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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 April, 2004, 09:06 GMT 10:06 UK
Iraq wrestles with new freedoms

By John Simpson
BBC World Affairs editor, Baghdad

Even a year later, I still find it a pleasure to go into a teahouse in Baghdad and talk openly about politics. The terrible oppression of having to watch everything you said has vanished.

Men play dominoes in Baghdad
Men play dominoes in Baghdad

Under Saddam Hussein, your children could be your worst enemy. It was drilled into them that they should report any criticisms their parents might make about the regime.

Thousands of people, it is said, were jailed as a result of things they had said at home.

When I first visited Baghdad in 1990, no one would even meet my gaze in the street.

People were terrified that it could lead to trouble. I walked around feeling as though I were invisible.

All that has gone.

Benefits of invasion

Iraqis can now say what they think, and speak to anyone they want. That is one of the two great benefits of last year's invasion.

The other is that the UN sanctions against Iraq, forced through year after year by the US and Britain, have finally gone. The shops are full again, and malnutrition and grinding poverty are becoming just a bad memory.

To anyone who has come to know and love Iraq over the years, these are things to be very glad about. In other ways, though, the overthrow of Saddam has brought all sorts of new problems.

Iraq has always been a balancing act.

Women prepare bread in Iraq
Women prepare bread in Iraq

Saddam Hussein kept the Sunnis, Shias, Kurds and others quiet through the exercise of simple terror. Without him, the country is going to have to find other reasons for staying together.

The key figures in the Pentagon and the White House who wanted the overthrow of Saddam believed Iraq would quickly accept American-style democracy, and that the invasion would be the start of a domino effect in the Middle East.

Well, so far there is no sign whatever of that.

There are able politicians in Iraq, but they are not yet experienced enough or trusted. It will be some time before the country will be able to settle down under stable government, if it ever does.

Calm or confusion

We still don't know whether Iraq will eventually calm down, or whether there will be even more confusion and violence.

At present, Iraq reminds me less of, say, South Africa immediately after the hand-over of power at the end of apartheid 10 years ago, and more of a turbulent colony in the last stages of imperial rule.

Algeria, say, or Indonesia, or Iraq itself before the British withdrew in 1932, with angry crowds on the streets and nervous administrators alternately making concessions and ordering sudden violent crackdowns.

These are hard times for Iraq even if, for the first time in decades, people can say openly what they think about them.





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