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Postcard from Iraq

Thomas L. Friedman

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BAGHDAD, Iraq -- I spent last week driving and flying around central Iraq. There are so many crosscurrents swirling here, the only way I can summarize them is with this postcard home:

Biggest Surprise: How dirt-poor Saddam Hussein had made his own country thanks to his wars with Iran and Kuwait, 10 years of sanctions and 30 years of tyranny. Outside the main cities, most of the houses people were living in appeared to be mud-brick huts, often with open sewers and no sidewalks. Many villages and towns here look like ancient Babylon with electricity poles. Many Iraqis appeared bedraggled.

In short, Saddam had broken his people long before we ever arrived. It is no wonder that so many Iraqi soldiers just ripped off their uniforms and fled, and that much of the damage done to U.S. forces was done largely by Baath guerrillas. With all due respect to the U.S. military, and the brave men and women who fought here, this contest was surely one of the most unequal wars in the history of warfare. In socioeconomic terms, we were at war with the Flintstones.

The Worst Thing About This Poverty: It produced the pervasive looting in the vacuum left behind by U.S. forces as they swept away the Iraqi Army. That looting was like a swarm of locusts across the land. It was a spontaneous explosion of pent-up rage among Iraqis against a regime that had stolen everything from them. It was also fueled by a decade of sanctions and depravation that made many Iraqis desperate to grab anything as evidenced by the bizarre collection of machine parts on sale in the Basra looters' market.

The Best Thing About This Poverty: Iraqis are so beaten down that a vast majority clearly seem ready to give the Americans a chance to make this a better place. And, more important, it would take so little investment, and so little basic security, to improve the economy here and have an immediate impact on people's lives. The peace is still very winnable, as long as we get things moving forward which is why the Pentagon's ineptitude in postwar planning is so frustrating. "We don't want to see a situation where, by the Americans' not delivering on the simple things, people will long for Saddam's day," said Hoshyar Zebari, the Kurdish Democratic Party's foreign minister.

The Iraqi Political Factions With the Most Energy: The returning exiles. When I crossed the border to Kuwait, I was held up by a huge throng of Iraqi Shiites, waving green flags and pounding wildly on the roof of the car in front of me. It was bearing a returning Iraqi exile mullah from Iran. His boss, the most important Iraqi exile Shiite leader, Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, had come back from 23 years of exile in Iran a day earlier to press for "Islamic democracy" in Iraq. I found a similar energy, without the religious fervor, visiting the Kurdish factions and aides of Iraqi National Congress exile leader Ahmad Chalabi, who all advocate secular democracy.

The returning exiles are excited, they know how to play politics, and they're meeting with delegations from around the country, laying out their respective visions and pressing the Americans to let them form an interim government. The Iraqis in the silent majority, by contrast, seem out of it. They don't know one another. They have not been allowed to have a horizontal conversation for decades. All they've had is a vertical top-down monologue. It will be interesting to see which of these exile groups, which have not really gone through the national trauma here, will be able to sink roots among Iraqis who have. In the near term, though, the exiles are likely to shape the future unless the U.S. has a plan to develop other Iraqi leaders quickly.

Most Important Statistic I Heard: Iraq is 60 percent Shiite. Of those 60 percent, maybe 30 percent would favor a Khomeini-like Islamic republic. That's only 18 percent of the country. As such, two things seem clear: the next president of Iraq will be Shiite, and Iraq will not be Iran.

Most Eagerly Asked Question From an Iranian Journalist I Met in Iraq: When are the Americans going to take over Iran?

Most Eagerly Asked Question From a Lebanese Journalist in Iraq: When are the Americans going to take over Syria?

My Basic Answer to Both Questions: Until we prove we can do Iraq right, don't even ask.

Best Quote From a U.S. General, When Asked if We Can Do Iraq Right: "It is doable I just don't know if we can do it."

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