For Wednesday, July 9, 2003

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Eden's Long Gone

Some folks used to believe the Bible's Garden of Eden was located near the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in the heart of what today we call Iraq. If it was ever there, it has been long gone.

Right now, the temperature in Iraq is in triple digits. If the wind blows at all, it blows hot like a blast furnace. Electricity and air conditioners go on and off. The water goes on and off. The flies are out. The sewage stinks. American youth who thought the "road home" led through Baghdad have discovered that Baghdad is going to be their home for the foreseeable future. They aren't happy.

Neither are the Iraqi people. They suffer from the same heat, the same aggravating lack of reliable services, but they also suffer from having no jobs and, for many, no future prospects. Their infrastructure is in lousy shape. Their schools are in lousy shape. Their hospitals are in lousy shape. They are living under foreign occupation. They have no idea when or if they will get to govern themselves. Their streets are no longer safe.

The euphoria of getting rid of a dictator is dissipating fast. Americans never were greeted by dancing in the streets, as the most pro-war of the neoconservatives predicted. Saddam's brutality was exaggerated, at least in its scope, for war propaganda purposes. He never killed as many Iraqis as American warmongers claimed. Heck, if he had, the country would be depopulated, and it's a strange kind of dictatorship when practically every Iraqi had a gun. There were 40 gun stores in Baghdad. I bet that's about 40 more than there are in Washington, D.C.

But I'm not trying to paint Saddam as a libertarian. I'm just pointing out that if you kept your mouth shut, you could pretty much go about your business. And, more important, in the meantime, Saddam despite the terrible sanctions fed the people; he kept the electricity and the telephones operative; he provided security for the people; and he had a communications system.

The unfortunate truth is that since occupying Baghdad we have done a worse job in all of those areas than Saddam. Our ineptness is in danger of "rehabilitating" Saddam in the eyes of many Iraqis. We are proving to be worse at governing than he was, and if we show too much brutality in putting down resistance, we will even erode our moral advantage.

Recently, an American Army vehicle ran over a 10-year-old boy. It didn't stop. That did not sit well with the Iraqis who saw it happen. I hope it was the case that the soldiers didn't realize they had hit him. A skinny 10-year-old wouldn't make much of a bump to a heavy Army vehicle. But the boy's family thinks they knew. They think the American soldiers just didn't care that they had killed an Iraqi child.

This is the kind of incident that, under the right circumstances, can cause an explosion. The first intifada in the West Bank was started by an automobile accident involving a truck with a Jewish driver who hit some Palestinians entirely unintentionally. Didn't matter. The pent-up rage burst out.

The question is, does our occupational government under the reign of Lord L. Paul Bremer of Baghdad realize that it doesn't have a lot of time to restore basic services to the Iraqi people? I wish I had more confidence, but it's rather a long time since I've met a high-ranking American official who wasn't arrogant, or a bureaucracy that didn't move with the speed of molasses.

We aren't in a guerrilla war yet, and there is no reason to use the word "quagmire," since we voluntarily stepped into this garden spot. But if we don't do it right and do it fast, even President Bush will wish he had never heard of Iraq.


2003 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.