Magazine article The Spectator

Now for the Good News

Magazine article The Spectator

Now for the Good News

Article excerpt

The first snows are arriving in New Hampshire, but the action for the first of the US presidential primaries is still being played out elsewhere. American voters and news junkies in the rest of the world might be excused for thinking that the political battleground is Baghdad. The nightly news broadcasts chronicle in detail every new dead American soldier. Is Iraq going to be the issue? It will be, if the mainly liberal major newspapers and the television networks have their way. Why? Because they think that's the way you get rid of George Bush.

The future will tell, but Iraq could well turn out to be a good-news story for George Bush. An American journalist friend emailed me from Baghdad recently after I had sent him a message saying that I thought one of his figures about unaccounted-for weapons was out by more than a factor of ten. (I was right: he amended the figure, without acknowledging the mistake publicly, in a subsequent story, telling me it was all the fault of a useless official.) After teasing me about whether my family still loved 'the US of Ashcroft [Bush's attorney-general]', he let slip a surprising admission. He had volunteered for a stint in Iraq because he 'wanted to see the first chapter of the end of the American Empire'. But he continued, 'Now that I'm here, however, my first reaction is that Bush/Blair might just pull it off.

'If they can get the phones working, water running, lights on, they have a lot of goodwill,' he wrote. When did you last hear that perspective on the BBC? And don't expect to hear it any time soon either. Two weeks ago, I was relaying this tale to a meeting of senior BBC correspondents and news producers, and it went down like a lead balloon.

Those with a liberal bias would have had their prejudices confirmed by last Sunday's rocket attack on the al-Rasheed hotel in Baghdad, where Paul Wolfowitz, the influential US deputy defence secretary, was staying. Although an American soldier died, Wolfowitz refused to see it as a setback. 'There are a few who refuse to accept the reality of a new and free Iraq,' he said. 'We will be unrelenting in pursuing them.'

Bomb explosions on Monday, murderously effective outside the headquarters of the Red Cross, make it urgent that Wolfowitz follows up on his remarks. For the present, though, the attacks remain a tactical irritant as opposed to a strategic threat.

For ordinary Iraqis, the telephone system is still poor, but it will improve from next month as cellular systems are installed -one for the north, another for the centre and a third for the south. The winners of the contracts include Egyptian and Kuwaiti companies as well as an Iraqi Kurdish company. Water is much better, and in Baghdad the electricity is now following a regular five hours on-two hours off pattern. With petrol generators widely available, many avoid being in the dark at all.

US and coalition forces fear roadside bombs or being shot at; ordinary Iraqis are afraid of crime. But for every Humvee ambushed, there are thousands that go unattacked. And by using four-wheel-drive Land-Cruiser-type vehicles, coalition forces can merge into the background of tens of thousands of similar vehicles. For ordinary Iraqis, as well, improvements arc tangible: secular Iraqi women no longer when going out drape themselves in chadors to minimise the risk of assault or kidnap. This week, the overnight curfew was lifted in Baghdad.

After some apprehension about personal security when the schools opened in September, there is now less concern. Children are walking home without their parents. Students and teachers have become eligible again for Fulbright scholarships in the US. In the courts, 130 of which have been renovated, vetted judges and prosecutors, after taking classes in the rule of law, now form an independent judiciary. The British system of criminal courts is being emulated.

The goodwill towards Americans is mingled with humour. An official went to see a Shia tribal leader, and as they sat down for the first of many cups of a hot sweet beverage, the lights in the majlis, the reception room, dimmed and went out. …

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