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The growing pains of freedom

International | POSTWAR IRAQ: Shuttled between Baghdad and the White House, rebuilding between attacks, and dodging bullets, coalition administrator Paul Bremer insists-and on-the-ground interviews suggest-there are reasons for optimism

Issue: "The Kennedy Assassination," Nov. 22, 2003

Beside the Tigris River, behind sandbags and barbed wire, inside a sprawling marble ode to Saddam Hussein, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer smiles at a group of visitors and says, "Welcome to Free Iraq."

When the administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) is not shuttling back to Washington for emergency strategy sessions-as he did last week just before U.S. forces blasted a building used by anti-Western insurgents inside Iraq-he does business from a monstrosity that American soldiers call the "palace of the four heads." Each "head" is a one-story-tall bust of a smiling Saddam Hussein, and from a conference room here several U.S. journalists spoke to Mr. Bremer about the successes of coalition occupation that are driving terrorists to ever more desperate attacks.

With images of bombed-out military compounds and smoldering convoys, just what is the state of "Free Iraq"?

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A week on the ground in Iraq, traveling with U.S. forces to Baghdad, Tikrit, Kirkuk, Mosul, and Al Hillah, reveals that the U.S. military and the American media offer two contradictory visions of contemporary Iraq.

For the next hour, Mr. Bremer will detail the view from inside the walled-in compound from which America and its allies run a liberated Iraq. It is a hopeful vision based on solid statistics: schools and hospitals reopened, electricity generation rates above pre-war levels, falling crime rates, increased intelligence leads on Saddam loyalists and weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Bremer regularly contrasts the administration with the reconstruction of postÐWorld War II Germany. In Iraq, a new currency was introduced in less than three months, he says, while in Germany it took three years. Local governments were installed in two months in Iraq, he adds, compared to eight months in Germany in 1945.

Less than a mile up the road, outside of the American compound, international reporters are holed up in the Palestine Hotel. Most of the articles filed from the press bunker follow the lines of David Rieff's recent New York Times magazine article headlined: "Who botched the occupation?" The only statistic the press focuses on is the slowly growing body count. And reporters have a different historical parallel in mind. One newspaper editor, flying over southern Iraq in a Blackhawk, pointed out the helicopter's shadow moving over tiny irrigation canals, which, from above, look loosely like rice paddies. All he said was "Vietnam."

The reality on the ground is more complex than both the military and the media assert; Iraq is neither Germany in 1945 nor Vietnam in 1968. The Iraqis seem to compare the American occupation with the regime of Saddam Hussein and, on balance, prefer the Americans.

A visit with Muslim cleric Sayyid Farkad Quizwini, who runs a university in Al Hillah in southern Iraq, shows how differently Iraqis see their situation. Mr. Quizwini saw the massacre of his fellow Shia Muslims following the 1991 uprising against Saddam. Less than four miles from his small, sandstone campus lies a field with bits of clothing sticking up through the dirt. U.S. military officials estimate that 20,000 bodies lie there.

Mr. Quizwini mentions these mass graves repeatedly. He wonders why American journalists question the morality of the war and the existence of Saddam's ties to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Speaking through a student translator, the cleric asks: "What evidence do they need besides the mass graves all over Iraq?"

While Mr. Quizwini cites a number of problems in Iraq, including poverty and poor education, he thinks the media are missing the real story of Iraq's recovery: "The things you see and hear on American television are exaggerations and lies. In Iraq there are people who are your brothers in humanity and thank you for their liberation."

He worries that negative television coverage will drive American troops out of his country. The black-turbaned, black-bearded cleric hopes that American soldiers will stay at least four to six years in order to lay solid foundations for democracy and to prevent the emergence of another dictator. Mr. Quizwini added: "We ask God for President Bush's reelection because he helped make the Iraqi people free from Saddam."

Mr. Quizwini speaks proudly of his fellow Shia Muslims in neighboring Iran: "They are now envious of us, of our democracy."

Like other Iraqis interviewed, Mr. Quizwini looked at his Muslim neighbors with intense skepticism. He faulted Syria and Iran for allowing terrorists to slip across its borders into Iraq. He scoffed at following the guidance of the Arab League. "Twenty-one dictatorships. How can they contribute to a free Iraq?"

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