A New Birth of Freedom: Iraq, One Year Later

Robert Alt

March 19, 2004

Baghdad, Iraq—One year ago today, the United States entered Iraq, and, after removing a tyrant, joined the Iraqi people in the journey toward a free and independent nation. The journey has been one of both promise and peril. Like any fledgling country, Iraq has had its share of growing pains. But it is growing. With that in mind, here is a review of some of the changes, accomplishments, and challenges which have arisen in the last year.

First, the significance of Saddam Hussein’s capture should not be underestimated. With Saddam behind bars, those who were hopeful or fearful that he would return have accepted the fact that his ouster is permanent. This has led to an increase in the amount and quality of intelligence, as Iraqis feel more willing to talk about suspicious and dangerous activity in their neighborhoods.

Next in the line of major accomplishments is the signing of Iraq’s interim constitution. While not perfect, the interim constitution provides the Iraqi people with a number of precious freedoms that they have not known: freedom of press, assembly, speech, and religion. Even Dan Rather, who previously visited Iraq for a dubious controlled interview with Saddam, could not help but comment on the feeling of freedom which prevails today, and which did not exist under Saddam.

The third great accomplishment is a rising economy. Here there have been many strides, beginning with the transition of currency from the old Iraqi Dinar featuring Saddam to the new Iraqi Dinar—a transition that was accomplished almost seamlessly, without a run on the market. But perhaps of greater importance to the locals is the fact that there are now more Dinars in the pockets of the Iraqi people. For example, a doctor practicing in Baghdad toward the end of Saddam’s regime made around 4,000 Dinars per month. The same doctor today makes between 200,000 – 500,000 Dinars per month. This extra income has made its way to the marketplace, as more and more Iraqis are demanding not just the necessities of life, but luxury items, such as air conditioners and cellular telephones.

This year has also seen improvements in the local services. The schools are up and running, and many them have received substantial renovations. Communications are greatly improved, and media channels which were once reserved for Saddam’s propaganda now offer actual programming.

This leads us to electricity. Ironically, during one of the press briefings this week designed to tout the accomplishments of the past year, the lights went out. It would be easy to focus on this and other anecdotes to say that there is less power to be had now, but that would be wrong. In fact there is more power being generated, and it is being distributed to more Iraqis than during Saddam’s regime. Saddam assured that the lights stayed on in Baghdad, but at the expense of the outlying regions, which were either wholly neglected or severely rationed. These regions now get their share of power as well. This is not to say that there are not still hurdles to efficient power distribution.

Indeed, as quickly as the United States installs new cable to increase the coverage and reliability of power, the bandits tear it down for the copper. Policing miles of cable in the middle of the desert is simply not an option, so the cure must come in reducing the number of roving bandits. But daily progress is being made, in terms of power generation, distribution, and security.

Finally, this year has seen a change in the nature of safety issues. Today there are 47,000 Coalition and Iraqi security forces patrolling in Baghdad. As a result of the increase in security, the local Iraqis will tell you that general crime has greatly reduced over the past six months, most notably in a reduction in the number of thieves and gangs. But while ordinary crime has reduced, terrorism is on the rise. There is increasing confirmation that international elements are participating in terrorism in Iraq. In response, the Coalition has recently launched special operation “Iron Promise” in cooperation with Iraqi security forces to crack down on terrorism. In the last 48 hours, they have captured two individuals tied to international terror organizations, have captured 86 local terrorists, and have seized significant stockpiles of weapons.

But the truth is that things will get worse before they get better. Most security analysts predict, based in large part on the infamous Zarqawi letter, that the terrorists will use the pretext of U.S. control to increase the number and intensity of attacks between now and the June 30, 2004 transition of power. Indeed I have little doubt that this, the anniversary of the U.S. invasion, will be a bloody day in Iraq. But it is important to realize that these attacks do not even rise to the level of so-called resistance. Rather they are fringe elements and international detractors which are rightly described as terrorists. If these terror attacks are intended to drive wedges in the Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish factions, they seem to be having the opposite effect, driving them instead toward greater cooperation. Dan Senor, the spokesman for Ambassador Bremer, summed up the Iraqi response when he said, “I have no doubt that Iraqis will not be cowed by terrorists. They have waited too long for democracy.”

Finally, it is worth noting that Iraqis feel that their lives are better today. In one of the first large scale polls conducted in Iraq, ABC News reports that 56 percent of Iraqis responded that things are going better today than they were before the war. And there is optimism for the future, as 71 percent of Iraqis believe that their lives will be better a year from now.

The nation of Iraq has made enormous strides in the past year. It is a rocky road that lies ahead, and one which is unfortunately lined with IEDs. But the road from tyranny to democracy is worth taking. Indeed it is a road that must be taken, both for the stability of Iraq and of the region.

Robert Alt is a Fellow in Legal and International Affairs at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and is currently reporting from Iraq. You can follow his daily progress at http://noleftturns.ashbrook.org.