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The Bumpy Road to Democracy in Iraq

From the April 5, 2004 issue: It's not easy recovering from generations of despotism.

Apr 5, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 29 • By FRED BARNES
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Baghdad

HERE'S WHAT YOU LEARN QUICKLY IN IRAQ: The transformation of the country into a peaceful, free market democracy is a bigger, more demanding, and far more difficult project than you ever dreamed. Nonetheless, a year after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Operation Iraqi Freedom has gained impressive momentum. Iraq has traffic jams, street life, drinkable water, reasonably reliable electricity, and is about to experience an extraordinary economic boom, thanks to the $18.4 billion in reconstruction funds soon to begin arriving. Though terrorist attacks continue, they don't halt progress and are likely to be gradually beaten back.

But don't assume a growing economy and declining terrorism spell success. There's a serious obstacle remaining--the attitude of many Iraqis. Kurds, educated exiles who've returned from London and Detroit, and a good number of other Iraqis have embraced what Paul Bremer calls the "new Iraq." But many Iraqis haven't. They don't want Saddam back, but they look unfavorably on the American occupation. Like the French, they may never forgive America for having liberated them.

The immensity of the task in Iraq is really breathtaking. Iraq is a large country, with the north as different from the south as Boston is from Birmingham. All at once, America and its allies are trying to modernize a primitive banking system, assess and exhume scores of mass graves, revive Iraqi agriculture, create a respectable press corps, recruit and train police and a new army, replace worn-out and antiquated infrastructure, establish regulatory agencies like an Iraqi version of the Federal Communications Commission, start a public broadcasting system, and persuade Iraqis they're better off without heavily subsidized food, gasoline, and electricity. And that's just off the top of my head.

Iraqis want help. Indeed, they demand it and are angry and frustrated when they don't get it instantly. But they appear to hate being helped. Their expectation was an America capable of supplanting Saddam in less than three weeks would improve everything overnight. When that didn't happen, they grew frustrated. Now they're conflicted between lashing out at the American occupation and trying to get the full benefit of it. For success to be achieved, they need to buy into the program fully--democracy, free markets, rule of law, property rights, political compromise, and patience. They need an attitude adjustment.

Americans I talked to in 10 days here agree Iraqis are difficult to deal with. They're sullen and suspicious and conspiracy-minded. Maybe it's not their fault. Bremer, the Coalition Provisional Authority administrator and America's chief asset here, says Saddam's oppression was worse than the Communists' in Eastern Europe and Russia. At least there was a period of transition in the Communist countries when the terror was lifted and the rules liberalized. Iraq went from a totalitarian tyranny to an open society in a single day. That's bound to be traumatic.

But perhaps the problem is more basic. Seventy years ago, Iraq's first king, Faisal I, described Iraqis this way: "There is still--and I say this with a heart full of sorrow--no Iraqi people, but an unimaginable mass of human beings devoid of any patriotic ideas, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, prone to anarchy and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatsoever." Having been cowed by Saddam, many Iraqis seem to be making up for it by distrusting their American occupiers and hectoring them whenever the occasion arises.

The press in Iraq feeds this mood. The two TV news channels that Iraqis watch, Al Jazeera and al-Arabia, are reflexively anti-American. So is the major news service, Reuters, and AP, staffed by Europeans, isn't much better. The liberation of Iraq has brought about a flowering of newspapers--nearly 200 of them--and that's a positive development. But the papers obsess on the subject of brutal treatment of innocent Iraqis by American soldiers. Terrorists who kill innocent Iraqis get softer treatment.

Tales of mistreatment are largely mythical. U.S. troops have been trained to be nice to Iraqis, strange as that seems. I saw soldiers deal respectfully with Iraqis all over the country. In meeting soldiers in World War II, Dwight Eisenhower had a great icebreaker. He would ask, "Where you from, soldier?" It put GIs at ease. I tried it in Iraq, and it led to friendly chats every time. The officers are fine, but it's the enlisted ranks these days that are most impressive. They're polite warriors.