At the crossroads

October 23, 2003|By Wayne T. Gilchrest

LAST WEEK, I stood in front of a group of Iraqi sixth-graders in Baghdad and asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up.

Doctors, engineers and nurses, came their response. Each of them was full of hope and curiosity about their future. I drew a picture of the United States on the chalkboard and their teacher drew a picture of Iraq. We drew a line connecting our countries, and I wrote "friends."

As we walked past the anxious parents waiting to pick up their children, the handshakes, hugs and cheers were overwhelming.

It was an uplifting moment in an often somber visit to a country that was ravaged by an oppressive regime. But it's a country with so much hope for its future.

City councils are being elected throughout the country. Hospitals are being resupplied. About 1,600 schools have been rebuilt. Almost 80,000 Iraqi police officers are being trained and will be deployed within the year. Electric power is finally being restored. There's a new currency to reflect a new dawn.

These accomplishments represent only a small fraction of the progress American men and women in uniform, government workers and civilians have brought to Iraq. But the scope of the challenge before us in Iraq is much more than statistics. After spending the better part of a week there, I saw infrastructure in worse condition than I could have imagined, all because of the sheer neglect and malice of Saddam Hussein.

Much damage was also done to the psychology of the Iraqi people. They are embarrassed and humiliated by the condition of their nation. They have a fundamental craving for democracy, yet are still stricken with fear at the prospect of a return to a brutal totalitarian regime.

After talking with Iraqis, their biggest fear of all, however, is that the Americans will leave too soon and the low-grade resistance from Hussein loyalists and foreign fighters, whom the vast majority of the Iraqi people hate, will spiral into a new and dangerous regime of oppression.

I supported President Bush's request for $87 billion for security and reconstruction efforts in Iraq, which passed the House on Friday. After my visit there, it's clear that funding is critical to ensure the safety or our troops and to help bring them home sooner. Stabilization and reconstruction are equal parts in the task before us. Stabilizing Iraq cannot happen without reconstruction, and reconstruction cannot happen without security. The money is an investment in a safer world and will get our troops home.

Some of my colleagues have argued that any help we give to the Iraqi people should be in the form of a loan. Some have suggested we sell their oil. Providing reconstruction money in the form of loans would be a lien against democracy, security and, ultimately, our success. Placing a lien against future Iraqi oil production, which should go to self-sufficiency, plainly states that we came to Iraq to place a claim on petroleum production.

As one Army general told me, money is our ammunition now. The sooner we get Iraqis back to work, the sooner we get to bring our troops home.

We are at the fork in the road that will determine the human condition for the next 100 years. Take the wrong turn and we help Iraq down the road of religious radical oblivion dominated by ignorance, arrogance and unrelenting dogma that incites global terrorism. Take the right road and we contribute to a new renaissance of human expression and a reformation of religious tolerance.

As we looked into the eyes of the men and women of our armed forces, we saw deep courage, a certain intensity and some fear. I had lunch with an infantryman from Maryland who had been wounded a few days earlier in an ambush. As he sat with his M-16 rifle in his lap, we talked about his desire to complete the mission and come home. I was struck at how, like generations before them, they come again, these children of democracy, to find their place in history.

Iraq is a country of tortured ghosts that has been liberated. Iraqis are asking for our help to be a part of the peaceful world community and a striking example of human progress that others in the region cannot ignore.

The seriousness of this effort cannot be overstated. My colleagues and I saw that, too, as we shared a C-130 transport plane back to Kuwait the first night with the bodies of three American soldiers killed in Iraq. It gave us a powerful sense of urgency to get the job done. We simply cannot afford to fail.

Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican, represents Maryland's 1st Congressional District. He spent five days in Iraq with seven other members of Congress.

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