Tell me the debate about whether we should have gone into Iraq is over. I hope something magical happened to silence the anti-war protesters while I've been away, because here there is no debate. Muslim or other, Iraqis to a man, woman, and child are relieved Saddam is no longer running their lives even as they realize their struggles are not over.
"We have passed through many terrible things," said a Baghdad pastor named Joseph. "Now we are getting the fruit of that. But we have a big vision and we are doing very well. And we know God is helping us."
Joseph was in the Mukhabarat prison, held in a windowless 6' x 3' cell with up to a dozen other men for three months. It was a block room with nothing but a hole in the floor. His crime: holding house meetings that included Muslim converts. He was in prison there when U.S. forces opened the prison on April 4 and freed him.
Another prisoner at the time, who goes by the name Jona, said he heard talk of war and so believed that the prisoners would be freed by U.S. soldiers. From his tiny cell he said he dreamed one night of all the Saddam posters in Baghdad dripping with mud and riddled with bullet holes. He said it was a vision he clung to until his release.
The daily news diet of U.S. casualties and the debate over war leaves little room to digest the news that the war made history of a mad dictatorship.
Yesterday I made the drive from Kirkuk to Irbil in the north. It takes about two hours, counting checkpoints, and traces the borders of the old no-fly zone, which before the war separated U.S.-protected territory controlled by the Kurds from Saddam-controlled territory.
We passed three prisons, giant monstrosities dotted with tiny windows. I'd estimate each covered about 10 acres (but I couldn't get close because unexploded landmines surround them still). All date back to the Iran-Iraq war. They were used to house Iranian POWs, then housed Kurds when Saddam began the Anfal campaign against them before and during the Gulf War. They continued to house enemies of the state up until this war.
The military complexes surrounding the prison compounds are bombed to oblivion now. Some have "USA" spraypainted on them. Also along the way: graveyards of Iraqi military tanks and transports, also taken out by U.S. strikes.
What's most assuring to Kurds in the everyday life: The military lookouts that lined the mountains along this border are now abandoned. I confess they haunted me, too, visible from at least a mile away, during my trip last year to the no-fly zone.
Here in Irbil the ouster of Saddam has brought one significant new headache: traffic. The flow of cars has tripled, but for good reason. Iraqis can now travel freely throughout the country.
I interviewed a woman named Alia yesterday who has lived in the Kurd-controlled region since 1992, when she had to flee her home in Kirkuk. She is now back in Kirkuk and awaiting the refurbishing of her family home to move back in. She and her husband, a pastor over several churches in the region, make regular trips to Irbil and anywhere else they want to go.
She told me, "I've made seven, no 10, trips to Baghdad since April to see my brothers. I had not seen them in over 10 years."
Those stories are repeated everywhere. Moving about freely is a simple and understated fruit of Saddam's overthrow.
It's not lost on any Iraqi.