T Nation

Report from Inside Iraq

I’m going to post this internal to the thread, so it’s easy for those un and disinterested to skip. Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal writes about his observations in Iraq – basically how the people want us there, what mistakes have been made, and what we are doing to correct them.

‘This Was a Good Thing to Do’


NAJAF, Iraq – Toppling a statue is easier than killing a dictator. Not the man himself, but the idea of his despotism, the legacy of his torture and the fear of his return. This kind of reconstruction takes time.

Just ask the 20-some members of the new city council in this holy city of Shiite Islam. Their chairs are arrayed in a circle to hear from Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, who invites questions. The first man to speak wants to know two things: There’s a U.S. election next year, and if President Bush loses will the Americans go home? And second, are you secretly holding Saddam Hussein in custody as a way to intimidate us with the fear that he might return? Mr. Wolfowitz replies no to both points, with more conviction on the second than the first. But the question reveals the complicated anxiety of the post-Saddam Iraqi mind.

Most reporting from Iraq suggests that the U.S. “occupation” isn’t welcome here. But following Mr. Wolfowitz around the country I found precisely the opposite to be true. The majority aren’t worried that we’ll stay too long; they’re petrified we’ll leave too soon. Traumatized by 35 years of Saddam’s terror, they fear we’ll lose our nerve as casualties mount and leave them once again to the Baath Party’s merciless revenge.

That is certainly true in Najaf, which the press predicted in April would be the center of a pro-Iranian Shiite revolt. Only a week ago Sunday, Washington Post reporter Pamela Constable made Section A with a story titled “Rumors Spark Iraqi Protests As Pentagon Official Stops By.” Interesting, if true.

But Ms. Constable hung her tale on the rant of a single Shiite cleric who wasn’t chosen for the Najaf city council. Even granting that her details were accurate – there was a protest by this Shiite faction, though not when Mr. Wolfowitz was around – the story still gave a false impression of overall life in Najaf. On the same day, I saw Mr. Wolfowitz’s caravan welcomed here and in nearby Karbala with waves and shouts of “Thank you, Bush.”

The new Najaf council represents the city’s ethnic mosaic, and its chairman is a Shiite cleric. Things improved dramatically once the Marines deposed a corrupt mayor who’d been installed by the CIA. Those same Marines have rebuilt schools and fired 80% of the police force. The city is now largely attack-free and Marines patrol without heavy armor and often without flak jackets. The entire south-central region is calm enough that the Marines will be turning over duty to Polish and Italian troops.

This is the larger story I saw in Iraq, the slow rebuilding and political progress that is occurring even amid the daily guerrilla attacks in Baghdad and the Sunni north. Admittedly we were in, or near, the Wolfowitz bubble. But reporters elsewhere are also in a bubble, one created by the inevitable limits of travel, sourcing and access. In five days we visited eight cities, and I spoke to hundreds of soldiers and Iraqis.

The Bush administration has made mistakes here since Saddam’s statue fell on April 9. President Bush declared the war over much too soon, leaving Americans unprepared for the Baathist guerrilla campaign. (The Pentagon had to fight to get the word “major” inserted before “combat operations in Iraq have ended” in that famous May 1 “Mission Accomplished” speech.) But U.S. leaders, civilian and military, are learning from mistakes and making tangible progress.

One error was underestimating Saddam’s damage, both physical and psychic. The degradation of this oil-rich country is astonishing to behold. Like the Soviets, the dictator put more than a third of his GDP into his military – and his own palaces. “The scale of military infrastructure here is staggering,” says Maj. Gen. David Petraeus of the 101st Airborne. His troops found one new Iraqi base that is large enough to hold his entire 18,500-man division.

Everything else looks like it hasn’t been replaced in at least 30 years. The General Electric turbine at one power plant hails from 1965, the boiler at one factory from 1952. Textile looms are vintage 1930s. Peter McPherson, the top U.S. economic adviser here, estimates that rebuilding infrastructure will cost $150 billion over 10 years.

All of this makes the reconstruction effort vulnerable to even small acts of sabotage. The night before we visited Basra, someone had blown up electrical transmission pylons, shutting down power to much of the city. That in turn triggered long gas lines on the mere rumor that the pumps wouldn’t work. Rebuilding all of this will take longer than anyone thought.

Iraq’s mental scars are even deeper. Nearly every Iraqi can tell a story about some Baath Party depredation. The dean of the new police academy in Baghdad spent a year in jail because his best friend turned him in when he’d said privately that “Saddam is no good.” A “torture tree” behind that same academy contains the eerie indentations from rope marks where victims were tied. The new governor of Basra, a judge, was jailed for refusing to ignore corruption. Basra’s white-and-blue secret police headquarters is called “the white lion,” because Iraqis say it ate everyone who went inside.

