The Long Road Ahead

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Just outside An Najaf, a city of over a half million people, the 101st Airborne temporarily occupied an old school. Its walls were cracking, it was covered in dust, and by all appearances it had not been occupied for years. In any city or town in America the building would have been condemned and cordoned off as a hazard. It was not until troops entered the building and noticed 2003 calendars hanging on the walls that anyone realized the building was still in use.

The school's toilets were overflowing with feces, the power generator was useless and most of the fixtures had been carted away. There was only one child's drawing tacked to a wall, and all of the schools books were locked away in a back room. The locals say that government teachers show up on a regular basis, but the kids only go to school when a party official comes and tells them to. When he leaves, so do the children. The books are only issued when an inspector comes to visit and then immediately collected up until the next inspection.

While the endless expanse of the Iraqi desert is depressing, it is not the source of my gloom as I trail American forces into Iraq. This melancholy is rooted in the apparent hopelessness of the environment. Anything more then a cursory glimpse around reveals that the Iraqi people, at least those living in this region, are completely beaten. Signs of physical decay and the population's broken spirits lie everywhere.

When I passed my first Bedouin family I thought of them as noble, living a lifestyle virtually unchanged since the fall of Babylon. However, the sight of young children at the side of the road begging for MRE's (the U.S. military's "meals ready to eat," which most Americans would consider barely edible) made me look a bit harder at what I was seeing. It occurred to me that this was not just an activity the kids thought would be fun. Rather, it had all of the appearances of an organized effort.

Despite being warned not to throw food to civilians along the way, many soldiers gave into the pleas; every few trucks someone would toss off a meal. Every time I saw it, the closest kid would scramble for the package and then take it directly to an old man about 50 yards behind each gaggle of kids. This man was stockpiling the meals, presumably for later consumption.

The Bedouin do not have many riches, and sheep and camel herds account for what they do have. Even by Bedouin standards the people I saw are impoverished. Of the hundred family groupings we passed by, I did not see one flock of sheep with more than 20 animals, and even those small flocks usually had six shepherds watching over them.

It would be tempting to blame global sanctions for this poverty, but in fact, the Bedouins wouldn't be much affected by sanctions. They are a self-contained economic unit, and throughout history have managed to maintain a substantial wealth in livestock. A more plausible explanation for the poverty is that Saddam's totalitarian government is attempting to run a socialist economic model: there is no reason, after all, for people to accumulate wealth if Saddam's government is going to take everything from them.

Everywhere along the route, further signs of government perversion were clearly visible. Dead farming plots have been reclaimed by the desert because no one cared to make a simple repair to an irrigation lever; hundreds of buildings begun and abandoned, leaving all the necessary materials to rot; people living in ruined brick hovels despite the nearby presence of hundreds of bricks. The people of Southern Iraq may not be able to attain Western standards of prosperity, but they have the immediate resources to make dramatic improvements to their current situation if they were inspired to do so.

What this may imply for the future is that there will be no quick fix for Iraq. After the Hussein dictatorship is deposed, the culture and economy of these people will have to be rebuilt from the most basic level.

Set free, the Iraqis will probably reach into their reserves of resourcefulness and prove as resilient as all other freed populations before them. If that is the case, Iraq may become one of the miracle economies of this century.

It will be up to the United States to make sure that the new government and post-war policies keep one focus: encouraging economic growth. Freeing Iraq of a murderous tyrant is only the first half of the fight. After that we have to free them of the policies, bureaucracy and socialism that have wrought untold economic devastation.