The Wall Street Journal
FROM THE FRONT
'Bush Good, Saddam Bad!' A Marine reports from Iraq, where things are far better than the media let on.
By: LCpl JOHN R. GUARDIANO
Tuesday, August 19, 2003 12:01 a.m. EDT
AL HILLAH, Iraq -- There's more to America than New York, Washington and Los Angeles. The same is true for Iraq; there's a vast country outside Baghdad and the "Sunni triangle" that's now the center of a guerrilla campaign. It's understandable that Western press reports are fixated on attacks that kill American soldiers. But that focus is obscuring what's actually happening in the rest of the country--and it misleads the public into thinking that Iraqis are growing angry and impatient with their liberators.
In fact, there is another Iraq that the media virtually ignore. It is guarded by the First Marine Division, and, unlike Baghdad, it has been a model of success. The streets are safe, petty and violent crime are low, water and electrical services are almost universally available (albeit rationed), and ordinary Iraqis are beginning to clean up and rebuild their neighborhoods and communities. Equally important, a deep level of mutual trust and respect has developed between the Marines and the populace here in central and southern Iraq.
I know because I'm one of those Marines. My reserve unit was activated before the war, and in April my team arrived in this small city roughly 60 miles south of Baghdad. The negative media portrait of the situation in Iraq doesn't correspond with what I've seen. Indeed, we were treated as liberating heroes when we arrived four months ago, and we continue to enjoy amicable relations with the local populace.
The "Arab Street" I've meet in Iraq loves--that's not too strong of a word--America and is deeply grateful for our presence. Far from resenting the American military, most Iraqis seem to fear that we will leave too soon and that in our absence the Baath Party tyranny will resume. This sentiment is readily apparent whenever we venture into the city. We don't make it far outside of our camp before throngs of happy, smiling children greet us. "Good, good!" they yell, as they run into the street, often oblivious to oncoming traffic. They give us a hearty thumbs-up and vigorously wave and pump their hands. They are eager to see us and to talk with us. To them, it is clear, we are heroes who liberated them from Saddam Hussein.
"Bush good, Saddam bad!" many Iraqis tell us emphatically--and repeatedly. I'm not sure how George W. Bush is faring with the American public, but he's got a lock on Al Hillah.
Iraqis routinely ask me to "thank Mr. Bush for freeing us of Saddam" and tell me, "We are very grateful, because you have freed us of our worst nightmare, Saddam Hussein." (A lot of Iraqis speak surprisingly good English because most studied it in primary and secondary school.)
It all reminds me of my experience a decade ago in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Most ordinary Russians, Poles and Czechs hailed Ronald Reagan as a hero for bringing down the "evil empire" when few people had the courage even to call it that.
In much the same way, ordinary Iraqis have a tremendous reservoir of goodwill for the president who coined the term "axis of evil"--and who then acted to eradicate a primary source of that evil.
The Iraqis know who their foes are too. Two Iraqi children once spontaneously shouted to me, "France, Chirac!" while giving the thumbs-down sign and shaking their heads disapprovingly. The children quickly smiled and shouted "Bush!" while punching the sky.
"We are very glad that you are here and we hope you never leave," Zaid, a 31-year-old mechanical engineer, told me. "If you leave, then there will be more trouble. The Bath Party thugs will take over."
Zaid makes a decent living selling pirated American movies. He enjoys sophisticated dramas like "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Saving Private Ryan." But most Iraqis, he notes, prefer action-packed adventures starring Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Mr. Van Damme especially is quite popular with Al Hillah children.)
This is not to say that everyone here likes America, nor that Al Hillah is problem-free. Iraq, after all, is still quite poor and suffering from the aftershocks of Baathist rule and economic isolation. One of the biggest problems is looters who steal oil from pipelines and parts from electrical generators to sell on the black market. The country needs more electrical power plants and a better police force.
There are more than 15,000 unemployed ex-Iraqi soldiers in Al Hillah and the surrounding Babil Province. When these soldiers discovered that the U.S. was making interim payments to local municipal employees, they demanded similar financial compensation. A small number of these soldiers even staged a protest at city hall.
