The rewards of vigilance

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BAGHDAD – At first glance, the smiling faces of the Iraqi throngs who mobbed

 

the streets of Baghdad throughout Wednesday were cause for unadulterated

 

jubilation.

 

US and British forces, after 12 years, have finally arrived to liberate them

 

from the terror regime of Saddam Hussein.

 

The smiles on the faces of the pillaging mobs making off with every piece of

 

government property they could cart away and burning what remains registered

 

like a huge sigh of relief trumpeting through all sectors of occupied

 

Baghdad.

 

'USA! USA! USA!' 'Go Bush!' 'No Saddam!' The calls fell on the soldiers'

 

ears like confetti in a victory parade. And yet, after the initial sensory

 

overload, it quickly sank in that the situation is far from simple. The

 

rampant, uncontrollable looting for instance, while signifying the Iraqis'

 

sense that their terrorist regime had in fact collapsed, also signified a

 

total lack of public order.

 

US forces tried repeatedly to identify someone in the crowds who would be

 

able to get the message out to the people to go back to their homes, but to

 

no avail.

 

There was no one to talk to on Wednesday.

 

Although the Iraqis understand that the Saddam regime has collapsed, the

 

psychic distance they have yet to travel from being a people enslaved to a

 

murderous dictator to being a free and democratic society is long and

 

precarious.

 

For decades, the Iraqis, who never were under democratic rule to being with,

 

have lived their lives enslaved to Saddam Hussein.

 

Aside from Iraqi date palm trees, the only distinctive feature of the Iraqi

 

landscape is Saddam's face. Pictures of Saddam are found on the exterior

 

walls of almost every building in Baghdad. Saddam is featured carrying a

 

rifle in one hand and raising his other in a 'heil Hitler' salute. Saddam is

 

featured as a keffiyeh-clad desert warrior. Saddam is seen in a general's

 

uniform and a business suit. Saddam is seen kneeling in prayer. While some

 

of the pictures were torn down by mobs on Wednesday, the mark the Iraqi

 

dictator made on his people's psyche will not disappear overnight.

 

'Saddam is a great man,' a smiling Shi'ite named Yasseer said to me as his

 

neighbors and friends carted bananas away from a government warehouse they

 

later torched. The crowd of men who had up to that point not spoken any

 

English suddenly began nodding their heads in agreement.

 

'One of the most sickening things about this place is how the military is

 

everywhere,' said company commander Rob Smith Wednesday afternoon.

 

'Everywhere we go we either pass bunkers, or bases, or large party offices.

 

The regime has someone working on every block,' he said.

 

'Saddam is great because he is strong. He controls the people. The Iraqis

 

are very bad people. Look at how they steal,' Yasseer continued, giving the

 

troops pause to consider that he is a soldier, not a civilian.

 

US forces are concentrating their efforts on locating and destroying any

 

remaining capabilities of Saddam's remaining forces. This includes blowing

 

up munitions and capturing soldiers.

 

The troops on the ground being confronted by civilians are forced to

 

interpret their orders in a way they can live with.

 

'We are Americans and Americans want to be nice to people. We want to help

 

them. We want them to like us. We just understand that many of them won't

 

like us no matter what we do, so it is hard,' said mortar platoon commander

 

Capt. Matthew Paul.

 

Street scenes that have become routine since Wednesday morning illustrated

 

the complexity of the situation and the American way of handling it. On one

 

side of the road, an Iraqi man who tried to steal a soldier's rifle sat

 

shackled next to a Bradley fighting vehicle. When he began shouting to his

 

friends, he was gagged.

 

Two meters away, an army medic worked to fix the broken leg of an Iraqi

 

child whose friend had carried him over, begging for help.

 

The mind-set of the Iraqi people that has crystallized over two days of

 

intense contact with US forces in Baghdad is one of total confusion and

 

curiosity.

 

'We began our patrol of our sector and almost no one came outside. Then we

 

blew up an armored car we saw hidden and suddenly men appeared on the street

 

motioning frantically or us to follow them. A squad went out and we found a

 

cache of two air defense artillery pieces and small arms,' Smith said. 'It

 

was like they were testing us to see if we are serious or not. When we blew

 

the first piece, we passed their test.'

 

The Iraqis are watching the Americans all the time to try ascertain their

 

intentions. Observing this and bearing in mind the almost indelible stain of

 

life under tyranny, it is obvious what is most essential today is for US

 

forces to maintain their vigilant stand against all vestiges of Saddam's

 

Iraq.

