Jewish World Review July 25, 2003 / 25 Tamuz, 5763

Jim Hoagland

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A Baghdad 'Roots' Story


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | BAGHDAD Sleeping in a billion-dollar palace is not what it used to be in the land of Nebuchadnezzar and Nineveh.

American GIs snore away on standard-issue cots in the dim antechambers, once-glittering reception halls and interrogation rooms of the personal citadels of Saddam Hussein, which become barracks when the blast furnace of the July sun shuts down and midnight temperatures plunge to the high 90s.

My home for a visit here was in fact a castle: Hussein's Abu Ghraib palace, where the blend of megalomaniacal opulence and horror that was the dictator's essence still hangs in the air. Had there been running water, you would have showered immediately to scrub away the patina of evil.

Baghdad's residents confront enormous problems in this summer of liberation and discontent. But Baghdad is not a broken city. This is not Berlin 1945, or even Sarajevo 1995. A wounded city struggles back to life if not yet to normality -- whatever that would mean in this traumatized nation -- and begins to experience constituency politics.

Flying low in a Black Hawk helicopter at 9 o'clock one night last week, I was surprised by the thick streams of traffic flowing down many of the Iraqi capital's main boulevards. Electric lights twinkled across most of a metropolis that spreads willy-nilly into the night like Los Angeles.

Open shops, brutal daytime traffic jams and comfortable, air-conditioned villas coming onto an active rental market for foreigners are signs of an incipient municipal recovery in the slow, difficult awakening from the national 30-year nightmare.

This is actually a tale of two houses: Across town from the Abu Ghraib district stands another residence I visited, this time in search of clues to Iraq's political future. A sprawling Chinese pagoda of a villa once used by Barzan Tikriti, Hussein's loathsome half-brother, now serves as a base for Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress.

Chalabi's constant lobbying, nagging and educating of American politicians, journalists and policymakers over the past 30 years helped pave the way for the war against Hussein launched by President Bush in March. More than any other Iraqi -- except of course for Hussein -- Chalabi is responsible for that war and for convincing the Bush administration that Iraq can become a stable democracy. For that, he is both admired and reviled in polarized postwar Washington.

Chalabi sits at noon in a spacious reception hall, listening to a group of robed tribal sheiks from southern Iraq express support for the INC. A nuclear scientist who once worked for the regime sits waiting for a chance to lay out plans for a new science ministry.

Bobbing through the door next comes a wave of roly-poly Baghdadi businessmen in polyester suits to talk about the economy. Behind them are three Sudanese immigrants in jeans who are forming an association of political independents. And so it goes long after dusk, with visits from the Iranian and Turkish ambassadors thrown in for intrigue.

This is a scene that the Iraq experts at the State Department and the CIA said could never happen. They have consistently painted Chalabi and his organization as not having any local "roots."

These experts deployed the "rootless" argument in an unsuccessful attempt to get Bush to shut down all support for Chalabi, who they (correctly) figured could help provoke a war they did not want. Unfortunately, they were more successful in halting the administration's effort to train Chalabi's exile forces as military policemen, soldiers or translators who could have helped save American lives in the war and its aftermath.

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Two great discoveries have emerged in the ruins of Baathist Iraq. One is that fierce religious and ethnic hatreds that the experts -- them again -- warned would trigger bloodbaths if Hussein were toppled have been phantoms. For all of its problems, Iraq is not today beset by ethnic or religious warfare.

Second, the predicted great cleavages between "exiles" and insiders have quickly narrowed as Iraqis of all backgrounds seek common solutions. Some of Bush's own Cabinet members should try that approach. "Iraqis are not a defeated people and should not be treated by American authorities as such," Chalabi tells me at the end of a long day of palaver. "We defeated Saddam, even if it was the Americans who defeated his forces. We survived him. The people did not fight for him."

In the Washington policy battles, Chalabi had his champions and his detractors. Now he is on his own back in Iraq, riding the rapids of his country's nascent politics. As one of 25 members of the recently appointed Governing Council, he is thriving as he finally gets a chance to show his roots.

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07/21/03: Wolfowitz of Arabia?
07/18/03: Linking Liberia And Iraq
07/14/03: Why do they hate them?
07/09/03: In Africa, it pays to think small
07/07/03: Cherchez de Gaulle --- but not in France
07/03/03: If Bush asks, who will help?
06/30/03: Fool's gold in Pakistan
06/23/03: Waking up to Europe's uncertain future
06/19/03: Fusing force with diplomacy
06/16/03: All too prepared for the real world
06/12/03: The Limits Of Saudi Openness
06/09/03: Energized on Foreign Policy
06/02/03: Clarity: The Best Weapon
05/27/03: Talk plus muscle on North Korea
05/22/03: The war isn't over
05/19/03: Europe on its own
05/14/03: Globalization's evil offspring
05/12/03: No time for mixed messages
05/05/03: The case for patience on North Korea
04/30/03: Eroding Principles
04/28/03: Wars tailor made
04/25/03: De-Baathification, root and branch
04/21/03: Victims of civic passivity
04/14/03: Three miscreants
04/11/03: Saddam's final mistake

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