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On balance, a happy anniversary

International | IRAQ: A year after the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, citizens agree on new system of government

Issue: "What is art?," March 20, 2004

One year after the rain of shock and awe began, events were unfolding in Iraq along a familiar theme: long-odds diplomacy punctuated by fire and brimstone across Baghdad's night sky.

On a Sunday night, March 7, Iraq's leading Shiite political figures huddled with the country's main Shiite cleric in Najaf. Ahmad Chalabi and Mowaffaq Rubaie had a monumental task: to punch through an impasse with Ayatollah Ali Sistani over controversial passages of Iraq's new constitution. The ayatollah had the document held hostage. He threatened a boycott, delaying what should have been a Friday signing ceremony.

While the trio wrestled over the makeup of a new Iraq government, a series of explosions rocked the center of Baghdad. Mortars and rocket-propelled grenades were fired into the Green Zone, where coalition forces have their headquarters and Iraqis hoped to sign the constitution in just hours. Attackers aimed five rockets at the al Rashid hotel, where senior U.S. officials make their home. Artillery flashes and siren howls filled the sky. Flames roared upward as the strikes met impact. In a moment, U.S. fighter jets screamed low over the lazy Tigris, probably using infrared heat sensors to locate the rocket launchers used in the attacks.

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Americans tuning into these events saw a familiar cycle: surprise attacks on U.S. forces, successful counterattacks, and more impasse. But Iraqis and Americans on the ground see something else. Below the now-predictable play of most news coverage, keying on terrorist attacks and rumors of quagmire, there churns an unmistakable forward momentum.

Iraq has quietly reopened its main pipeline through Turkey. Storage facilities on the Mediterranean are filling with Kirkuk crude, and sales this month are expected to top prewar levels at 2 million barrels. Iraq's new dinar is gaining value against the U.S. dollar. Iraqis have imported 1 million cars and more than half a million satellite dishes since the war ended. Many late-night negotiations and much bloodshed later, Iraq's ruling Shiites, Sunnis, Turkmen, Kurds, and Assyrians signed the new constitution on March 8-without giving way to Mr. Sistani's demands.

With the turning point toward new Iraqi government and the one-year anniversary, Iraqis and coalition forces have reason to breathe a collective sigh. Most of the dire predictions swirling last March when U.S. bombers first strafed targets along the Tigris have not come true. Many of the premonitions about Saddam Hussein's dictatorship-including the possession of banned weapons-have come to light.

In short, there was no Armageddon, no regional war, no civil war, no chemical war. Terrorists and terror links have been uncovered. Of the United States' 55 original most-wanted criminals in Iraq, including Saddam Hussein and his two sons, 44 have been captured or killed. British surveyors and human-rights organizations estimate that 270 mass gravesites now uncovered contain the bodies of 400,000 Iraqis executed by the regime.

To recall what's gone right in Iraq is not to minimize the hundreds of U.S., allied, and Iraqi casualties. But to do otherwise would diminish them:

3» A year ago humanitarian-aid agencies warned of a million refugees heading to Iran, and hundreds of thousands collecting in Turkey and Jordan. But camps built to accommodate them remained largely empty. Instead, Iraqis created a reverse wave, as thousands upon thousands exiled under Saddam's regime returned to a liberated Iraq. They created traffic jams with their new cars and overwhelmed the country's already struggling electricity and water systems.

3» Strategists warned of a splinter battle in the north between Turkey and Kurdish forces, longtime enemies. The Turkish government positioned thousands of troops at the border and warned they would invade if the Kurds tried to secede and form a separate state. In a dicey sideshow last March, the Bush administration kept the Turks out of Iraq and kept the Kurds in by quickly drawing Kurdish political leaders into the Iraqi Governing Council.

3» Experienced diplomats like Henry Kissinger warned of a world upset in oil supplies. U.S. forces moved quickly to secure Iraqi oil facilities, but not quickly enough to prevent large-scale looting and sabotage. Iraqi production was stunted until this month, but not enough to spike a worldwide fuel crisis.

Conspiracy theories surrounding U.S. oil ambitions in Iraq also failed to materialize. This month coalition authorities turned out Halliburton, the main U.S. oil contractor, in favor of six new refinery operators, five from Turkey and one from Texas.

3» "Absent ninjas, getting Saddam out will mean bringing in men, machinery, and devastation," wrote James Fallows in a November 2002 Atlantic Monthly essay. An air campaign, he warned, would kill too many Iraqi civilians. A land campaign could trap "tens of thousands" of soldiers in the middle of a foreign country. All scenarios ended at the same place: quagmire.

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