Q&A: What's going on in Iraq - a first-hand account

The Monitor's State Department correspondent discusses the situation in Iraq while there on assignment.

Howard LaFranchi covers diplomacy and the US State Department for the Monitor. Based in Washington, he is currently on assignment in Iraq. Previously, he served as Paris bureau chief for four years and he was the Monitor's Latin America correspondent in Mexico City from 1994-2001. He discussed the current state of affairs in Iraq with csmonitor.com's Jim Bencivenga.

Is the armed resistance to coalition forces in Iraq coming primarily from Sunni Arabs, both Sadam Hussein loyalists and Baathist party members? How much of the resistance is native, and not affiliated with Islamist foreign fighters or Baathist holdovers?

No one is offering pie charts with who makes up what part of the resistance facing coalition forces in Iraq. Nor is anyone making any knowledgeable estimates of their numbers. But it appears clear that the majority are Iraqis, largely coming from the higher ranks of Saddam Hussein's Army and security apparatus, and high-ranking Baathists - plus the Iraqis they are able to pay to actually carry out the attacks. US forces over the weekend arrested two generals they claim were involved in the attacks. And since then three dozen people have been arrested in connection with the rocket attack last month on the Al Rasheed Hotel, inside the closely guarded compound where the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) lives and works.

On the other hand there is some indication that the suicide bombings that hit the UN building here and the Red Cross headquarters, for example, may have been carried out by foreign "jihadists" or Islamic extremists.

When you talk with Iraqis do they have a time line by which they think they will be self-governing? How similar is it to the one US forces under the aegis of Paul Bremer, talk about.

About the shortest timeframe I have heard from an Iraqi for self-rule is six months, but that appears to be more wishful thinking than based on reality. The president of Iraq's US-appointed Governing Council, Jalal Talabani, told me he believes a wise alternative to the current US plan for writing a constitution and holding elections within a year would be to accept a temporary constitution that would give the country a provisional government and full sovereignty while a final constitution is written and elections are held. He says that process should take more than two years. That alternative would look more like the model Afghanistan is following, where Hamid Karzai has been president since Dec., 2001, even though elections will not be held until next June.

The CPA is showing some signs of impatience with the Iraqi leaders it selected and appears to want to move faster towards a constitution and elections than some Iraqis believe is possible. A compromise might look something like what Mr. Talabani is suggesting - which also resembles ideas some UN Security Council members proposed several weeks ago. The US may reconsider what it rejected then.

Is the US being naïve about nation building given the deep seated differences between the Kurds and Shiites and their former Sunni masters? Many of those at the top of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime have been brought to justice. How far down into the former regime need the coalition go before there will be a peaceful, law-abiding democracy in Iraq? Especially after the US leaves, or significantly reduces its military forces?

Many Iraq scholars point to the failed British experiment, in the first half of the last century, in democracy-building in Iraq, as Exhibit A for the case against a foreign power trying to impose a democratic system. But it must also be said that, while democracy may hardly be the norm in the region, it is much more widespread in the world than a century ago, and a majority of Iraqis - including the humblest - express a desire for it. It is in fact striking here how many people, even among the Shiite majority that was for so long persecuted by Saddam Hussein, say they are prepared to live with a president from a different ethnic or religious group as long as the government is fair and there is a representative parliament.

There is nearly unanimity here about the need to detain and prosecute the top figures of the former regime. But beyond that people express different views about just how far down the hierarchy the purge must go. Many people believe it was a mistake for the Americans not to call back most of the army and even some of the intelligence services well before now. They argue that most of them were simply collecting a paycheck and had no faith in the regime. But leaving them out in the cold without a livelihood could turn them against the new order.

How great is the risk of civil war among Iraqis should the US pull out before sufficient pacification and some democratically sustaining governing authority is in place? What is the balance that still needs to be struck between having Iraqis run their country and Coalition forces leaving before making sure that neither chaos (civil war) nor an anti-American regime results?

