Jewish World Review April 25, 2003 / 23 Nisan, 5763

David Ignatius

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A good deed | BAGHDAD Muslims believe that two angels sit on our shoulders, one recording our good deeds, the other our bad ones. In Arabic, the good deeds are known as "hasanna." They are the gifts we give others without counting the cost to ourselves, or the benefit.

The decision by George W. Bush and Tony Blair to defy global opinion and invade Iraq was a hasanna -- a good deed. Perhaps it will bring the United States a reward in greater security, perhaps not. But it was a virtuous act that freed a desperate people from a tyrannical regime.

If you travel this country and listen to Iraqis, it's hard not to conclude that in moral terms, this war was worth the pain and suffering it caused. The stories you hear on every street corner about life under Saddam Hussein still break your heart. People here doubted anyone would rescue them from the torture chamber that was the Iraqi state, least of all the United States. And now they are free. That's a hasanna.

A 30-year-old secretary in Baghdad named Lina Daoud ponders what lies ahead. Her words come out as pastel bubbles: "We want a happy future, we want technology, we want freedom, we want everything."

Occasionally you have the feeling here that the door has opened in the trauma ward of a hospital and the patients are walking into the sunlight, half-delirious about the future even as they remain terrorized by the past.

Take a walk to Tayaran Square this week and you'll hear people trading rumors about the secret prisons that Baghdadis are convinced lie beneath the city. One man says he heard voices from a passageway near a highway underpass; another saw some keys to a hidden gate; another says he knows there is a prison beneath the Ministry of Trade because he saw rations delivered there daily; yet another says he is certain there is a seven-story prison beneath his neighborhood, and a 12-mile tunnel linking it to the headquarters of Iraqi intelligence.

Iraqis express a kind of collective hysteria, and why not? For every imaginary prison, there was a real one. For every rumor about torture and death, there are the bones that lie in mass graves discovered here over the past two weeks.

For three decades, this country was ruled by a vain despot who built celestial palaces for his family and decorated every public space with heroic portraits of himself, even as his henchmen seized ordinary Iraqis at whim.

It's said that Hussein's bodyguard would visit the National Museum during the 1990s and demand that priceless antiquities be turned over to him for "safekeeping." No one dared to stop him, a museum official tells me, and the objects were never returned. Hussein's son Uday is said to have imprisoned players on the national soccer team if they lost. Uday's tailor, someone whispers, was beaten for two days because he made only 30 pairs of pants for his master instead of the 40 that were ordered.

Razika Mohammed Mahdi takes me aside in Tayaran Square to tell me that her 16-year-old son disappeared one day when he was sitting on the banks of the Tigris River near the Ministry of Interior. The minister's bodyguard was apparently angry to find him there, and so he was arrested. That was 16 years ago.

Personally, I don't much care if the U.S. reports about weapons of mass destruction prove to be imaginary. Toppling Hussein's regime was still right.

But no good deed goes unpunished, as the old saying goes. And it seems possible that the United States will gain little in terms of its own security from its decision to liberate Iraq. We may have created a new Iran here -- an Iraqi democracy that will be dominated by a Shiite majority among which pro-Iranian clerics seem, at this point, to be the best-organized political force.

Or Iraq may become another Lebanon -- a lawless nation ruled by car bombs and warlords. Avoiding these disasters depends on whether the United States can quickly fill the existing power vacuum with a stable Iraqi government, help it get started and then leave, pronto.

American actions over the next few weeks will determine whether Iraq loves its liberators or becomes a seething pit of anti-American anger. I hope for the best, even as I see daily evidence of political confusion and disorganization that could bring the worst.

But none of this changes the fact that brave American and British soldiers, and their bold leaders back home, have done a good deed. I hope it will benefit us as much as it has the Iraqis, but I wouldn't count on it.

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04/21/03: Groping toward democracy
04/15/03: Regime change's regional ripples
04/10/03: Tipping Points

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