sure lecturers and students do not discuss forbidden topics. Nor are the students required to start every day with a solemn oath of allegiance to the dictator.

There has been no mass exodus anywhere in Iraq. On the contrary, many Iraqis, driven out of their homes by Saddam, are returning to their towns and villages.

Their return has given the building industry, moribund in the last years of Saddam, a boost. Iraqi exiles and refugees abroad are also coming home, many from Iran and Turkey. Last month alone the Iranian Red Crescent recorded the repatriation of more than 10,000 Iraqis, mostly Kurds and Shiites.

In Iraq today there are no "displaced persons," no uprooted communities and no long lines of war victims in search of a safe haven.

FOR the first time in almost 50 years there are also no political prisoners, no executions, no torture and no limit on freedom of expression. Iraq today is the only Muslim country where all shades of opinion - from the extremist Islamists of the Hezbollah to Stalinists, and passing by liberals, socialists, Arab nationalists and moderate Islamists - have full freedom to compete in an open market of ideas. Better still, all are now represented in the newly created Governing Assembly (Majlis al-Hukum). Iraq is also the only Muslim country where more than 100 newspapers and weeklies, representing all shades of opinion, appear without a police permit and are subjected to no censorship.

Much is made of power cuts, especially in Baghdad. But this is partly due to a 30 percent seasonal increase in demand because of air-conditioning use in temperatures that reach 115 degrees. In other cities - for example, Basra - the country's second-most populous urban center, more electricity is used than at any time under Saddam Hussein.

A stroll in the open-air book markets of the Rashid Street reveals that thousands of books, blacklisted and banned under Saddam Hussein, are now available for sale. Among the banned authors were almost all of Iraq's best writers and poets, whom many young Iraqis discover for the first time. Stalls, offering video and audiotapes for sale, are appearing in Baghdad and other major cities, again giving Iraqis access to a forbidden cultural universe.

The flower stalls along the Tigris are also making a comeback.

"Business is good," says Hashem Yassin, one florist. "In the past, we sold a lot of flowers for funerals and placement on tombs. Now we sell for weddings, birthday parties and gifts of friendship."

The free-market economy is making its first inroads into Iraq's socialistic system in a number of small ways. Hundreds of hawkers are offering a variety of imported goods and making brisk business by selling soft drinks, often bottled in Iran, and biscuits and chewing gums from Turkey.

Some teahouses, in competition to attract clients, offer satellite television as an additional attraction. Every evening people pack the teahouses to watch, and zap and discuss, what they have seen in an atmosphere of freedom unknown under Saddam. It may be hard for Westerners to understand the Iraqis' exhilaration at being able to watch television of their choice.

But this is a country where, under Saddam, people could be condemned as spies and hanged for owning a satellite dish.

Another symbol of newly won freedom is the multiplication of cellular and satellite phones. Most belong to returning exiles. But their appearance is reassuring to many Iraqis. Under Saddam, their illegal possession could carry the death penalty.

The portrayal of Baghdad as an oriental version of the Far West in Hollywood Westerns misses the point. It ignores the fact that life is creeping back to normal, that weddings, always popular in summer, are being celebrated again, often with traditional tribal ostentation. The first rock concert since the war, offered by a boys' band, has already taken place, and Iraq's National Football (soccer) Squad has resumed training under a German coach.

THERE are two Iraqs today: One as portrayed by those in America and Europe who wish to use it as a means of damaging Bush and Blair, and the other as it really exists, home to 24 million people with many hopes and aspirations and, naturally, some anxiety about the future.

"After we have aired our grievances we remember the essential point: Saddam is gone," says Mohsen Saleh, a geologist in Baghdad. "A man who is cured of cancer does not complain about a common cold."

E-mail: amirtaheri@benadorassociates.com




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