This morning, I went to the sixth floor deck of my hotel (where the missile hit a few weeks ago) to get a sense of what was happening in the city before I attempted to go out. The mosque near the hotel was broadcasting its morning prayers, but the square in front of it was empty--an odd site for Friday. The street was once again closed off, and an Army Humvee with a loudspeaker was blasting something in Arabic. I later learned from a local that they were warning people not to come out with weapons, or they will be shot. As I was standing out there, a few Iraqis came by. The first spoke little English, but we got by. He complained, "Saddam is gone, but where is the freedom?" He was soon joined by a Jabr, an out-of-work translator who was getting by doing work in the laundry room of the hotel. He was happy to see an American to talk to, and, as I have mentioned time and again on this page, began to tell me his thoughts on the United States and Iraq without my asking. He explained that America had done a great thing in removing the "large tyrant." He described the Saddam’s tyranny as "bigger than Stalin . . . bigger than the Italian Mussolini." He seemed confident that Iraq would weather the unrest of Al Sadr, who he referred to as "that gentleman," because Al Sadr does not command the support of the majority of the Iraqi people. He described Sadr’s followers bluntly as "dumb," and said that the educated people support the United States.
He explained that the first man I had spoken with did not share his views. He began translating for me, and the first man asked why it is that Americans shoot women and children. For those who wonder why it is that Sadr’s newspaper Al Hawza was silenced, this is exhibit A. I am told that the publication falsely attributed a number of killings and attacks to U.S. forces--actions meant to provoke not only outrage but violence against the Coalition. I attempted to explain that the Coalition does not target civilians, and that if soldiers do, they are prosecuted. As an example of how civilians may be accidentally killed, I explained how the Al Arabia reporters who were killed were driving behind a vehicle which attempted to hit U.S. officers by running a checkpoint. When the U.S. opened fire on the attacking car in self-defense, the bullets pierced that vehicle and also hit the Al Arabia car traveling behind it. Thus, the reporters were killed, but the killing was not intentional. Indeed, American troops go to great lengths to limit collateral damage, unlike Al Sadr, whose forces spray bullets without regard to how many of their fellow countrymen they kill.
We then got to what I think was a key complaint for the man: he explained that he thought that once Saddam was gone, he would instantly have a good life. He would have good food. He would have cheese everyday. I explained that he must give it time, but that things are improving. I pulled my cell phone out, and noted that cell phones, which were not permitted previously, are everywhere. I pointed from the deck to the sea of satellite dishes, and reminded him that no one could have one during Saddam. I recommended that he go to Rasheed Street, where commerce is thriving. Jabr, my new found translator piped in, "I know, I know." He translated my words, following which I assured the first man that if I had cheese, I would give it to him. He smiled, shook my hand, and returned to work.
The conversations were illustrative of the challenges in Iraq. False information and rumors fan the flames of anti-Coalition sentiment, and all too often the Iraqi press contributes to the problem. Yet most Iraqis still recognize that the Americans are there protecting them from dangerous elements, and therefore appreciate them. The second challenge is that despite the numerous advances in the standard of living over the past year, many Iraqis are still out of work, and the average Iraqi does not yet enjoy the comfort of, to use my interlocutors example, cheese. But with any luck, the recent hard work of the military will provide greater security for the country, which will in turn pave the way for more commerce. And yes, even for cheese.