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Iraq Journals

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Friday, April 18

Essay - War transforms U.S. troops into force for change

By Greg Barrett | GNS

WASHINGTON - It took less than a month for these opposites to meet.

The peace activists knocked on Iraq's side door before the war and entered from Jordan with Saddam Hussein's blessing. The soldiers kicked in the back door on March 20 and stormed north from Kuwait.

The U.S. Marines and members of the Chicago-based Iraq Peace Team crossed paths for the first time on the dusty streets inside Baghdad's warren of old buildings. They exchanged greetings and names and collaborated on what to do next. The long-anticipated struggle for control of Iraq was over; the war-peace debate momentarily muted.

When the activists cleaned out their makeshift office at the rundown $9-per-night Hotel Al Fanar, the Marines kindly agreed to help. Together, pacifists and warriors, they tossed office trash into a curbside bonfire. Carefully crafted peace banners unfurled and writhed and turned to ash in the orange flames.

``Let the inspections continue, we support the U.N. charter,'' one banner read. ``Don't Nix Blix,'' another said, referring to Hans Blix, head of the aborted United Nations weapons inspection of Iraq.

Just like that, Saddam was officially gone. For now, Iraqi TV broadcasts programs handpicked by the Pentagon. Military officers said recently of Saddam International Airport, where comfortable lounges were decorated with portraits of Saddam, ``We own it.''

Profound changes have occurred in less than a month. From combat to conquest in three weeks. It sounds like a how-to book on the building of an empire. Or the sowing of a democracy.

The speed of the invasion and its fits and starts - from blitz to blunder to blitz - left the world dizzy. The tanks and armored trucks that were mired in sandstorms and mud and ambushes on March 25 rolled into Baghdad on April 9 to discover Saddam and his Republican Guard gone; the threat of urban and chemical warfare a mirage.

It all begs the question: What just happened?

A half-century ago, liberal American author Garet Garrett claimed Washington was using its trading power, its money and its military to yoke itself to others.

In a polemic essay, ``The Rise of Empire,'' Garrett wrote, ``We have crossed the boundary that lies between Republic and Empire. If you ask when, the answer is that you cannot make a single stroke between day and night: The precise moment does not matter. There was no painted sign to say: `You are now entering Imperium.' Yet it was a very old road and the voice of history was saying: `Whether you know it or not, the act of crossing may be irreversible.'''

The same might be said today of President Bush's use of a pre-emptive military strike. No matter how you justify it - as a war to curb terrorism, to liberate an oppressed people or to establish the free trade that marks a democracy - the United States invaded a sovereign nation without direct provocation.

The debate was never about whether Washington could overthrow Saddam. The relevant question was whether it should and what that act ultimately would mean.

Already, the crowing of the victors suggests Iraq was not an isolated target.

The United States has formally warned Syria's dictatorship regarding its alleged harboring of terrorists and fugitive Iraqi officials. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz sounded like a stern parent last week when he told a Senate committee, ``The Syrians are behaving badly, they need to be reminded of that.''

His cocky tone echoed that of Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who claimed in September that anti-Zionist terrorist groups fighting Israel by proxy are supported by Lebanon and Syria.

``They're on the list, their time will come, there's no question about it,'' Armitage said during a meeting at the nonpartisan U.S. Institute of Peace. ``We're going after these problems just like a high school wrestler goes out for a match: We're going to take 'em down one at a time.''

Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, Pentagon adviser Richard Perle suggested the United States might rebuild despots in the Middle East and Africa. Today, that speech to the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute has a prophetic ring.

``After we've destroyed the last remnants of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and I'm confident we will, and we then go on to destroy the regime of Saddam Hussein, and we certainly could if we chose to do so, I think we would have an impressive case to make to the Syrians, the Somalis and others,'' said Perle, a member and former chairman of the influential Defense Policy Board.

``We could deliver a short message, a two-word message: You're next. You're next unless you stop the practice of supporting terrorism."

The world knows now that the lone superpower can rain 15,000 cruise missiles and smart bombs on a nation as large and almost as heavily populated as California and average roughly one civilian death for every 10 strikes.

This fact makes war no easier for the families of the estimated 1,000 to 1,500 civilian Iraqis killed. But as peace activists have been saying for several years, thousands of children in Saddam's Iraq died every month from poor healthcare and malnutrition blamed largely on the U.N. economic sanctions and Saddam's selfish rule.

How, then, can change be bad? The selfish ruler is gone and the sanctions are expected to be lifted as early as June.

At the Hotel Al Fanar, where 13 peace activists rode out the war on the east bank of the Tigris, some Iraqis expressed gratitude the day Baghdad fell. Although coiled razor wire now marks new military checkpoints at strategic sports throughout Baghdad, it must feel less harsh than the heavy hand of a tyrant.

On April 9, the day a statue of Saddam was toppled a couple of blocks from the Al Fanar, 54-year-old New York peace activist Cathy Breen said the mood among the Iraqis at the hotel was one of relief.

In e-mail, she recounted how they apparently used a generator and a satellite dish to get TV reception. Satellite dishes were illegal under Saddam's rule.

``This technology is a form of freedom,''' an excited Iraqi student told her. ``We have not been able to speak for years.''

Breen was not so easily appeased.

The next day, as anarchy and an orgy of looting crept close to the Al Fanar, Breen hid her money and retreated to her room. There she sat and prayed and waited ``to absorb the rage and anger of a long-suffering people.''Instead, the Marines arrived in a parade of tanks and Humvees. The peace activists rushed to put on their ``War is not the answer'' T-shirts and drape a banner off a second-floor balcony that read, ``Courage for peace not war.''

If the Marines were offended, it didn't show. They seemed excited to see American faces.

``Where are you from?'' some of them shouted to the pacifists.

``I was speechless, literally paralyzed with how to react to these soldiers,'' Breen recalled. ``I know that what I felt was anger, but relief as well. Imagine - relief.''