“You have to understand it was a Stalinist state,” says Iaian Pickard, one of the Brits helping to run Basra. “The structure of civic life has collapsed. It was run by the Baath Party and it simply went away. We’re having to rebuild it from scratch.”

This legacy is why the early U.S. failure to purge all ranking Baathists was a nearly fatal blunder. Officials at CIA and the State Department had advocated a strategy of political decapitation, purging only those closest to Saddam. State’s Robin Raphel had even called de-Baathification “fascistic,” a macabre irony to Iraqis who had to endure genuine fascism.

Muhyi AlKateeb is a slim, elegant Iraqi-American who fled the Iraqi foreign service in 1979 when Saddam took total control. (In the American way, he then bought a gas station in Northern Virginia.) But when he returned in May to rebuild the Foreign Ministry, “I saw all of the Baathists sitting in front of me. I couldn’t stay if they did.” He protested to U.S. officials, who only changed course after L. Paul Bremer arrived as the new administrator.

Mr. AlKateeb has since helped to purge the Foreign Ministry of 309 secret police members, and 151 Baathist diplomats. “It’s an example of success,” he says now, though he still believes “we are too nice. Iraqis have to see the agents of Saddam in handcuffs, on TV and humiliated, so people will know that Saddam really is gone.” This is a theme one hears over and over: You Americans don’t understand how ruthless the Baathists are. They’ll fight to the death. You have to do the same, and let us help you do it.

Which brings up the other large American mistake: The failure to enlist Iraqi allies into the fight from the very start. Pentagon officials had wanted to do this for months, but they were trumped by the CIA, State and former Centcom chief Tommy Franks. The result has been too many GIs doing jobs they shouldn’t have to do, such as guarding banks, and making easier targets for the Baathist-jihadi insurgency.

The new Centcom boss, Gen. John Abizaid, is now correcting that mistake by recruiting a 14,000-man Iraqi security force. He’s helped by division commanders who are adapting their own tactics in order to win local support and eventually be able to turn power back over to Iraqis.

In Mosul in the north, Gen. Petraeus of the 101st Airborne runs the equivalent of a large Fortune 500 company. He’s having to supply electricity, buy up the local wheat crop (everything here was bought by, or supplied by, Saddam’s government), form a city council, as well as put down an insurgency. He’s even run a Task Force Pothole to fix the local roads. It’s no accident that an Iraqi turned the whereabouts of Uday and Qusay into the 101st Airborne. Like the Marines in Najaf, Gen. Petraeus’s troops have made an effort to mingle with the population and develop intelligence sources.

In Kirkuk, Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno’s 4th Infantry Division has had similar success tapping Iraqi informers to map what he calls the “network of mid-level Baathists” who are running the insurgency. Late last week they raided a house near Tikrit after an Iraqi tip and captured several Saddam loyalists, including at least five of his personal bodyguards. Some have been reluctant to talk, but Gen. Odierno observes that, “When you mention Guantanamo, they become a lot more compliant.”

The U.S. media have focused on grumbling troops who want to go home, especially the 3rd Infantry Division near Baghdad. And having been in the region for some 260 days, the 3rd ID deserves a break. But among the troops I saw, morale remains remarkably high. To a soldier, they say the Iraqis want us here. They also explain their mission in a way that the American pundit class could stand to hear.

“I tell my troops every day that what we’re doing is every bit as important as World War II,” says one colonel, a brigade commander, in the 101st. “The chance to create a stable Iraq could help our security for the next 40 or 50 years.” A one-star general in the same unit explains that his father served three tours in Vietnam and ultimately turned against that war. But what the 101st is doing “is a classic anti-insurgency campaign” to prevent something similar here.

These men are part of a younger Army officer corps that isn’t traumatized by Vietnam or wedded to the Powell Doctrine. They understand what they are doing is vital to the success of the war on terror. They are candid in saying the hit-and-run attacks are likely to continue for months, but they are just as confident that they will inevitably break the Baathist network.

The struggle for Iraq will be difficult, but the coalition is winning. It has the support of most Iraqis, a creative, flexible military, and the resources to improve daily lives. The main question is whether America’s politicians have the same patience and fortitude as its soldiers.

The one word I almost never heard in Iraq was “WMD.” That isn’t because the U.S. military doesn’t want, or expect, to find it. The reason, I slowly began to understand, is that Iraqis and the Americans who are here don’t think it matters all that much to their mission. The liberation of this country from Saddam’s terror is justification enough for what they are doing, and the main chance now isn’t refighting the case for war but making sure we win on the ground.

“So I see they’re giving Bush a hard time about the WMD,” volunteers a Marine colonel, at the breakfast mess in Hilla one morning. “They ought to come here and see what we do, and what Saddam did to these people. This was a good thing to do.”

Mr. Gigot is the Journal’s editorial page editor.