 

On a grander scale, Washington is also being watched as carefully by the

 

entire Arab world as the troops in Baghdad are being watched by the Iraqi

 

people. Just as every mood, glance, and motion made by the soldiers here is

 

interpreted as either a sign of strength or weakness, resolve or apathy, so

 

too the Bush administration's words and actions are being interpreted by the

 

authoritarian Arab regimes throughout the region. There is no doubt that

 

Iraq is a litmus test for the US's unprecedented plan to bring democracy to

 

the Arab world.

 

This week those intentions are being tested in two separate ways. Retired

 

lieutenant general Jay Garner, whom US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

 

has appointed to run the US military government in Iraq, is being attacked

 

by Arab leaders in the US. The bone of contention is that Garner signed a

 

statement in October 2000 blaming PA chief Yasser Arafat for the terrorism

 

in Israel. Arab leaders have for the past several days demanded Garner's

 

replacement for having dared to stand up in defense of a strategic ally and

 

friend of his country.

 

If the Bush administration heeds the call to replace Garner, whose job is to

 

facilitate a transition from tyranny to military occupation to democratic

 

self-rule in Iraq, this action will be interpreted not as sensitivity to

 

Arab sensibilities but as surrender to Arab hatred and backwardness.

 

Just as the troops in the cities must continuously prove their distinctly

 

American firmness by helping innocent civilians while giving no quarter to

 

opposition, so too the administration must keep focus on attaining a stated

 

objective of forcing the Iraqis to discard the mantle of hatred and slavery

 

and take on the burden of freedom.

 

The second front where US intentions are being tested on a strategic level

 

is in the administration's relations with Britain. There can be no doubt

 

after the fiasco in the UN Security Council forced US President George W.

 

Bush's decision to invade Iraq without a Security Council resolution that

 

the UN will not be a force for democratization in Iraq.

 

And yet, Prime Minister Tony Blair, already isolated from his EU

 

counterparts and leftist political base at home, demands a governing role

 

for the clearly incapable UN. In his Belfast press conference with Blair

 

earlier in the week Bush made an ambiguous statement regarding the UN's

 

future role here. Ambiguities may be the proper public attitude towards the

 

international body now openly dedicated to prolonging tyranny and

 

undermining democratic governments like the US and Israel.

 

But on a practical level, for the
Iraqi people to accept freedom, the only

 

force capable of guiding them will be a US military government.

 

As an Israeli observer of this unfolding drama, it is impossible not to draw

 

parallels to the situation back home. The discovery that Palestinians were

 

among the last holdouts defending Saddam's regime in Baghdad earlier in the

 

week only strengthens the comparison.

 

Against the advice and wishes of practically the entire world, the Bush

 

administration invaded Iraq to depose an illegitimate terrorist regime.

 

 

Until Wednesday morning, critics maintained that it couldn't be done even as

 

the Iraqi military fell apart like a house of cards. Critics continue to

 

maintain that the Iraqi people will never be brought around to support the

 

US, and yet a combination of firmness and kindness has already begun, after

 

only two days, to induce the Iraqi people to cooperate with American

 

soldiers.

 

Why should the Palestinians be forced to live under their terrorist leaders

 

at the same time the Iraqi people are being forced to part with theirs and

 

to accept a life of freedom? We have been told that there is no option other

 

than the PLO to lead the Palestinians for more than a decade, yet the PLO

 

has proven beyond a doubt that like its sister regime in Baghdad it is

 

capable neither of leading the Palestinians nor of living at peace with free

 

peoples.

 

If the US maintains its commitment to its aim of bringing democracy to Iraq

 

with the same fortitude it brought to their deposing the Iraqi regime on the

 

battlefield, America will no doubt be successful. The long term benefit that

 

will accrue to the US for establishing a friendly democracy in the heart of

 

the Arab oil fields will be as enormous as the human, diplomatic, and

 

military sacrifices required to accomplish this most moral and vital

 

mission.

 

For Israel, there can be no greater aim than destroying the Palestinians'

 

ability to wreak havoc on the lives of our citizens. But the daily terror

 

the IDF prevents militarily will only cease to be a threat after the

 

Palestinians themselves are forced, like the Iraqis are today, to break

 

their addiction to tyranny and hatred. This can only be done after Arafat's

 

regime is as wholly destroyed as Saddam's regime has been these past three

 

weeks.

 

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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