To the Iraqi poet Awad Nasir, April 9 marked the first anniversary of what he terms “the rebirth of Iraq as a free nation.” On that day last year, the first contingent of the Coalition forces led by the United States entered Baghdad to an almost hysterical welcome from thousands of Iraqis. Within minutes the latest statute of Saddam Hussein, depicting the despot who had ruled Iraq for almost three decades on a horseback, was toppled, and his reign of terror brought to an end.
Anyone familiar with Iraqi sentiments today would know that the poet’s feeling is shared by the overwhelming majority of his compatriots. (In one of its first moves last year, the Iraq Governing Council declared April 9 as the country’s new National Day.)
Beyond Iraq, however, April 9 does not have the same meaning for some Arabs and segments of Western public opinion that did not wish to see Iraq liberated by the United States and its allies.
In a recent meeting in Beirut a group of Arab lawyers, volunteering to defend Saddam in his coming trial on charges of crimes against humanity, described April 9 as a “day of sorrow for the Arab nation.” In the West, those who fought to prevent Saddam’s overthrow still insist that liberating Iraq was a mistake, if not an actual crime. It is unlikely that the debate will end anytime soon.
The reason is that we have two Iraqs.
One is the Iraq of reality: A nation that is rebuilding its civil society from scratch in the face of opposition from dark forces that fear democracy for a variety of reasons. The other is the Iraq that has become an issue of American and European domestic politics.
Despite many ups and downs and regardless of the numerous mistakes made by the occupation authorities and its Iraqi partners, the experience of the real Iraq over the past year must be regarded as a success both for the Coalition and the Iraqi people as a whole.
Opponents of liberation had forecast that the fall of Saddam would turn millions of Iraqis into refugees. That did not happen. On the contrary, an estimated 1.2 million Iraqi refugees have returned home from neighboring countries while the inward flow continues at an average rate of 300 a day. Nor has Iraq experienced the famine that was supposed to kill millions of people. Anyone strolling in the bazaars of any city in Iraq today would see that more foodstuff is available than at anytime since the 1980s.
Anti-liberation groups also forecast an Iraqi civil war in which everybody would be killing everybody else. But that, too, has not happened. Despite efforts by the remnants of the fallen regime and its sympathizers in some Arab countries to foment sectarian and/or ethnic conflicts, Iraq’s various communities have managed to avoid that trap.
Those who opposed liberation also claimed that Iraqis would be unable to even imagine anything but a dictatorship as their system of government.
One argument, put forward by the London Times columnist Matthew Parris, and echoed by the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman, runs like this: It was not Saddam who made Iraq what it was but Iraq who created Saddam! In other words the people of Iraq are genetically programmed to produce bloodthirsty and corrupt rulers.
But that claim is shattered in the face of reality.
The people of Iraq have just prepared the draft of what is by far the most democratic constitution anywhere in the Arab world. A large number of newspapers have emerged along with more than two dozen political parties representing the widest spectrum of political opinion that the Muslim world has seen.
One may like or dislike some or even all the members of the Iraq Governing Council and/or their politics. But the fact remains that, together, they represent the most broadly based governing elite anywhere in the Muslim world today.
Predictions that any elections in Iraq would be won either by Islamist radicals or the pan-Arabists addicted to despotism have not been borne out by facts. In every one of the municipal elections that have been held in 17 Iraqi cities so far, victory has gone to democratic and secularist parties and personalities. This has also been the case in elections held by professional associations representing medical, legal, and commercial constituencies. A string of opinion polls, including some financed by those opposed to the liberation, show clear majorities in favor of democratization.
There is also some good news on other fronts in Iraq.
The educational system is back to capacity after more than 20 years with a record number of schoolchildren and university students.
The derelict infrastructure left by Saddam has been partly repaired, ensuring a majority of Iraqis with regular supplies of clean water and electricity for the first time since 1980.
Almost all hospitals have reopened while hundreds of Iraqi doctors have returned from exile to help rebuild the healthcare system.
The economy is also on the mend with at least 200,000 new jobs created in the past 12 months, half of them in the renascent government ministries. Iraq’s post-liberation currency, the dinar, has gained almost 65 percent in value compared to its predecessor a year ago. By ending a system of command economy, Iraq is opening itself to outside investment. For the first time in more than 50 years foreign capital is flowing into Iraq reversing a trend of capital flight that had accelerated during the last years of Saddam’s rule.
The vital oil industry is making a full comeback. Last month, Iraq managed to produce its full OPEC quota of crude oil for the first time since 1979.
Four government ministries are already under exclusive Iraqi control, indicating the ability of Iraqi technocrats and administrative personnel to replace the occupation authorities faster than anyone had envisaged.
Work on rebuilding some of the 4,000 villages destroyed by Saddam Hussein as part of his ethnic-cleansing strategy, has started. This is especially impressive in the southeast were Saddam had ordered the draining of the marshes that had been home to the Marsh Arabs for 1,000 years.
All but one of the top leaders of the fascist Baathist regime are now under arrest while much of the apparatus of oppression and corruption created by Saddam has been dismantled.
But the most important element on the positive side of the annual balance sheet of liberation is the freedom that Iraqis have won–freedoms that might appear banal to the Westerners but to most Arabs remain nothing but chunks of a distant dream. These include the freedom to speak, to create political parties and trade unions, to demonstrate against the authorities, to travel inside and outside the country without a permit from the security services, and to set up businesses without offering extortion money to Mafia-style gangs backed by the regime.
To be sure, a year of liberation has not made Iraq a bed of roses. Nor is Iraq immune against the law of unintended results and the reversals of fortune that provide the stuff of history. What is important, however, is that Iraq has been put on the path to national reconstruction and democratization. Whether or not the Iraqis will be able to seize the historic opportunity offered them as a result of a combination of events largely beyond their control remains to be seen. My guess is they will succeed. No measure of lamentation from the opponents of the liberation will bring Saddam or anyone like him back to power in Baghdad.
At the one-year mark, what matters above all is that, despite all the hardship still caused by terrorist attacks and common criminality in some cities, Iraq is free. And, as far as I am concerned, this means that Iraq is a better place–indeed the whole world is a better place, without Saddam Hussein. And that is the core issue in the debate between those who supported the liberation of Iraq and those who continue to oppose it to this day.
–Amir Taheri, Iranian-born author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam, is the author, most recently, of “L’Irak: Le Dessous Des Cartes” (Editions Complexe, France; 2003). Taheri is reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.