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Myths of Iraq

Not everything you know about Iraq is true.

12:00 AM, May 14, 2004 • By FRED BARNES
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WE'VE ALL HEARD those classic myths of the Iraq debate that just won't go away. First, President Bush is said to have called Iraq under Saddam Hussein an "imminent" threat and, second, the connection between Saddam and al Qaeda has never been substantiated. Both are laughably false. And now there are more myths about the Iraq war, more subjective than the two classics, but still untrue.

Let's start with de-Baathification, the barring from the government of the new Iraq of the top officials of Saddam's murderous Baath party. Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, made this decision shortly after Saddam was toppled in April 2003. It was an critical step toward creating a new Iraq. Now, the myth is that de-Baathification was a horrible mistake because it kept out of government the very officials who know how things work in Iraq.

The truth is de-Baathification was necessary. Without it, there would almost certainly have been a civil war in Iraq with Kurds and the Shia--80 percent of Iraqis--fighting Sunni Baathists who had dominated and persecuted them for decades. Without ostracizing the Baathists, the United States would have had no credibility with the Shia or the Kurds. And the Baathists weren't indispensable anyway. Now Bremer is allowing a trickle of Baathists to return to government once they clear an appeals process and prove they aren't Saddam loyalists. This is the wise way to treat Baathists, not by totally reversing de-Baathification.

Another myth has been lingering for several months: that Bremer was wrong to disband the Iraqi army. The fact is the army disintegrated on its own in the face of the American invasion. Sure, Bremer could have quickly summoned parts of Saddam's military back to service. But, again, the Kurds and Shia wouldn't have stood for their oppressors being in position to oppress them once more. There was a price to pay. Some ex-soldiers took up arms against the U.S. occupying force because they weren't being paid. But not many did. So it was a price worth paying.

Critics of disbanding the army point to Falluja. If the army had been kept around, it could have dealt with the Baathist revolt there. But would it have? I doubt it. The real problem was that U.S. forces won so swiftly that they never took the war to the Sunni Triangle and Falluja in the first place. They should have. Now former Saddam soldiers are being used to pacify Falluja, but only because the alternative--scores of civilians and U.S. Marines killed--may be worse.

Myth number three is that the Bush administration has reversed itself on stiff-arming the United Nations and has now brought the U.N. back into Iraq to run things. Yes, the United Nations is back, but only at Bremer's request and only in a narrow role. Lakhdar Brahimi, a U.N. envoy, was recruited to help set up the procedures for a democratic election in Iraq next January. And he will help pick the members of the interim government in Iraq that will last from July to January. That's all. The new government will accept sovereignty from the United States, but it will have little power. Instead, Bremer has handpicked officials to run Iraqi ministries and promulgated laws and regulations that will hold sway at least until an elected government takes over. A United Nations takeover? Nothing of the sort.

Still another myth is that American troops face an Iraq-wide uprising against the occupation. Not so. True, the security situation in Iraq is dicey. Falluja is temporarily pacified, but it remains a rough neighborhood you wouldn't want to visit and many of the Baathists who were killing American troops there haven't been captured or killed. In Najaf, radical Islamist Moktada al Sadr is holed up in a mosque, but his Mahdi army is gradually falling apart. Over Easter weekend, American officials feared the Sadr uprising might metastasize, but it didn't. Instead, influential Shia clerics have denounced Sadr.

The final myth is that America has been defeated in postwar Iraq and that further progress is hopeless. This is not true, but let's be clear what is: Reconstruction has been slowed by the worsening security situation. Advances on the economic and civil front continue and most of Iraq is reasonably secure. The handover of sovereignty will go ahead on June 30, but that won't mean the end of violence and political turmoil. The best that can happen is for America and whoever winds up running the Iraqi government to muddle through to democracy. I'm betting this is exactly what will happen.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.