REND RAHIM FRANCKE talks to Iraqis--her own wide contacts inside her native country, but also a network of exiles, who in turn stay in touch with family and friends back home. As executive director of the Iraq Foundation, which promotes democracy and human rights in Iraq, Francke keeps abreast of this steady flow of fresh information from private sources. The other day, she distilled what she is hearing from inside southern Iraq for an audience of journalists at the American Enterprise Institute.
All that we are reading in the press about intimidation of civilians by agents of Saddam's regime is true: This was Francke's first theme. The people of southern Iraq "are held hostage in their towns and cities"--this is not U.S. propaganda. The Baath militias and the thugs of the Fedayeen patrol the streets, man the intersections, question people in their homes, and even are garrisoned in private houses in bands of three or four. This deep penetration of the neighborhoods is a highly effective means of social control.
The background--the catastrophe of 1991, when America encouraged an uprising against the regime, then stood aside as Saddam repressed it--further explains people's fear. Estimates of the numbers killed in that bloodbath begin at 30,000, Francke said, while Saddam's government has bragged of slaughtering 300,000. Before people stick their necks out again, they want to know their liberation is for real. "It will take a lot of work to overcome the residual lack of trust," Francke says.
Her second theme was the need to put an Iraqi face on this liberation. Iraqi civilians may see American or British soldiers, but they can't communicate with them. When they tune in to American radio, it's playing Western pop music. Where are the Iraqi voices, people ask? Give us a reason to believe that this action is about us.
The most powerful persuader, people tell Francke, would be a liberated village or town, a safe zone showing what Iraqi freedom can be like. In such a town, protected by the coalition's arms, it would be essential to hand over some civilian responsibilities to local people. To show Iraqis working hand in glove with the liberation forces would go far toward building trust.
Best of all, Francke said, would be a liberated Basra. As Iraq's second largest city and the scene of especially terrible repression since 1991, Basra is "implacably opposed to Saddam Hussein." It's a city with a major university and an educated class. "To make Basra a model, to bring the population into the administration and show what a liberated city looks like, would have incalculable value for all of Iraq," Francke said.
At this writing, no such development is imminent. But it's encouraging to read that British troops who surround Basra are proceeding with care. An April 2 dispatch confirms the "increasingly brutal measures used by Iraqi government forces to stop people fleeing, including one case of a woman being publicly hanged." But it also emphasizes the troops' care to establish good relations with civilians. When soldiers uncovered a large stash of medicines in a raid on a Baath militia headquarters in Al Zubayr, near Basra, army doctors distributed the medicines to parents. Also, the spokesman for British forces in the Gulf said British forces were "'treading carefully' and concentrating on establishing contact with locals." Such contacts will be vital to the next phase of this war.
Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.