- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 13, 2004

As American and coalition soldiers are fired upon in Iraq, we may be seeing the radiating ripples of the Spanish election. If terror can succeed in Madrid, why not in Fallujah and Basra and Ramadi?

Iraq is obviously not among the more civilized nations on Earth. Saddam’s barbarism was extreme, but it and he arose from a culture of terror and fear. One can imagine Saddam watching TV in his jail cell and chortling over the mutilated bodies of our aid workers in Fallujah. “Now maybe you Americans see why I ruled with an iron fist?”

Of course, in truth, Saddam’s rule only further brutalized a people already accustomed to tyranny.

President Bush has been forcefully committed to democratizing the Middle East. Still up for debate is how long it will take before Iraq is ready for free elections. A simple respect for the rule of law must precede self-government. Among the fractious, suspicious, violent and emotional Iraqi people, such respect has been not very evident yet.

Rumors, for example, are Iraq’s principle communications media. Legends circulated widely in the past year, reports Tom Squitieri of USA Today, include:

(1) Toys distributed by U.S. soldiers to Iraqi children cause deadly diseases.

(2) Saddam is in a Colorado ski resort.

(3) The United States is holding back electricity to punish the Iraqi people.

(4) Israel is behind the U.S. invasion.

(5) And night vision goggles permit U.S. soldiers to see through the clothing of Iraqi women.

The U.S.-led coalition has already accomplished an enormous amount, including introducing a new currency, reopening schools (with revised textbooks), re-establishing power grids, arranging for adequate water supplies, presiding over opening more than 100 newspapers and numerous radio and television stations, helping establish democratically elected local councils, training new police and a professional and non-terrorist army, and more. The task we have set ourselves is Herculean. And most Americans do not speak the language.

But the question of the moment is not whether we’ve done enough good but whether we’ve been tough enough.

We Americans hate being occupiers. We are liberators. But Iraq cannot be truly liberated until it has been transformed. And it cannot be transformed if the bad elements are not afraid of American soldiers. Those gleeful faces in Fallujah make the point: They think we are patsies.

Are we? Sheik Moqtada al-Sadr, the 30-ish cleric for whom an arrest warrant was issued only recently for a murder committed (supposedly on his order) a year ago, was previously handled with kid gloves. His newspaper has printed the vilest incitement, accusing the United States, for example, of using an Apache helicopter to bomb 50 police recruits on Feb. 10 in front of an Iraqi police station. The attack actually was the work of terrorists.

Why would the U.S. bomb Iraqis attempting to cooperate with the coalition in building a new police force? It doesn’t matter that it defies common sense. The rumor mill churns on.

Sheik al-Sadr has used his newspaper, Al Hawza, to urge “terrorism” against American forces. The result? Several stern warnings. Only when Sheik al-Sadr’s “Mahdi Army,” a mob of criminals, former Ba’athists (ironic since Saddam executed the sheik’s father) and Islamists, began firing at Americans did the civil administrator shut down Al Hawza.

Perhaps they stayed their hand because they knew closing a newspaper would provoke criticism stateside. And it did. Editorials across the nation, from the New York Times to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, to the Detroit News to the San Francisco Chronicle scolded the administration for hypocrisy.

“Shutting down a newspaper,” explained the Hartford Courant’s editorial, “even an anti-American publication, doesn’t teach democracy.”

Well, hold on a minute. Baghdad is not Boston. You can’t teach democracy until you first have order. And you cannot have order if people like Sheik al-Sadr think they can bully you.

Why did we let ourselves in for all of this? As James Burnham used to say, “Where there’s no alternative, there’s no problem.” The work of transforming the Middle East will be messy and difficult. But there is no alternative. To permit the region to simmer in ignorance, tyranny and fantasies of revenge is to incubate terrorism.

Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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