Jewish World Review April 10, 2003 / 8 Nisan, 5763

Jonathan Gurwitz

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Iraqis get liberation and respect | U.S. troops now control Baghdad. British troops are securing Basra. The mission of coalition forces is shifting from combat operations to mopping up, providing urgently needed humanitarian relief, and cataloging Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.

Hollow criticisms of an inadequate battle plan, insufficient troops on the ground, supply lines threatened and an advance blunted by stiff resistance are now not even voiced by the Iraqi Information Ministry. The long process of rebuilding Iraq and de-Saddamizing Iraqi society - identifying and removing Baath Party loyalists, prosecuting war criminals and torturers, and fashioning a new, representative, democracy for the Iraqi people - now lies before us.

The long process of rebuilding Iraq and de-Saddamizing Iraqi society -- identifying and removing Baath Party loyalists, prosecuting war criminals and torturers, and fashioning a democracy for the Iraqi people -- now lies before us.

The outcome of the battle against the Iraqi military may never seriously have been in doubt, except for those whose intake of news was restricted to Saddam's propaganda or the anti-American pablum of Al-Jazeera.

But the struggle to wean the Iraqi people from a diet of distrust -- demonstrating to them that we are there to free, not enslave; to build, not destroy -- represents a different challenge, requiring sensitivity and sensibility, caution and care.

When the history of this conflict is written, the psychological turning point in the battle for Iraqi hearts and minds may well prove to have taken place last week in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf. For Shiite Muslims, the gold-domed Mosque of Ali in Najaf is among their most venerated sites. The mosque holds the tomb of Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of the prophet Mohammed, from whom the Shiite sect of Islam derives. It is also considered to be the burial place of the biblical figures Adam and Noah.

The Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's senior Shiite cleric who had been under house arrest by the Iraqi government, indicated his desire to meet with the local American commander. al-Sistani also requested that American troops secure his compound near the mosque. Last Thursday, elements of the 101st Airborne Division moved toward the center of Najaf to Sistani's compound and in the direction of the mosque.

To the Iraqis gathering in Najaf, the intent of the Americans was unclear. CNN's Ryan Chilcote reported that while clerics attempted to calm the crowd with a message from al-Sistani, a mob psychology had taken hold. ''They're afraid,'' one resident told the soldiers. "You are Christians. They don't want to let you inside the holy (Mosque of) Ali.''

The situation grew tense as people shouted and rushed to block the American advance. With heavily armed troops surrounded by agitated civilians in a religious tinderbox, the potential for disaster was great.

Then, an extraordinary event occurred. The commanding officer ordered his troops to their knees with weapons pointed to the ground in an act of deference and a display of their peaceful intentions. Some Iraqis reciprocated by sitting down; as tensions lowered, the troops withdrew.

Later, al-Sistani issued a fatwa instructing the Shia of Iraq, 60 percent of the Iraqi population, "to remain calm and not to interfere with coalition actions.''

Much will be written about the battle to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. The first beachhead in that battle was secured last week when soldiers of the world's most powerful military force knelt down before unarmed civilians, bridging a historic gap between the soul of Shia Islam and the Western world.

In Nasiriya last weekend, U.S. Marines struggled to deal with a humanitarian crisis while securing crossroads of Nasiriya.

A girl there handed Lance Cpl. Brian Cole of Kansas City, Kan., a note in English. ''Thank you for liberate us,'' it read. "And thank you for help us. You are a great army.''

JWR contributor Jonathan Gurwitz is a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News. Comment by clicking here.


03/28/03: Constitutionally protected SOBs
03/25/03: Morality changes with the times
03/12/03: Will all of those, ahem, "sincere" peace activists remember the Iraqis tomorrow?
02/27/03: Blood already on UN inspectors' hands

© 2003, Jonathan Gurwitz