On a warm night in February I stood on a balcony of a Baghdad hotel, looking across the street toward the Palestine Hotel, and argued for an invasion. I whispered. One never knew who was listening in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Thorne Anderson, a freelance photographer, argued for peace, a position I fully appreciated after spending a week with the overtly kind and gracious locals.
What was most telling about our debate was that we felt compelled to move it to the dusty balcony.
It was here that the traffic five stories below muffled our words. Neither of us wanted to be deported or hustled away by Saddam's secret police to Baghdad's notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
"Just the fact that we feel like we have to stand on the balcony in order to have a candid conversation, doesn't that say something about Iraq? Doesn't that alone suggest a need for change?'' I asked.
At that time, criticism of Saddam or his Baath Party was a capital offense, a law that can stifle thinking and creativity, I argued.
So it didn't completely surprise me that when Iraqis from Basra to Baghdad to Kirkuk were finally free to speak, they shouted. It was a celebration. The lid on this pot has been rattling for decades. The bully Saddam is gone.
But do thousands of Iraqis shown on TV represent the feelings of 23 million residents of Iraq?
In an upscale Internet cafe in downtown Amman, Jordan, about 30 middle-class Arabs watched TV in stunned silence as U.S. Marine Cpl. Edward Chin clambered atop a statue of Saddam in Baghdad. The silence broke when Chin draped an American flag over Saddam's face.
"There were audible gasps in the room,'' said Iraq Peace Team member Ramzi Kysia, an activist from Washington, D.C., who has been in Baghdad and is in Amman today. "No one could believe the arrogance.''
Kysia, a Muslim writer, said the defeat of Saddam and his Baath Party has Arabs and peace activists in Jordan feeling conflicted.
"On the one hand, people are happy to see Saddam fall; they know how terribly he hurt Iraq,'' he said. "On the other hand, people think it happened too quickly. (President) Bush will think he can invade any country he wants, whenever he wants.''
Kysia's voice is one in the chorus of dissent that maintains nothing good can come from violence. Even if it eliminates a tyrant. Even if thousands of Iraqis rejoice.
Costs of war
Anderson, 36, a native of Alabama who lives in Serbia and regularly works in Iraq, worried about civilians caught in the crossfire. Parents would lose children. Children would lose parents. American soldiers, Iraqi conscripts, and even journalists would die.
Like Hans Von Sponeck, a former assistant secretary general of the United Nations in charge of humanitarian affairs in Iraq, Anderson could not bear the idea of innocent people dying in the conquest.
When Von Sponeck left Baghdad in January to return to his home in Geneva, his heart was heavy with a sense of the inevitable.
"Many of the people who walk the streets of Baghdad today will not be walking the streets of Baghdad after the war,'' he told me one month before Bush gave Saddam 48 hours to vacate Iraq. "This enormous price that the Iraqi people would have to pay in order to have a regime change is totally unacceptable.''
The costs can initially be weighed at Baghdad's four main hospitals.
The International Red Cross reports that hospital wards are choked with patients, civilian and military. Iraqi officials, journalists and nongovernment organizations estimate that more than 1,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed and 5,000 injured. Untold numbers are missing.
Before the war, the United Nations had predicted something far uglier: the deaths of 100,000 civilians. But this war did not deliver carnage en masse. That means little for the families of Ali Sabah Eadan, 4; Abbas Esmaeel Abbas, 7; Malek Sabah Eadan, 7; Abeer Taha Abbas, 9; Husham Sabah Eadan, 10; Muhammed Taha Abbas, 12; and Nora Sabah Eadan, 14.
Al-Kindi Hospital surgeon Osama Saleh told the Iraq Peace Team that the children were hit by a missile near the old Diala bridge in Baghdad. Fifteen members of two families died. Their homes burned. The only surviving child was 12-year-old Ali Ismayal, who lost both arms and was badly burned.
Down payment on future
The night before I left Baghdad, I discussed the civilian cost of war with Kathy Kelly, a 2003 Nobel Peace Prize nominee from Chicago. Kelly was at a bowling alley at the Palestine Hotel with dozens of American, European and Iraqi friends.
I had just gone with Kelly to the Shiite region of southern Iraq where Saddam has allowed poverty to fester. Streets flood with raw sewage. Household trash goes uncollected. Children live in conditions unfit for dogs.
"Even if the U.N. estimates are correct and 100,000 Iraqis die from this war, isn't that a small price to pay for the liberation of 23 million Iraqis?'' I asked Kelly. "Isn't regime change the best thing for the future generations of Iraqis? For the children?''
This was Kelly's 20th trip to Iraq. She has lived in the slums of Basra and Baghdad. She has shared the cinderblock garage homes of large Iraqi families who are too poor to afford a real house. Kelly remains in Baghdad today, next door to the Palestine Hotel.
The question bothered her. She looked as if she had tasted something sour.
"They want change desperately but I think they are scared of war,'' she said. ``I don't think they would view war as a means of liberation. ... If even one person dies from this war it is too many.''
Last week, Dr. Saleh told John Lee Anderson of the New Yorker magazine that the Al-Kindi hospital had treated about 300 civilians injured by bombs. He said he did not expect 12-year-old Ali to survive.
"War always brings tragedy, fear, pain and psychological trauma,'' he said. "Personally, I feel that problems can be solved by discussion and negotiation and collaboration. When you use military power, it means your brain has stopped.''
This was the precise point Thorne Anderson had made on the hotel balcony. It didn't matter that Saddam's regime might be eavesdropping or that we could be deported or arrested for speaking freely.
The bombing of a sovereign nation without provocation would be an invasion, Anderson said, plain and simple.
It also would set a dangerous precedent. And perhaps create a free nation.