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A Progress Report: Iraq, the next March

Paul Marshall

Spain’s socialist prime-minister-elect buttressed his intention of pulling Spanish troops out of Iraq with the claim that “the war has been a disaster; the occupation continues to be a disaster.” While few in America are quite so negative, there is a pervasive sense that things are going badly over there. In truth, most things have gone well.

The invasion itself went rapidly, with death tolls below almost everyone’s expectations. There was no gotterdammerung: no refugee outflows; no humanitarian disasters; the oilfields were not set ablaze; the dams on the Tigris and Euphrates were not breached.

I traveled to Iraq two months after the end of major hostilities and the first striking thing about Baghdad was that most hopeful sign: traffic jams. Here were tens of thousands of people who had cars and were in a heck of a hurry to get somewhere to do something. This was no cowed, broken city, and no cowed, broken people.

The second striking thing was the minimal indications that there had been a war: occasional burned out trucks and tanks, shattered street signs, and then those shells of government buildings. The bombing had been not only accurate, but had left nearly all the destroyed buildings still standing. Some looked undamaged until you got up close and discovered that they were hollowed out. If you had been in one, you would be dead: If you had been next door, you would be alive.

And these were the areas of conflict: Baghdad and Basra and the narrow zone of the allied advance up the river valleys. The rest of Iraq never saw any war. Most Iraqis learned what was happening the same way Americans did: on the news. Even now, over three quarters of Iraqis have had no dealings either with the Coalition authority or allied forces.

The task of rebuilding Iraq’s physical infrastructure, after decades of decay, has, by almost any standard, gone rapidly. Oil production, electrical facilities, and water supply are doing well. At times it has seemed slow, but not if you compare it to the amount of time it takes to do these things almost anywhere else — including in the U.S.

The signing of the interim constitution earlier this month also gives reason for hope. Members of the Iraqi Governing Council had thunderous arguments, accused each other of duplicity, made backdoor alliances, staged walkouts, and denounced the final product. In short, they acted like members of the U.S. Congress. And the final product was a very good one.

The recent Oxford Research International survey of Iraqi opinion gives additional positive news. 70 percent of Iraqis think things in their life are “very good” or “quite good.” Less than 20 percent feel things are worse now than before the war. Only 7 percent think things will be worse a year from now. The survey may have some sampling problems but these findings are stark enough to survive such a weakness.

There have been major mistakes, such as rapidly disbanding the Iraqi army. The Coalition Provisional Authority has also, by most accounts, done a poor job of communicating with Iraqis.

And there is the problem, the one that dominates our headlines, the lack of security, with continued bloody bombings and mortar attacks, now aimed mostly at soft, civilian targets; kidnapping, crime, and local militias. Most Iraqis expect the smaller security problems to subside, and they are probably right, but the bombings may remain. If Madrid, Jaffa, Bali, and Istanbul can be bombed, then Baghdad, Karbala, and Basra can be also.

Iraq remains a high-wire act: a perilous enterprise of creating a genuine democracy in the face of hostile neighbors and terrorists in a country subjected to decades of totalitarian rule. Things can fall apart very, very quickly.

But the central thing, the most important thing, the never to be forgotten thing, is that Saddam has gone — the man who until a year ago affected every fear of war, every calculation of the future of the Middle East. He’s the man who filled those oh-so-little-reported mass graves that Iraqis are uncovering, with their hundreds of thousands of bodies, including the children’s graves. He’s the man who vies with Halugu Khan for the title of the greatest slaughterer of Muslims in history. Gone: a pathetic figure with lice in his beard.

All in all, a good year’s work.

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