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Of Prisons and Palaces

From the August 4 / August 11, 2003 issue: Notes from liberated Iraq.

Aug 4, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 45 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Wolfowitz acknowledged the importance of the transition and complimented those on the council for their participation. "We know that the people of the south--particularly this city--have suffered more than others. For their memory, we have an obligation to succeed in the tasks you described. The great cities for Shia Islam are setting a model for democratic Iraq."

The council in Najaf had been in existence for just two weeks. Its 22 members were elected from a larger group assembled from leaders of the brand new professional associations and civic organizations that are springing up, alongside new political parties, unions, and religious groups. It is an encouraging first step.

Similar councils exist in most major cities in Iraq, including Basra, Karbala, Baghdad, Mosul, and Kirkuk. In Kirkuk, an oil-rich city in the north, coalition officials brought together a delegation of 300 local leaders representing each of the religious and ethnic groups in the city. That group then elected an interim council of 30 members, which in turn picked a mayor, a deputy mayor, and three assistant mayors. That was two months ago. Wolfowitz met with the council on July 21.

"I would like to express my thanks to you and George Bush for taking this courageous decision," said Kamal Kirkuki, a Kurdish assistant mayor, "even though some other nations objected and the United Nations did nothing to liberate us from this tyrant."

Here, too, Wolfowitz was greeted with a mix of gratitude and pleas for help. Asked Dr. Amed Nasser Azzo, a council member, "When is it possible to establish media in Iraq to compete with Arab satellite television that agitates for instability in Iraq?"

EARLIER MONDAY, Wolfowitz met in Mosul with representatives of various nongovernmental and humanitarian organizations working in Iraq. Much of the meeting, which featured groups like the United Nations and Save the Children, was made near incomprehensible by a blizzard of acronyms. The comments I could understand were striking. One representative of the U.N. office of humanitarian assistance said, "We have gotten fantastic cooperation from the U.S. military's civil affairs teams." An Iraqi man from Suleimaniya, now working for the Mines Action Group, offered similar praise, and so did an American, a recent Johns Hopkins graduate working for the Research Triangle Institute. Interestingly, not one of the dozen or so humanitarian workers in the room used the word "occupation." All of them referred to the intervention as "the liberation."

America's challenges in free Iraq are significant. Those of us traveling with Wolfowitz heard about them in detail. Power is intermittent and unpredictable. Water isn't yet available at prewar levels. Jobs are scarce. Conspiracy theories about American motives are rampant. And security on the streets of Iraq is woefully lacking.

But most of those problems are solvable. Meanwhile, most doomsday predictions haven't come true. Few oil fields were set on fire. Iraq's majority Shiite population has resisted meddling from Iran. The Shiites didn't commit revenge killings against the Sunnis. There is no move by the Kurds to secede. There was no humanitarian crisis. There was no mass starvation. The "Arab street" was quiet. And "friendly" Arab governments never fell.

The 12 years of containment between the two Gulf wars were costly for the Iraqis. Counting only the mass graves and the executions at Abu Gharib, several hundred thousand at least lost their lives while Saddam Hussein was "kept in his box."

"If you'd say, 'Go through another 12 years of containment,' after seeing what we saw," says Wolfowitz, "I mean, that's impossible to argue." He added, "Some people say war is intrinsically immoral. This one wasn't."

Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.