One need only look as far as the killings of new leaders and inter-party fighting - in some cases armed - to realize that a rapid pullout of the only armed forces people generally respect here could indeed lead to civil conflict. After 35 years of persecution and groups being pitted and played against each other - and in a culture that historically has learned to resolve leadership and political disputes through violence - it would be naïve to expect them to know how to form a new representative regime peacefully. On the other hand, many people had expected more internecine strife than the country has witnessed, so the country appears to be making a start.

What are the most significant developments in nation building and infrastructure restoration you see going on? How is the average Iraqi faring in Baghdad, in other parts of the country, with daily needs like groceries, heating and cooking oil, clothing, and medical care?

Food, clothing, and other consumer goods are in plentiful supply. Ironically the greatest difficulties are with petroleum products, from gasoline to liquefied gas for home cooking. Products are available, but aside from gasoline, prices are much higher than before the war. Gasoline is heavily subsidized (with Iraqis paying a fraction of the price at which the US government is importing it). A thriving black market is pushing prices ever higher.

Coalition authorities say thousands of schools have been refurbished and supplied with new books and materials. But at the same time families in some parts of Baghdad and other cities affected by security concerns are keeping their children out of classrooms. Public-service works are creating menial jobs and putting mostly young people to work picking up roadside trash and painting street curbs. But some of the highest impact projects probably aren't cement and nails projects but more in democracy-building projects: establishing of local town councils, for example, or the training of a new generation of journalists for newly opened newspapers, radio stations, and a new public TV station.

In your conversations with Iraqis do you get a sense that young people there see hope for the future and want to stay and rebuild their nation? Or do they want to emigrate seeking a better life? What about the role of women? Has it improved in comparison to life under Hussein?

Maybe because the Baath system offered many people a modicum of material comfort, many young people here expect the "authority" to provide them a sense of well-being - and with Saddam Hussein gone that means the Americans. So many young people are very demanding of what America should be providing and seem to have little patience or expectation that it is their hard work and sacrifice that is required to modernize and democratize Iraq. Some young people talk about emigrating, but most seem to expect America - which they seem to blindly accept as so rich and powerful that it is able to do whatever it wants - to make things right for them here. People do not expect riches of the Americans, but they do expect security and do not understand why the Americans are not providing it.

The place of women has not changed. This is not Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, and what rights people had here in the former regime were generally accorded (or denied) equally to men and women. The more traditional tribes live by customs that clearly discriminate against women, but that has not changed as a result of Hussein's removal.

Have you had the opportunity to be with any US military forces for more than casual conversations? If so, how would you characterize troop morale? Do they feel they are making a difference in the everyday lives of Iraqis? Or do they just want to get back to the US and their own everyday as soon as possible lives?

My first day here, I walked into a building guarded by US forces through the wrong walkway. When the soldier brought that to my attention and asked if I was new "in country," I told him I'd only been in Iraq a few hours. He responded with a rye smile and said, "I'm truly sorry to hear that, sir." That said, some American service people a journalist runs into clearly feel a sense of purpose in what they are doing. One picks up on a keen sense of sadness when there are setbacks, but a sense of pride at accomplishments and progress made with the Iraqi people.

How do Iraqis get the news? Do individual Mullahs play a greater role than any media source for most Iraqis? How is the US-sponsored news station perceived in terms of reliability entertainment value?

As elsewhere, most Iraqis get their news from television. But perhaps because they are emerging from a regime that controlled all means of communication, there is little trust in the news the media sources offer. Recent surveys show high viewership for the new public TV station being set up with US funding - but less impressive levels of trust. This dichotomy is true for virtually all TV news sources, however.

Three-quarters of Iraqis say they get at least some of their news from the radio, but a majority say they do not trust what they hear. According to one poll, those who listen to the BBC generally tend to trust it, while listeners of the US-sponsored programming - including radio Sawa - appear to remain skeptical of what they are hearing.

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