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Dancing in the Streets of Baghdad

 Jerusalem Post, November 18, 2001

Gerald M. Steinberg


How will Iraqis celebrate the demise of Saddam Hussein and his "Republic of Fear"?  Will they wrap themselves in American flags, instead of burning them? Will they blow up the ubiquitous statues of Saddam, or pulverize them into rubble? Whatever form it takes, the liberation of Kabul will look like a warm up for the main event. The spontaneous joy in Afghanistan shows that even in the most repressed societies, basic human instincts of freedom and liberty continue to survive. Immediately after the Taliban's Islamic enforcers and Arab mercenaries fled, men ran out to get their hair trimmed and to remove their beards. The streets were filled with music for the first time in years, and women emerged outside to breathe again.

While the details were very different, the celebrations in liberated Afghanistan are reminiscent of the street parties and celebrations in Prague after the communist regime finally crumbled. The expulsion and destruction of the Taliban will not, in itself, end Afghanistan's problems, particularly given the record of the Northern Alliance when it ruled in the previous round. Perhaps somewhat wiser following their previous experiences, and with the pressure from the U.S., the leaders of the Northern Alliance may rise to the occasion, and break the cycle of war between Pushtans and the other Afghani groups. Beyond attempting to settle Afghanistan's future, the main objectives for George W. Bush remain the capture of Bin Laden and the destruction of the Al Qaeda terror network. This may take some time, particularly if they have already escaped to another safe haven.

However, a stable and open government in Afghanistan (perhaps even a democracy) will at least take this territory out of the map used by Islamic terrorist movements. American and British officials also correctly continue to emphasize that the war in Afghanistan is only the first stage of the war against terrorism. There are also many other active hosts, including Syria, Lebanon, and Arafat's Palestinian Authority, but Baghdad is the top priority. Clear evidence points to direct Iraqi involvement in the September 11 attacks, including the meetings in Prague between Mohammed Atta, the chief of the suicide hijackers, and Iraqi officials. In addition, the Iraqis are known to have operated training facilities and programs for commandeering aircraft and steering them to destruction.

Saddam also continues to build and acquire deadly weapons of mass destruction -- chemical, biological, and nuclear -- and to develop different delivery systems. The anthrax that has killed a number of people in the U.S. may well have originated in the programs that Saddam hid and protected from the United Nations inspectors for many years. If the threat of terrorism is to be addressed seriously, Iraq is next in line. As in the case of Taliban and Al Qaeda, the stakes involved in Iraq go beyond targeting Saddam and destroying his support networks and terrorist operations.

The Iraqi people have suffered under Saddam's tyranny for decades, and for them, the images of celebration from Kabul must be particularly tantalizing. Ten years ago, the U.S. committed a huge error, both political and moral, by stopping a few days short of deposing Saddam. As a result, the Iraqi people were forced to resign themselves to continued repression by one of the most violent regimes in the world. The bombing campaign and support for the opposition forces that successfully routed the Taliban provides renewed hope that the U.S. and its allies will complete the job of liberating Iraq from terror and tyranny.

While the Taliban controlled and ruined the lives of ordinary Afghanis through enforcement of an extreme form of Islamic fundamentalism, Saddam simply terrorizes his people into submission. The Iraqi opposition groups are, in some ways, the equivalent of the Afghani Northern Alliance. Neither may be the perfect ally, but the time has come to support groups working to topple Saddam and give the Iraqi people a chance for a new beginning. As a preliminary step, the leaders in Western Europe and Russia will first have to stop trading with Saddam, including billions of dollars in sales of dual-use technology for weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. This duplicity not only allowed Saddam to survive, but systematically undermined the UN sanctions designed to limit his capabilities.

It is time to stop repeating the slogans and myths that are widely used to justify this expediency and self-interest, including "sympathy for the suffering of the Iraqi people" and "respect for national sovereignty". The Iraqi people suffer because other countries give Saddam the resources and support to stay in power and terrorize his citizens. Afghanistan was the easy part of this campaign. Mullah Omar and the Taliban had no oil to sell and did not spend billions of dollars on Western weapons and technology. Saddam's regime is also more firmly entrenched than the low-tech and untrained Taliban forces, and will be harder to defeat. Nevertheless, beyond the need to dismantle the world's most dangerous terrorist network, it is time for the Iraqi people to celebrate their liberation and freedom in the streets of Baghdad.