Iraq: Saladin to Saddam
The ancient cradle of civilization has fiercely resisted occupiers for millenniums. Will this time be different?
The Shabandar Cafe is where Iraqis with an intellectual bent and a taste for sweet, hot tea served in slender glass cups gather to discuss poetry, and politics - and offer stark warnings to would-be conquerors.Skip to next paragraph
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There is no shortage of words. On a recent winter afternoon, a man sits engrossed in a book, his big toe wiggling freely through a large hole in a dark sock. And there is no shortage of history.
On a nearby wall, the faded photographs of stern British generals disapprovingly survey the scene - a sepia reminder of last century's colonial rule.
"The Iraqis - all these people in front of us - have so many good characteristics: they are friendly, honest and polite to foreigners," says Amir Nayef Toma, a professor of English who sits two benches away, working on a translation. "If you go to any Iraqi home and knock on the door, they will welcome you.
"But those good characteristics will be killed in one instant, when you come through the window like a thief," Mr. Toma says. "They will treat [you] so severely and without mercy, and beat [you] nearly to death."
The scene in the cafe speaks volumes about Iraqis today - educated, secular, nationalistic, recently impoverished, and filled with bitter recollections of life under British occupation. Indeed, most Iraqis would say that Professor Toma is understating the case.
"The Iraqis are the hardest Arab people to control or subdue - this is their nature," says Saad Naji Jawad, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "Their history is one of revolts and rebellions. No foreigner could control Iraqis."
For millennia, Iraq has worn and rejected the yoke of foreign invaders, from merciless Assyrians to a British-constructed monarchy that was overthrown in 1958.
Besides regime change and military occupation, even if temporary, the US game plan for Iraq also includes a more ambitious, long-term goal of using Iraq to sow a first seed of democratic rule in the Arab world, where none has grown before.
Attempting to blunt growing criticism abroad that the US has imperial motives in Iraq, Mr. Bush said last week that "a new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region."
The president compared US goals to post-World War II results in Germany and Japan: "After defeating enemies, we did not leave behind occupying armies, we left constitutions and parliaments." Bush added: "We will remain in Iraq as long as necessary, and not a day more."
Administration confidence may be underpinned by the relative ease with which the Taliban was toppled in Afghanistan. Less than 18 months ago, there were dire warnings that - like the Soviet Union - the US would get bogged down waging war in a nation with a long history of brutally rejecting outside rule. While the verdict on that campaign is still out - and Osama bin Laden is still on the run - it is widely seen as a case study of a low-casualty war with broad regional impact.
The Bush administration argues that Iraq is not Afghanistan. And it aims to revive the Iraq of the 1970s and '80s. Then, the world's second largest producer of oil boasted a modern infrastructure and the highest living standards in the Middle East. It had a thriving middle class, and some of the most sophisticated social services and health systems in the region. Literacy campaigns spread far and wide, and Iraq's traditional impulse for learning and cosmopolitan life deepened.
But the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and the 1991 Gulf War, hammered modern Iraq. More than 12 years of UN economic sanctions further tore at the social fabric, bringing poverty on a scale not seen here for more than a generation.
Many Iraqis blame the US for that decline. And experts also point out that the US track record on establishing democracies anywhere - especially in the autocratic Arab world - is poor.