|The New York Times
The Cruelest Month
By WILLIAM SAFIRE May 3, 2004
WASHINGTON — "April is the cruelest month," wrote T. S. Eliot in "The Waste Land." This April cruelly set back democracy and antiterrorism in Iraq.
reached a peak. A Marine commander had to appeal to a
Republican Guard general to come to terms with Baathist insurgents in
Bush had to express America's disgust at the humiliation of Iraqi
prisoners by a handful of sadistic guards. Taken together, that's
as bad as it gets.
However, a certain grim logic suggests a turn for the better may be coming this summer.
Our June 30 deadline for the end of occupation, once criticized, is now inexorable. Iraqi sovereignty, it has been agreed, will be palpable but limited; coalition troops will remain under command of the former occupiers, and the purpose of the U.N.-chosen transitional Iraqi government is strictly to set up free elections.
The U.N., at last given its long-sought "central role" in Iraq's politics, is becoming less afflicted with hubris.
U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, the Berber who sought cheap popularity among anti-Americans in Iraq by calling Israel "poison" and the U.S. support of Gaza withdrawal "thoughtless," was reported by Secretary General Kofi Annan to wish he had not said that.
Annan went on to assure NBC's Tim Russert that any U.N. employee who refused to cooperate with the independent investigation into the oil-for-food scandal would be fired.
Annan still called corruption charges a "smear." He passed the failed-supervision buck to the Security Council's 661 committee, then lamely professed little knowledge of a cover-up letter sent only two weeks ago in the name of his chief aide, hinting that it might not have been his aide's doing.
But the secretary general seemed aware of the damage done to the U.N. by the $5 billion kickback scheme. Hoping to recoup its reputation in Iraq, he must realize that this is no time to join French and Russian profiteers in multilateralist triumphalism.
The new certainty in Iraq of ultimate coalition troop withdrawal should
also concentrate the minds of those Iraqis who until now have been all
too content to allow the outside world to bear the human and financial
costs of overthrowing Saddam.
But there is never any free ride to freedom. If Iraqis do not take up the opportunity now made available to them by the sacrifice of outsiders, they will slip back into a new dictatorship, with new torture chambers and mass graves.
The Kurdish minority is aware of this. That is why only a few hundred U.S. troops are needed in northern Iraq to help the Kurds keep the peace and build democracy in their region.
But in the Sunni triangle, many of Falluja's insurgents jubilantly declared victory, waving a Saddam-era flag, when a Marine commander apparently made a hasty deal with one of Saddam's generals to recruit a few hundred ex-officers and quieten the hotbed city. We can hope that any such gamble with unvetted Baathists does not mean we have stopped fighting to win and started fighting not to lose.
Perhaps the sight of a Sunni force in charge of a key city will snap the Shia leaders in the south out of their political torpor. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, unwilling so far to order his followers to confront Iran's violent stooge, faces the need to exert his influence lest it be lost to the anti-American firebrand.
Where are the religious Shia in the face of this challenge to their spiritual leader? Where are the secular Shia who would face another horrendous wipeout if the old Sunni military took over when coalition forces left? Where are the voices of a million Iraqis who returned from exile after their persecutor was overthrown? Where is the leader brave enough to tell fellow Iraqis that the danger to them is not from America, but from Iran, Al Qaeda and a new Saddam?
The great majority of Iraqis are glad that Saddam is overthrown. We and the U.N. are giving them democracy's moment, but courageous Iraqis must come forward to seize it. Next April's goal is not "stability," the new soft word for the old hard tyranny. The goal — theirs and ours — remains Iraqi freedom.