HILLAH, Iraq The portraits are haunting, unshakable and impossible to ignore. Myriad pictures of missing men dot the urban landscape of Hillah, Iraq, a predominately Shiite Muslim city 60 miles south of Baghdad. Some of the subjects look distinctly western – a suit, tie and mustache – others have a traditional Middle Eastern appearance – a long white gown, headdress and beard. Most appear to be vigorous and prosperous men in the prime of their lives. All this appeared during the brutal reign of Saddam Hussein. Then you find their resting place on the mass graves of the outskirts of town, where more than 3,000 lives were extinguished by Saddam’s security forces. Before I arrived in Hillah as a U.S Army Military Police officer, I was skeptical about American involvement in Iraq. “What are we doing here?” I wondered. “Was it the weapons of mass destruction? The supposed ties to al Qaeda? The nuclear program? Or were we here to depose a murderous dictator and try to bring democratic self-rule to a nation of 25 million in the center of the chronically corrupt Arab world?” After looking face to face with the dead, innocent victims of Saddam’s apparatus of evil, I have no doubt that we are justified in being here.
Abbas, a 51-year-old elementary school security guard and father of 10, visited our compound the other day with his beautiful 11-year-old daughter, Abeer. Abbas has a long scar on his head where Saddam’s security personnel beat in his skull for allegedly being disloyal during the Shiite uprising following the first Gulf War. After Abbas was sent to prison, the thugs went to his home and raped four of his teenage daughters.
Abbas celebrated when the U.S. Marines liberated Hillah. Now he counts as friends many of the soldiers of my MP Company. Abbas is back on the job. We trained him and hundreds of other security guards and police officers in Hillah, trying to instill integrity and service to the community as core values. It has been an uphill battle, but one we are winning. Corruption was a way of life in Saddam’s Iraq. Bribes were commonplace. Baath party membership was often a prerequisite for social and professional advancement, opening the door to opportunity. Non-party members could not gain employment in Iraq’s vast bureaucracy, become law enforcement officers or even attend college. But that is over now. Iraq is opening a new chapter in its history. This chapter is one with unprecedented opportunity for success – or failure. From what I have read in newspapers my family sends me from home and in the rare chances I get to use the Internet, the media seems to be selling the idea that American troops are dogged down in a quagmire. In my opinion, coverage of the occupation generally lacks balance in any sense of proportion. Yes, soldiers are dying a rate of one every other day. Those stories are tragic and must be told. And, certainly, rebuilding the infrastructure of a nation the size of California is no small task. But while the media focuses on negative events, ambushes, bombing and sabotage, it often misses the positive stories.
Each day I patrol the streets of Hillah I am greeted with smiles, waves and jubilant cheers. In broken English, Iraqis shout, “I love you America,” “Thank you America” and “good Bush.” Children mob soldiers, asking, “Is America beautiful?” and “You like Hillah?” And they beg us to take photos with them. Soldiers give children candy or sometimes something better. Our medic bought Abass’ daughter Abeer – a bicycle and a new a set of clothes. The kids often give gifts, however small, to the soldiers. One young boy even let me ride his donkey.
In Hillah, crime is down as more cops hit the street. At the police station I help supervise, the Iraqi chief says most of the mischief in Hillah is caused by instigators from Baghdad, Salluga and Tikrit, the so-called “Sunni Triangle.” Business is booming as sanctions have been lifted and trade is flourishing. Rows of shining new appliances, TVs and satellite dishes make traversing the sidewalks of Hillah a daunting task. And oil revenue will finally be used to address the needs of the Iraqi people, rather than to purchase guns and build palaces as in Saddam’s Iraq. A poll by Iraqi Media Network, an American-run TV station under the new provisional authority, found that 87 percent of Hillah residents want American soldiers to stay, and 91 percent consider American soldiers their friends. Why isn’t the American media focusing on these stories?
I am not saying that everything is perfect, or even close to it, in Iraq. Aside from rooting out Saddam’s loyalists, the most pressing challenge facing the occupation authority is remedying the severe electricity and gasoline shortages. For now, the Iraqis I met are giving civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer the benefit of the doubt. These fundamental problems are crippling the livelihood of Iraqis and must be addressed. But the window of opportunity is quickly closing.
From my view on the ground, the media portrayal of events in Iraq painfully misses the point. The dramatic failures of the occupation are magnified while daily successes go unreported. I wish for one day that the media could follow my squad through the streets of Hillah. Then the world would see what I see – the smiling faces of a long-oppressed people who exalt in their newfound freedom and hope in the future – unimaginable during Saddam’s reign.
Finally, I would like to relay an exchange I had with my friend Mehdi, a 61-year-old Iraqi translator who works with my company.
“You know what many of the old people think about the Americans?” Mehdi asked. “What’s that, Mehdi?” I said. He replied, “They think you were sent here by God. America has a lot to live up to.”
-The writer, a Specialist in the Army Reserves, is a GW law student and former Hatchet editor in chief.