The soldiers' complaint was not that the United States is too heavily involved in Iraqi affairs. They were instead complaining that we are doing too little to help them. They want more help, not less; they seek greater engagement, not a withdrawal of American military forces. The difficulties here aren't the result of the U.S. being heavy-handed. Rather, they result from our inability to bring greater resources to bear.
The news from Baghdad, Tikrit, Fallujah and Ramadi--the Sunni triangle--suggests a bleaker image because these areas are very different politically, religiously and culturally from the rest of the country.
Politically, greater Baghdad is populated with people who owe their privileged status in life to Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party. Most Iraqis, by contrast, were brutally oppressed by Saddam. Religiously, greater Baghdad is heavily Sunni. Iraq, by contrast, is two-thirds Shiite, and Al Hillah is 99% Shiite. Culturally, greater Baghdad is relatively secular, political and cosmopolitan. The nation as a whole is more religious, apolitical and insular.
It helps, too, that we Marines have maintained a friendly and visible presence in Iraqi neighborhoods and bazaars. The bottom line: In the Marine-administered towns and provinces in the south, the Iraqi "Arab Street" is mostly docile, compliant and eager to engage rather than shun the West.
As my experience in Al Hillah shows, most ordinary Iraqis are in no way disillusioned with the U.S. What they want--and need--is greater help. This will necessitate a sustained military presence here until the seeds for economic growth and development have taken root.
For that I know the men, women and children of my Arab street are grateful. As Zaid has told me, "It will take 10 to 15 years for Iraq to become a normal country. It is important during that time that the United States be here to help us." Semper fidelis, Zaid.
Lance Cpl. Guardiano is a field radio operator with the U.S. Marine Corps' Fourth Civil Affairs Group and, as a civilian, defense editor of Rotor and Wing magazine.
(Gleaned from an email from Glenn Steen-Johnson:)
Just wanted to pass along this pearl from an American Citizen!!
The writer and his wife live in LA and both work for Uncle Sam.
A Day at Baltimore Airport
Dear Friends and Family,
I hope that you will spare me a few minutes of your time to tell you about something that I saw on Monday, October 27. I had been attending a conference in Annapolis and was coming home on Sunday. As you may recall, Los Angeles International Airport was closed on Sunday, October 26, because of the fires that affected air traffic control. Accordingly, my flight, and many others, were canceled and I wound up spending a night in Baltimore.
My story begins the next day. When I went to check in at the United counter Monday morning I saw a lot of soldiers home from Iraq. Most were very young and all had on their desert camouflage uniforms. This was as change from earlier, when they had to buy civilian clothes in Kuwait to fly home. It was a visible reminder that we are in a war. It probably was pretty close to what train terminals were like in World War II.
Many people were stopping the troops to talk to them, asking them questions in the Starbucks line or just saying "Welcome Home." In addition to all the flights that had been canceled on Sunday, the weather was terrible in Baltimore and the flights were backed up. So, there were a lot of unhappy people in the terminal trying to get home, but nobody that I saw gave the soldiers a bad time.
By the afternoon, one plane to Denver had been delayed several hours. United personnel kept asking for volunteers to give up their seats and take another flight. They weren't getting many takers. Finally, a United spokeswoman got on the PA and said this, "Folks. As you can see, there are a lot of soldiers in the waiting area. They only have 14 days of leave and we're trying to get them where they need to go without spending any more time in an airport then they have to. We sold them all tickets, knowing we would oversell the flight. If we can, we want to get them all on this flight. We want all the soldiers to know that we respect what you're doing, we are here for you and we love you."
At that, the entire terminal of cranky, tired, travel-weary people, a cross-section of America, broke into sustained and heartfelt applause. The soldiers looked surprised and very modest. Most of them just looked at their boots. Many of us were wiping away tears.
And, yes, people lined up to take the later flight and all the soldiers went to Denver on that flight. That little moment made me proud to be an American, and also told me why we will win this war. If you want to send my little story on to your friends and family, feel free. This is not some urban legend. I was there, I was part of it, I saw it happen.
United States Department of Defense