News Analysis: Today's reality, tomorrow's ideal

Posted in Iraq | 22-Dec-03 | Author: Roger Cohen| Source: The New York Times

America in a race against time to bridge the gap in Iraq

From the roof of a former state-owned cigarette factory, known to the U.S. troops now based there as "Camp Marlboro," the view of one poor and mainly Shiite section of Baghdad is broad: a seething spectacle of dust and fumes, minarets and women shrouded in black, low-slung homes and skittering garbage. In the foreground are soccer fields, built by the occupying U.S. forces, and on one of them a young Iraqi boy, watched by scrawny dogs, turned cartwheels of a striking perfection.

Gazing out at Sadr City, home to 2 million people, Major George Sarabia assessed the scene. "This is a center of gravity," he said, "because I guess this is still a war here.

"You have one-third of Baghdad before us, and if it goes bad we have a big problem. Some do not want this to work. They benefit from calamity. But our goal is to stand the Iraqis up, stand up their government, make the place safe and provide an example to the region. We're here not to occupy but to liberate."

That mission was given an important boost with the capture of Saddam Hussein. Even before that, the boy wheeling in the dust certainly looked liberated, enjoying the soccer field, albeit for an unintended purpose.

But more often these days Iraq seems freighted with sullen misgiving, measured in the distance between Sarabia's rooftop exposition of the U.S. mission and Iraqis' street-level experience of the drudgery and danger of the occupation.

Saddam's capture will ease some deep-rooted Iraqi fears, remove a specter and perhaps disorient the insurgency for a time. A remade Iraq in a remade Middle East no longer has an implacable enemy in hiding.

But in some ways the capture is as much about the past as the future. Will joy and relief at the former dictator's detention quickly be overtaken by resentment of his American captors - the providers of new sports facilities, schools and freedom itself, but also the occupiers of a disoriented land?

The U.S. occupation of Iraq has entered a race against time. Liberation is all very well, Iraqis have discovered, but the groceries still have to be acquired, the bills paid, the gas bought. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, East Germans took to remarking that they had dreamed of paradise but awoken in North Rhine-Westphalia. Iraqis - Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites - have sharply divided dreams, and they have awakened where they have slept for more than three decades: in the same bad neighborhood.

The race, put simply, is to bridge the gulf between the American high ground and the Iraqi morass, between the roof and the road, before Iraqis take over the governing of their country a little more than six months from now. The undertaking in Iraq is as much about imposing or inspiring a foreign idea - Western democracy in the Middle East - as it is about keeping the peace or changing the guard. For the ideas to take hold, walls must fall away.

But today, Iraq often appears to be a study in estrangement: between the leafy, traffic-free high-security "Green Zone" from which the U.S. -led Coalition Provisional Authority governs, and the streets jammed outside; between the sullen Iraqis lining up overnight to buy scarce gasoline, and the nervous American soldiers rumbling by in their Humvees; between American ideas of representative government, and the reality of staggering out from under terror into a jobless marketplace.

The violence and insecurity have accentuated these chasms by making mingling dangerous. This has been perhaps the most unsettling achievement of anti-American fighters in Iraq.

L. Paul Bremer 3rd, the top civilian administrator in Iraq, is acutely aware of the challenge. In his office in the former Republican Palace of Saddam, just before the deposed leader's capture, Bremer said: "We are going to be very aggressive with our information campaign. We want televised debates, town-hall meetings, focus-group meetings, meetings all across the country for people to sit down and talk about what Iraq they want, what democracy means, what does separation of power mean." "It's the kind of things you do in high school civics classes. It all needs to happen here. It's never happened here, and it needs to happen rather quickly."

Bremer concedes the enormousness of his task but refuses to be bowed by the paralyzing notion that the locals are not yet ready for democracy. Still, even the embryo of Jeffersonian democracy is hard to discern in Iraq today, not least in classrooms where the very word "civics" has no meaning. Azhar Ramadan, a woman and a journalist chafing under the strictures of Iraqi society, should, at least in theory, be a supporter of American-led Westernization. But she is hesitant, preyed on by all that her country has lived through.

"I feel humiliated but also afraid," she said. "You know, my son is in fourth grade. He was learning a phrase from his grammar book the other night. It said: 'We have to fight America. America and Zionism are the enemies of the Iraqi people.'"

Ramadan was shocked. She told her son to ask if he should still be learning that phrase. The reply the next day was sharp: He should, because America and Zionism remain Iraq's enemies.

She herself had been told from childhood not to like America, not to support the Zionists, and had found only one reason in her life to love the United States: the ousting of Saddam. "So you see, I don't hate the Americans now," she said. "But they gave me so many unfulfilled promises." In an office not far from Bremer's, in the same Republican Palace, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of coalition troops in Iraq, weighs how to bridge the gaps between the occupiers and the occupied. A central goal, as he puts it, is to minimize the alienation. He believes that fight is being won. "Every time I go out, I ask soldiers if any of them believe we are not winning," he said. "No, they all believe we are winning, making a huge difference. Will there be fluctuations in violence? Absolutely. But the majority of the country has made unbelievable progress."

In many ways, this is true. But the majority of the country is also waiting and watching, wary and weary. In Najaf, the southern Shiite stronghold, the ayatollahs play a careful tactical game, insisting chiefly on "representative government" in the knowledge that a vote should deliver Shiite rule because most Iraqi citizens are Shiite. If that does not happen, such quiet calculation could turn to explosive rage.

In the north, the Kurds, having lived through the last years of Saddam's rule in an American-protected enclave, now calculate how best to exploit a new presence in Baghdad.

"We are in Iraq, but we have a dream," said Shakhawan Edrees, a Kurdish journalist in Baghdad. "I would love that a Kurdish flag fly over Kurdistan, and I hope that the new constitution will allow the right of secession."

The capture of Saddam offers the prospect of healing justice to myriad families. But the battle to hold Iraq together remains as complex as removing the barbed wire between the green zone of Bremer and the rest of Baghdad.

A big winter sun hung in the dun-colored sky, calls to prayer echoed across Sadr City, Iraqis clamored outside the base for jobs, and the boy cartwheeled on, free at last, not old enough to measure just how free or for how long.