- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 14, 2004

It has been almost exactly a year since Operation Iraqi Freedom began, a good time to assess the progress that has been made and the problems that remain.

The failure (so far) to find stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has been a blow to the credibility of the Bush administration, and an embarrassment to the CIA. But if they were passing on to us bum scoop, they were hardly alone.

At this time last year, antiwar Democrats and many of our most prominent media personalities were predicting Iraq would be a “quagmire” in which thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis would be killed, hundreds of thousands would become refugees, and the Arab “street” in neighboring lands would explode in an orgy of anti-American violence. None of this happened.

The Iraqi Governing Council has approved a provisional constitution that provides for democracy and a bill of rights. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the Arab world. The U.S. plan to hand over power to Iraqis on June 30 is on schedule, and the United Nations has blessed a timetable for elections and for writing a permanent constitution.

Resistance continues in Iraq, but is much diminished from last fall. In November, 82 American soldiers were killed in action in Iraq. In February, that number had fallen to 20. Saddam Hussein is in custody, and his sons are dead. Most of the senior officials of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party also are either dead or in prison.

Efforts by the al Qaeda affiliate headed by Abu Musab al Zarqawi to spark a civil war between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims so far have failed. The Shi’ites did not respond in kind after suicide bombings in front of two mosques on the holiest day of Ashura killed at least 172 and injured more than 500, and Sunni clerics in the Ba’athist triangle led demonstrations against the violence.

There was a silver lining even in the darkness of Feb. 14, when heavily armed guerrillas attacked a police station in Fallujah, killing 23 Iraqi policemen. The outgunned Iraqi cops refused help from the 82nd Airborne Division, requesting only that they be resupplied with ammunition.

Recruitment for the Iraqi police, the Civil Defense force, and the new Iraqi army remains strong. Unemployment is still high, but is diminishing steadily. Wages are soaring. Shops are filled with consumer goods, which are flying off the shelves.

Nearly a million more Iraqis have cars since Saddam was ousted. Public services are better than ever before. Electricity is on in Basra 23 hours a day now, compared to just 2 under Saddam. Despite frequent sabotage and a deteriorating physical plant, oil production has nearly attained prewar levels.

The liberation of Iraq has had ripple effects elsewhere. Syrians demanding human rights staged a sit-in at the parliament building in Damascus March 8, a protest that would have been unthinkable a year ago.

“Support for violent Islam is waning in almost all Muslim countries,” wrote Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria. “Discussions from Libya to Saudi Arabia are all about liberalization. Ever since September 11 [2001], when the spotlight has been directed on these societies and their dysfunctions laid bare to the world, it is the hard-liners who are in retreat and the moderates on the rise.”

Some of the hard-liners are changing their tunes. Libya has agreed to give up its weapons of mass destruction, and has permitted U.S. and British experts to come to that country to dismantle them. (They found Libya’s nuclear program was far more advanced than most Western intelligence services had suspected.)

Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi made it clear what was behind his change of heart. “I saw what the Americans did in Iraq, and I was afraid,” he told Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Many problems remain. The resistance in Iraq, though weakening, is still active. The tenuous peace among Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds may yet break down.

But the wonder is not that there are no serious problems. The wonder is that there aren’t more of them. Only the most blind of partisans can deny significant progress has been made. And however hard the remaining steps toward a democratic Iraq may be, it seems pretty clear the hardest steps already have been taken.

Jack Kelly, a syndicated columnist, is a former Marine and Green Beret and a former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. He is national security writer for the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Post-Gazette.

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