Friday, January 09, 2004

These days, everyone talks about how Iraq isn’t ready for democracy. At least Western-style democracy. Maybe it just doesn’t fit, culturally.

Democracy takes time and an educated population, they say. Iraq needs a strong leader, they say. You can’t just come in, remove Saddam and tell people who have been suppressed for more than 30 years: “you’re free.”

Iraqis want to a say in their future, yes, and many dislike the US-appointed Governing Council and want direct elections. But they don’t actually tell reporters they want democracy. No one actually says they want free speech, the right to assembly, a bill of rights and equal rights for all (Except maybe some of the US-appointed Governing Council members, many of whom could not get elected if they were the only candidate on the ballot).

In places like Najaf, the holy shrine city in the Shia-dominated south, what they mean is they want the right to practice Islam the way they could not under Saddam. And they want the Hawza, the council of senior religious scholars, to rule.

Everyone is afraid of the next group. In the Triangle, they’re afraid of the Shia. In the South, they’re convinced there’s no such thing as a moderate Sunni. In the North, Arabs blame the Kurds for all their ills and the Kurds are talking about their own autonomy.


Playing cards featuring Saddam and the rest of the Most Wanted Gang are $5.95 online back home. They’re harder to find in Baghdad but all over Amman for 1 Jordanian dinar, or about $1.40. No one wants them, though. My taxi driver in Amman loves Saddam and is sad because, as he puts it, Saddam was the one man who could have united the Arab world and faced down Israel.

My translator, Saleem Khalaf, is a Shi’ite whose brother was executed by Saddam. Saleem has a PhD from Mustansiriya University in Arabic rhetoric and teaches translation. He worked before the war as a fixer for the Daily Telegraph of London. He was a Ba’ath party member but was being investigated and threatened with prison for not reporting his brother’s execution to the party and for daring to arrange a funeral for his own brother. He has every reason to hate Saddam. You’d think his mother would too, but she still cries for Saddam, even though she lost a son. “The Iraqi people they are very complex,” Saleem says. “Sometimes they are saying one thing and doing another.” And so many of the younger generation have been brainwashed, he says.


I'm out of here in about a week. Even though the pace has slowed somewhat since the capture of Saddam, there are still so many stories to do and not enough hours in the day. There are so many different strands in my brain these days, pulling them all together before I leave will be a challenge.

It will have been more than 14 weeks away from home by the time I land at JFK.