BAGHDAD – At first glance, the smiling faces of the Iraqi throngs who mobbed
the streets of Baghdad throughout Wednesday were cause for unadulterated
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
'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
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
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
'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
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
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
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
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
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.