Rise Up, Iraqis

The US Army toppled a giant statue of Saddam Hussein on horseback near the center of Baghdad on Monday. It was the most symbolic act yet of a coming allied victory over a tottering regime.

But like a tree falling in a forest, the toppling didn't draw enough of an audience to make it real - yet. Except for some US soldiers, there were few, if any, of the 5 million Iraqis in the capital to either help destroy the statue or witness the event.

In a war that's as much about political symbolism as it is about military superiority, the pace of Iraqis helping to overthrow the Hussein regime is as much a marker of progress as, say, the reported killing of his cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali," the ruthless ruler of southern Iraq in Basra.

Many Arab Iraqis (unlike Kurds in the north) may be waiting for more than the certainty of Hussein's removal from power before openly siding with the Americans and British. Even if Hussein's henchmen are no longer threatening them in order to enforce loyalty, Iraqis also need to shake off a mental climate of unpredictability and mistrust in their lives, bred by three decades of totalitarian rule. That pervasive fear makes it difficult for Iraqis to act with the civility of citizens who feel they can control their own government.

Persuading innocent Iraqis to come out of that shell of fear (and it's a very thin shell) is half the battle for the US.

In another symbolic act, the US introduced about 700 members of the "Free Iraqi Forces" onto the battlefield last week, mainly to assist US soldiers in dealing with liberated zones. The Pentagon referred to these former exiles as Iraqi "citizens" who will help form the core of a new Iraqi army.

But this small group was also sent to inspire Iraqis wary of openly siding with foreigners to switch sides.

Iraqis must make that mental leap away from Hussein's reign of terror if the US is to hand over control of the country sooner rather than later - and to govern it safely in the interim.

The shape and timing of that transition is being determined by both the symbolic and real acts of this war. Finding Iraqis the US can trust to set up a democracy quickly - first among the exiles, and then among Iraqis in the country - will likely be more difficult than the war itself.

The United Nations wouldn't be any better than the US at picking the transitional Iraqi leaders and protecting them. The US knows the Iraqi exiles well, and its military will soon encounter thousands of freed Iraqis willing to help rebuild their country.

The US itself was formed out of a war after 1775 led by men and women who had the courage to overcome their fear of a king's reprisals.

Iraqis, too, must soon start their own revolution.

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