Cover Story


"BAGHDAD SET FREE" Continued...

Issue: "Baghdad set free," April 19, 2003

Fulfillment of the main military mission now leads to other goals, according to Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy. "We may yet see some of the other things we have been hoping for, evidence of involvement in terrorism and weapons of mass destruction," he said. Looting and unrest, he said, will be short-term problems. "Iraqi people don't want bedlam. What they want is a chance for a different kind of life."

But Mr. Gaffney and other conservative analysts warn that the war is not over. "Getting an understanding of what we are confronting from such enemies is not unlike the sort of epochal awakening that took place in the late 1940s as the character and threat brought by international communism became clear."

The swift toppling of Saddam and the liberation of Iraqis may ignite other Arab regimes and test terrorist networks. "For the house of Saud, this has to be shock and awe. In many ways it is their worst nightmare," Mr. Gaffney said. "But I expect [Saudi Arabia] to make an opportunity out of this by pouring money into the Sunni community of Iraq in an effort to make it a bastion of Wahabi extremism. We cannot miss the danger that a free and cohesive and secular Iraq poses to them."

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers said he hoped the Muslim world will see a dream where nightmares once ruled: "It was the United States and our coalition partners who wanted to put our blood and treasure on the line for a couple of large Muslim populations: one in Afghanistan, and now in Iraq."

Call me a wimp. I went to Iraq a year ago in the spring, when the pastures turned green and wildflowers bloomed under the tense air of an impermanent peace. Ala Talabani was my translator and guide for part of the journey, a businesslike bullet of a woman who made a hobby of collecting American slang and wielded a handshake to match any man's. Her grandfather holds a prominent place in northern Iraq (he heads the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), but a more prominent place in her heart for taking in her family after her father and a brother were killed by the regime.

I spent my last day with Ms. Talabani exploring her homeland and discussing religion.

She tried to explain the distinction between being "washed," according to Shiite tradition, and being "clean," according to the Sunnis. I was a poor student but countered by explaining what Christians believe, that Jesus is uniquely God and man, alone capable of both washing and making clean.

"All religion is about making people clean," Ms. Talabani said, "and what I take for myself is that there is a creator God. We must always thank him and treat other people well."

We drove through high mountain passes to reach Lake Dokan. Ms. Talabani persuaded Kurdish peshmerga soldiers guarding its dam to permit us a look. Melting snow from the northern mountains collects there every spring, and the dam supplies electricity as well as water for much of northern Iraq. Built in 1959, the dam has long been fought over. A year ago its protection depended on heavy Kurdish guard and a U.S. no-fly zone. Saddam, she predicted, would try to destroy the dam early on in a U.S.-Iraq conflict. I challenged her. What would Saddam gain by destroying a vital public utility? "You have to understand. Saddam destroys anything he cannot control."

Ms. Talabani's own village, close to the main road near Chamchomal outside Kirkuk, was upended by Iraqi tanks after the Kurdish uprising in 1991. Even though the village is no more and its families are scattered, Saddam sent soldiers back in 2001. According to Ms. Talabani, they were ordered to destroy all the cemeteries and wipe out gravestones. "This has a serious effect on the future," she explained, "because without those markers we can never find our land or search out our homes again." She paused, uncharacteristically pensive. "Saddam is not content to destroy our present and future. He also took away our past."

Last week coalition forces working with the Kurdish peshmergas took some of the future back. They took control of the area around Chamchomal, even as retreating Iraqi soldiers cut off water supplies and laid explosives inside its water tanks. But Lake Dokan was safe. In fact, Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi set up a staging ground there for the Free Iraqi Force, an army of wily and well-trained Iraqi fighters opposed to Saddam. They include Kurds along with southern Shiites, central Sunnis, and Republican Guard defectors-a united force of one-time enemies. On April 6 the corps flew from the fields by Lake Dokan to Nasiriyah under orders from Gen. Tommy Franks. They are tasked to assist in securing another part of Iraq, the south-a mission that is emblematic of both the hard work and hope of the weeks ahead.


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