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Fred Hiatt

Courage Under Fire

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, December 27, 2004; Page A29

Returning to Washington from Baghdad this month for home leave gave A. Heather Coyne a shock, and not just thanks to the cold. In Iraq, as chief representative of the U.S. Institute of Peace, Coyne spends her days working with that country's emerging civil society. Back home, she finds Americans astonished to hear that there is an emerging civil society -- that Iraqis remain involved with rebuilding their country despite all the explosions and killings.

No, this is not a "good news" story. To the contrary, Coyne's experience confirms the deterioration of conditions in Iraq. She is confined, for security reasons, to Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone. That's been true for a long time; now her Iraqi colleagues for the most part dare not visit her there, because the terrorists are always watching those who come and go. Communication is by phone and e-mail.

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Recently the institute held a workshop on conflict resolution in Sulaymaniyah, in the relatively peaceful Kurdish north, because the capital is too dangerous. One participant was a Mosul professor who lectures with 10 armed bodyguards in attendance in his classroom.

The insurgents, in other words, are succeeding, not only in killing and wounding Iraqis and Americans but in impeding Iraqis' ability to rebuild their country and to interact with each other and with foreigners. They are blocking precisely the kinds of interaction a society needs to begin recovering from decades of dictatorship. Worse: The violence is exacerbating sectarian tensions, as the insurgents also intend. So far a remarkable feature of the war has been Kurdish and, especially, Shiite restraint in the face of provocation from Sunni terrorists. But Phebe Marr, an Iraq expert and senior fellow at the Institute of Peace who also recently returned from Iraq, says the sectarian-based anger is worse than she has ever seen.

And yet, what strikes Coyne is not the bad news -- maybe because she's living in the middle of it -- but the fortitude and persistence in the face of attacks of the Iraqis she works with. The Mosul professor keeps teaching. One local leader called the day after being shot three times -- to ask whether the institute had accepted the people he had recommended to take part in a seminar. Another, whose house was torched, got in touch to make sure Coyne had his new telephone number.

"Yes, they complain" about conditions, Coyne said. But she finds a surfeit of Iraqis who still want to learn what the institute has to teach -- about how to peacefully manage religious and sectarian conflict, for example -- and who are willing to drive 11 or 12 hours through multiple dangerous checkpoints to get books and practical advice and lessons from other Iraqis.

To the families of American soldiers who are dying or at risk, there may be little comfort in knowing that Iraqis also are dying and putting themselves at risk. It may help only a bit more to realize that so many of them are committed to making democracy and tolerance work and that their success would be not only the just outcome but in the U.S. national interest, too. Yet the courage of these ordinary Iraqis is extraordinary.

It doesn't mean, of course, that they will win. The insurgents are testing the will of both Americans and Iraqis; if U.S. and Iraqi forces cannot provide some measure of safety for election observers and college professors and women's rights campaigners, it will not matter that a majority of Iraqis want the insurgents to fail.

What is remarkable, though, is that despite the mistakes of the U.S. occupation, and despite the ruthlessness and brutality of the terrorists, so many Iraqis continue to stand up on the other side. Coyne recently interviewed applicants for Fulbright grants, smart Iraqis willing to risk an association with a U.S. program because they dream of starting an Internet site, or a government watchdog organization, or a public health project. And when they are asked why they take the risk, they invariably answer, "Because it wasn't possible before."

One applicant was a young Kurdish man who graduated at the top of his high school class but, in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, was not permitted to go to university. He is coming forward now, he told Coyne, "because this is my first best chance." She paused and added, "And maybe his last best chance."

fredhiatt@washpost.com


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