Iraq still a scary place, but signs of hope emerging|[2/5/06]

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 6, 2006

BAGHDAD – The big man next to me on the inbound flight might help set the scene.

He was black, a New Yorker and a veteran, having served in the Army and been to Europe. He had hired on as a civilian to work for a contractor in Iraq, lured by top wages, and said he was bothered by a bit of apprehension.

He turned to look at me. I think he figured since I was much older that I must be more calm about entering a war zone. I told him I was a reporter from Mississippi.

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&#8220Mississippi,” he said. &#8220I haven’t been there. It’s a scary place for a man like me.” He mentioned the movie, &#8220Mississippi Burning.”

&#8220That’s OK,” I said. &#8220I’m kind of scared of New York.” I didn’t mention any movie in particular, but there are plenty that depict New York as a less-than-friendly place.

We all form beliefs about things we haven’t experienced based on what we see, hear or are told.

The United States, however, is delivering, in person, three versions of itself to the people of Iraq.

One is the military version, the overwhelming force used to eject Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party from despotic rule – backward and brutal by any standard – and the ongoing roar of Humvees, tanks, helicopters and jet fighters to track down and blast insurgents while training and propping up local police and armed-forces units.

Second is the guidance being given toward self-rule, which has moved forward on schedule, if bumpily.

Third is the rebuilding effort, which is blending Western values about commerce and economics with more ancient Arab values.

Opinions of Iraqis about Americans, who dominate what is truly a multinational presence here, probably vary as widely as the opinions of Americans about other Americans.

Some want all foreigners out or dead, and don’t care which one. Some are kind of bewildered about technologies that are new to them and are understandably cautious.

&#8220What’s hardest for people to understand is how these people were oppressed for decades,” said Barney Davis, a Starkville native who learned to be an engineer at Mississippi State and came here from his job as chief of construction for the Nashville District of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Now based at Camp Victory, north of Baghdad, Davis, 54, has the same title for the Gulf Region Central District of the Corps.

The scale is a little different. The Nashville District has about 700 employees with a $150 million annual budget. GRC, which includes all projects in Baghdad and other such newly familiar places as Fallujah and Ramadi, has 125 people who will oversee $1 billion worth of water, sewer, power, education, road and other projects this year.

Davis said most Iraqis are &#8220willing and knowledgeable,” but knows caution is a big part of the picture. It will take a while for suspicion about change and fear of return to the &#8220old days” to fade.

Inside and all around Baghdad in what we, as schoolchildren, were taught to call the Fertile Crescent of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the soil is light-colored, grayish brown. It seems worn out by tens of centuries of use. This is the rainy season, but unlike a tropical rainy season only a few inches will fall over a month or six-week period. Whatever does come down sits on the surface, forming puddles of mud not like the Delta buckshot back in Mississippi.

On an area outside Camp Victory, armed soldiers formed a perimeter to guard against attacks as American soldiers conducted a &#8220driving school” for Iraqi police in a four-acre patch of this goo.

The Iraqis appeared, as Davis had described, both willing and cautious. Their American instructors did, too.

This one event was a micro-version of one of the largest-ever attempts to reinvent a nation. Whether President Bush was right or wrong to choose pre-emptive action and declare war on the rogue leader of this nation can still be debated, but it doesn’t matter a bit in Iraq at the point.

While there’s lingering worry that Saddam will reclaim power or some despot will arise, most people here have advanced to phases two and three.

They’re getting a political system in place that will be divided, but probably not as divided as American Democrats and Republicans are today and they’re building.

It’s fascinating to be here to watch.