- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 3, 2004

BAGHDAD.

Iraq is filled with irony. Progress is real, but uneven. Mashed potatoes with lumps. There is no creamy, reassuring consistency yet.

Security is noticeably better, but not everywhere. In southern Baghdad, Marines have taken casualties handing out food. Nameless, faceless cowards recently chucked two grenades at a convoy delivering humanitarian aid.

Confidence is higher and taking many forms. Progress on many fronts is registered, if incrementally, day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month. Electricity, out at times, is up and more widely distributed than before the war.

Rare under Saddam Hussein, satellite dishes sprout everywhere like mushrooms after a spring rain. Commerce seems almost normal on streets bombed only days ago. There are, again, traffic jams.

Not at night, but in broad daylight, we “corkscrewed” into Baghdad airport from 23,000 feet — pivoting countless, dizzying times. A colorless stripe on tan-gray nothingness, becomes a line, then a dotted line, then a runway smeared with uneven brushstrokes of black: jet fuel from regular use.

Iraq is a “do what it takes” environment. We expected to take an armored car to our destination. Instead, we walked briskly to waiting Blackhawk helicopters. It was 110 degrees as we lifted off. Even in dry air, you just sweat. In a matter of seconds, our “birds” are up — machine guns scanning the horizon.

Saddam’s former palace grounds double as U.S. Embassy, housing compound, military base, Green Zone, and for many Americans, their present home. It is a surreal environment. Mortar attacks scar the palace grounds. Tree stumps outnumber trees. Flowering plants catch the eye. Patches of red, yellow, pink adjacent to stacks of tattered, torn and well-tested sandbags. The flowers are good. They remind everyone there is a world beyond, a world back home and a world ahead.

Inside the embassy, massive rooms once used for torture by Saddam are lined with partitions, desks, swivel chairs, banks of computers, and working Iraqis, U.S. civilians and, elsewhere, military personnel — all contributors to the Larger Cause.

Meetings with key State and Defense Department and other contacts went exceptionally well. We worked through how are police training is being accelerated — integrating policy and reality to make a safer, more democratic, livable, freer and more confident Iraq.

As we sat and planned, I looked up and marveled at the people in the room. They were unafraid, energetic, calm and confident in their ability to succeed. Everyone was seized by the opportunity to help the Iraqi people realize their hopes. These are men and women in harm’s way for a greater cause reaching out to catch a nation still running, deeply scared, coming out of darkness, coming toward the light, coming toward freedom.

Back to the airport. The Blackhawk flies low and fast to avoid shoulder-launched missiles, so fast the mind struggles to process a house, a street and trees. Now up over wires, then over Saddam’s Olympic Stadium — between towering banks of lights that once illuminated sport and terror.

Below us, people come out into the streets. They are trying to process us as fast as we are them. They turn, pointing. Some smile. Are they pointing something at us? No, they are smiling and waving. Are they just waving and smiling? Yes. The soldier behind the machine gun sees them as well. He waves back.

Extraordinary. Did I really see this culture-bridging communication? Yes. Underscoring conversations with Iraqis in Baghdad, the majority of Iraqis and Americans in uniform speak a private language based on shared and unique knowledge — the language of hope.

They know and share the same basic hope for democracy, freedom, sustainable security, a place safe for raising children, an end to violence and terror.

Moreover, they know their hope is shared. It is a remarkable thing to witness. It repeats itself. An electric current of belief runs between them — even at 100 miles per hour.

This symbol gives the lasting lie to all the negative media, with their preternatural focus on tragedy. Blood sells, waves do not.

These Americans and Iraqis share a wordless language — and a belief that seemingly transcends religion, ideology, culture, personal history, sadness, resentment, regret and impatience.

Something big and good is most assuredly happening. Most Iraqis know this is all about the future: their and ours — intertwined, worth the fight, worth keeping faith. They understand America’s sacrifice has been real, our intentions good. In a swirl of emotion, most Iraqis appreciate what is happening and who made it happen.

At 23,000 feet, one cannot even see the edges of Baghdad, not to the east or west. It is an enormous, sprawling, densely packed city filled with sandy, Legolike houses, and millions of men and women of peace.

We need to remember that threats are just that: obstacles to overcome. There will be tragedies. Thugs and terrorists count on the media to multiply the effect of their hate and inhumanity and to overshadow the good being done.

So much good is being done — schools, commerce, hospitals, agriculture and humanitarian aid. Everywhere. We must plow on. This trip confirmed for me that hope and conviction stir action and confidence. Where these lights shine, action and confidence grows.

The Good Book says God helps those who help others, and God helps those who help themselves. If we will help the Iraqis gain and keep their balance, they will strive mightily to hold it. That is the real takeaway.

Robert B. Charles is the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. He recently returned from Baghdad, where he worked to advance the training of Iraqi police.

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