Don't let disorder fill the void

April 10, 2003|By Thomas L. Friedman

UMM QASR, Iraq - It's hard to smile when there's no water.

It's hard to applaud when you're frightened.

It's hard to say, "Thank you for liberating me," when liberation has meant that looters have ransacked everything from the grain silos to the local school, where they even took away the blackboard.

That was what I found when spending the day here in Umm Qasr and its hospital, in southern Iraq. Umm Qasr was the first town liberated by coalition forces. But 20 days into the war, it is without running water, security or adequate food supplies.

I went in with a Kuwaiti relief team, who, taking pity on the Iraqis, tossed out extra food from a bus window as we left. The Umm Qasr townsfolk scrambled after that food like pigeons jostling for bread crumbs in a park.

This was a scene of humiliation, not liberation. We must do better.

America has broken the old order - Mr. Hussein's regime - but it has yet to put in place a new order, and the vacuum is being filled in too many places by looters, thugs, chaos, thirst, hunger and insecurity. A particular problem here in the south is the fact that British troops have still not totally secured Basra, the regional center. Without free access to Basra, the whole southern economy is stalled.

It would be idiotic to ask Iraqis here how they feel about politics. They are in a pre-political, primordial state of nature.

When I asked Dr. Safaa Khalaf at Umm Qasr Hospital why the reception for U.S. forces there had been so muted, he answered: "Many people here have sons who were soldiers. They were forced to join the army. Many people lost their sons. They are angry from the war. Since the war, no water, no food, no electricity. We have not had water for washing or drinking for five days. There is no law, no policeman to arrest people. I don't see yet the American reign of running the country."

The scene at Umm Qasr Hospital is tragic.

A woman who delivered a baby an hour earlier is limping home, and her mother has the baby tucked under her black robe. An old orange Dodge speeds up and a malnourished teen-age boy moans on the back seat. A little kid is playing with an X-ray film of someone's limb. In the hospital lab, the sink is piled with bloody test tubes, waiting to be washed when the water comes back on.

What is striking, though, is that after people get through complaining to you about their situation, they each seem to have a story about a family member or cousin who was arbitrarily jailed or killed by Mr. Hussein's thugs. They are truly glad to be rid of him. America did good in doing that, so now we must build a peace we can be equally proud of.

But this is such a broken land. Its spirit was broken by Mr. Hussein long before we arrived, and now, because of this war, its major cities and iron-fisted order are being broken as well. Killing Mr. Hussein alone will not bring America the thank-you's it expects, because Iraqis are not yet feeling free. Only replacing Mr. Hussein's order with a better order will do that.

"There is no freedom because there is no security," said Dr. Mohammed al-Mansuri, the hospital's director.

We are so caught up with our own story of "America's liberation of Iraq," and the Arab TV networks are so caught up with their own story of "America's occupation of Iraq," that everyone seems to have lost sight of the real lives of Iraqis.

"We are lost," said Zakiya Jassim, a hospital maintenance worker. "The situation is getting worse.

"I don't care about Saddam. He is far away. I want my country to be normal."

America broke Iraq; now America owns Iraq, and it owns the primary responsibility for normalizing it.

If the water doesn't flow, if the food doesn't arrive, if the rains don't come and if the sun doesn't shine, it's now America's fault.

We'd better get used to it, we'd better make things right, we'd better do it soon, and we'd better get all the help we can get.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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