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Iraq's Silent Majority


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Iraq's Silent Majority

From the November 10, 2003 issue: Are they with us, or with the terrorists?

by Jeffrey Gedmin

11/10/2003, Volume 009, Issue 09


THE Coalition Provisional Authority had just reopened a bridge and lifted the curfew, while coalition forces were steeping themselves in cultural sensitivity training in preparation for Ramadan. Then over the next few days, a Black Hawk helicopter was forced down north of the capital, a deputy mayor was assassinated, and four police stations and the International Red Cross were blown up. Outside of Baghdad, another car bomb by another police station exploded in Fallujah, an Abrams tank was attacked near Balad (45 minutes north of Baghdad), and a multinational force patrolling central Iraq was ambushed. This chain of murderous events had begun with a half dozen rockets slamming into the al Rashid hotel in Baghdad, where Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was staying, at 6 A.M. on Sunday, October 26. The rockets struck a few hours before I was to check into the hotel, accompanied by a team of editors and scholars that my outfit, the Aspen Institute Berlin, had organized. By week's end, the barrage of attacks had left 50 dead and more than 200 injured.

If you have read the commentary about Iraq over the last few months, you might wonder to what extent analysis is shaped by the pro- and antiwar leanings of various authors. Read the hawks and you'll learn that 150 newspapers have been established, that Nike is donating soccer balls for Iraqi kids, and that reconstruction of the country's dilapidated infrastructure is underway. Three Arab companies have just won contracts to build the country's cell phone system.

On the other hand, read the antiwar crowd and you'll get a heavy dose of schadenfreude, talk of the administration's having underestimated the "complexity" of it all, and anxiety about the spreading "chaos." Already, after the most recent violence, a new round of positioning and punditry has begun. The president says the thugs are desperate, and the mission is still on track. The critics say it's America's new Vietnam. Which version is true?

In fact, there continues to be substantial progress in Iraq. If you like quantifying things, you can easily measure it in numbers. Ten thousand schools have reopened, for instance, and enrollment is up 25 percent. Iraq's 23 universities have begun to develop new social science and humanities curricula. It seems Saddam never had much use for philosophy or literature. The lights in Iraq are on again, with generators pumping at prewar levels--4,500 megawatts since August. Meanwhile, coalition forces have already recovered more than $1 billion in cash from the bad guys, aka "former regime loyalists."

Sit with Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of the army's 4th division based out of Kirkuk, and you'll have more numbers to work with. Odierno will tell you his troops now disarm more than 60 percent of the "improvised explosive devices" they encounter. IEDs, as they are called, are currently the weapon of choice among terrorists, who will leave these unpredictable contraptions lying in or near the road, sometimes barely concealing them, to detonate under trucks, humvees, and buses. The general says he has met 728 times with Iraqi civic, religious, and political leaders. In Kirkuk, in Northern Iraq, 80 percent of the predominately Kurdish population is pro-coalition, says Odierno, 15 percent is ambivalent, and 2 to 3 percent are actively involved in anti-coalition violence. It sounds plausible. At any rate, as we are whisked around in the bubble of our militarily chauffeured SUVs--where there's hardly a chance to scratch the surface--every kid on the street who can catch your eye is waving and smiling ear to ear. Saddam's henchmen had butchered some 180,000 Kurds, and here in Kirkuk, the mayor tells us, the Americans have finally done the right thing.

There are hopeful signs elsewhere that Iraq's silent majority is beginning to find its voice, albeit with a little help from their friends. Jana Hybaskova, the Czech ambassador to Kuwait (she's the first female ambassador ever to that country), explained to our group how she managed to rally ordinary citizens in Basra to stand up to a small group of local radicals. We met her for dinner at the not-very-indigenous Blue Elephant, a Thai restaurant on the beach at the Kuwaiti Hilton. Hybaskova travels frequently to Basra to support a local hospital the Czechs are now running. When local militants sought recently to shut the hospital down, ostensibly because of the corrupting influence of the non-Muslims in charge, Hybaskova ran around town talking to people and ginned up enough support to force the militants to back off. Stories like these are surely good news, but they frequently don't play that way. When Ambassador Hybaskova asked a Prague television journalist who covered the hospital stand-off why the failed radical leader got most of the attention, she was told "this was the story."

Right now in Western and Arab media alike, violence in Iraq is the story. True enough, parts of Iraq have become violent and dangerous places. The terrorists cannot defeat coalition forces militarily, but they can seek to drive America out by eroding public support in the United States. And they can continue killing Iraqis to scare off those who wish to work with us. The terrorists have a strategy. That's why we need a convincing counterinsurgency strategy. Iraq is not Vietnam, but it could become Israel if the new nation remains plagued by terrorism and perpetual insecurity.

As our team prepared to leave Baghdad, coalition forces were ready to expand the "green zone" in the capital, the most stable part of the city to date. By moving directly in to clean up some of the toughest neighborhoods, the idea is to take the enemy head on. "Fireworks are sure to begin," says a coalition official. In other words, if we do this right, things will get bloodier before they get better.

On our way out, an Iraqi businessman told us, if we solve the security problem, all Iraqis "will kiss the Americans." On our first day inside the country, a convoy for our group hit an explosive, damaging two Humvees. On the last day as we flew out, our C-130 was forced to evade a shoulder-launched missile. More security in Iraq? It's high time.

Jeffrey Gedmin is director of the Aspen Institute Berlin.

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