YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Place the Fate of Iraq Above U.S. Politics

The truth is a mixed bag: Most people are better off, but crime and chaos have risen.

November 09, 2003|Nicholas Goldberg | Nicholas Goldberg is op-ed editor of The Times.

BAGHDAD — The last time I was here, during the final years of Saddam Hussein's nearly 25-year-long reign, no one was happy and everyone was scared.

In the hospitals, babies died of malnutrition, and a perpetual shortage of antibiotics meant many deaths that could have been prevented. International sanctions had devastated the economy -- jobs were disappearing, infant mortality was rising, ragged street children were everywhere. I met former doctors and lawyers hawking cigarettes on corners or driving cabs. Auction houses sold the furniture of middle-class families that had declined into poverty.

On the streets of Baghdad, I was dogged by a government "minder," and people ducked into doorways rather than talk to me. Innocent questions provoked looks of terror but little information. Criticizing the president was punishable by death. Hussein's secret police and army were dreaded. And for good reason.

In northern Iraq on a previous trip, I had visited a village where 33 men and boys, virtually all the males in the village, had been lined up, shot and killed by Hussein's soldiers as part of the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds. I spoke with one of a handful of survivors, who had been shot but was able to hide behind a tree as his brother and nephew bled to death nearby.

Last week, I arrived back in Iraq for the first time in six years, and the transformation was extraordinary. On the streets of Baghdad and Al-Hilla, people were eager to speak, often gathering in small groups to hear my questions and offer answers. A furniture salesman told me that now, people were buying back furniture rather than selling it. Political parties -- banned during my last visit -- have offices visible throughout the city. It is now easy to set up interviews, and many of those I've interviewed have been harsh in their recollections of Hussein, whom they described as a tyrant and a criminal.

Iraq is a difficult country to understand, a difficult place for a foreigner to come to know, particularly if one's visits are short and one's Arabic limited. On my earlier visit, I was also hampered by the powerful government propaganda machine. My taciturn minder, an employee of Hussein's government, served as my translator, tour guide and shadow, reporting to his superiors on my movements and my questions. Virtually everything I saw that was interesting or real I saw by sneaking away from him.

My most recent trip was a propaganda mission as well, but this time led by the new rulers of Iraq, the United States government. I was invited by the office of the secretary of Defense as part of a government effort to get its side of the story out. President Bush and his advisors say the truth in Iraq is being distorted by a liberal media "filtering" out all the good stories in order to present only the bad. They've decided to go over the heads of the reporters in Baghdad and talk directly to more sympathetic journalists and opinion makers in the U.S.

The original invitation I received went, overwhelmingly, to people perceived as friendly to the administration's position. Among the 20 or so people invited for a three-day visit to Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mosul (to be paid for by the invitees or their employers) were conservative columnists George Will, Fred Barnes and William Safire, as well as several generals and representatives of Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, Americans for Tax Reform and the American Conservative Union. Among the dozen or so who ultimately attended were an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, a speechwriter for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and a former press secretary for Nancy Reagan and the first President Bush (whose resume said, mysteriously, that she had also done "international crisis work" for Crayola Co.). Only a handful of Democrats were on the trip.

The administration's message was pounded into us relentlessly: The war has been a success, and any postwar obstacles were no more than speed bumps. Do not allow the news accounts of suicide bombings, mortar attacks, insurgents and downed helicopters to distract you from the main story: the freedom of an oppressed people and the rebirth of their country as a modern democracy. On our first day, we met L. Paul Bremer III, who directs the American occupation of Iraq from one of Hussein's old palaces. He held out his hand, smiled and said, "Welcome to free Iraq."

In free Iraq, Bremer explained, U.S. troops were working overtime to rebuild the country from the ground up. The U.S. accomplishments cited by Bremer were impressive: 1,260 schools renovated and reopened in time for the beginning of the term in October, 90% of the health clinics reopened, 12,000 tons of pharmaceuticals brought into the country, $300 million worth of jobs created. Oil production is up to a rate of 1.9 billion barrels per year.

Los Angeles Times Articles