Me and my Iraqi alter ego

"How long will this take?" is the big question looming over efforts to stabilize Iraq. Stamping out armed resistance and forming a new government are top priorities. But as I read the latest news of civilian anger and hostility toward US troops, my curiosity is drawn to a different rung on the Iraqi cultural ladder.

Prior to the war, we were told that Iraq had a well-established, secular middle class that would welcome the ouster of Saddam Hussein and play a key role in rebuilding the social and political infrastructure. These are the people I'm thinking about. It seems quite possible that somewhere in Baghdad there is a person, much like me, sitting in his living room each night worrying about the dangers and details of getting through the next day.

What would that guy think if he could visit me, and use my surroundings as a model for the future of his own community? It would be nice to show him how civic institutions operate when they're not controlled by religious dogma or political ideology. If I call 911, for example, the dispatcher doesn't ask how I voted in the last election before deciding whether to send help. City building inspectors are keeping close tabs on a development behind my property, making sure codes are enforced and my storm drainage isn't adversely affected - without demanding kickbacks or other special favors.

For me, the municipal bureaucracy is almost like an extended family, always available to help at a moment's notice. This gives me peace of mind. I don't wake up each morning worried that my home and family are in jeopardy.

In contrast, my Iraqi counterpart is pretty much on his own. The police are gone, thieves are honing their skills with impunity, basic services such as electricity are minimal at best, and almost everyone has access to guns.

Should he cooperate with the US troops? The deaths this week of Saddam Hussein's two notorious sons notwithstanding, followers of the old regime are lurking everywhere, threatening revenge against those who help the Americans. In such circumstances, I'd probably want plenty of evidence that I'm truly safe before putting myself at risk. I'd want to see a court system firmly in place, and watch it convict accused criminals and send them to prison. And I'd want to feel assured that the new system will not be fractured by religious, political, or tribal disputes after all the foreign troops go home.

Can Iraqis work together to develop a legal and civic framework that operates fairly and reliably, so people can speak and act freely without becoming targets of retaliation? What kind of monetary and military sacrifices are Americans willing to offer in pursuit of that goal? As months go by, average citizens like me in both countries continue to wonder: How long will this take?

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