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David Ignatius

Easter in Iraq

By David Ignatius
Friday, March 25, 2005; Page A19

I spent Easter Sunday two years ago in a Baghdad that had just been liberated by U.S. and coalition troops. And, yes, the right word is "liberated." If you doubt that was the feeling of most Iraqis at the time, then you weren't there.

Across the city that day were images of a nation's resurrection -- its return from what had been a kind of death in life under Saddam Hussein. I went to a Protestant church that morning and then visited several of the many political parties that had suddenly reopened their offices. The most jubilant Iraqi politicians were the communists. They had been brutally repressed by the old Baathist regime, but now they were back in business, boisterously distributing their Marxist pamphlets.

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The most powerful images of that Baghdad Easter, paradoxically, were the tens of thousands of Shiite Muslim pilgrims marching to Karbala to celebrate the religious festival known as Arbaeen. Hussein had suppressed these pilgrimages, and many of the young men had never made the trek to Karbala. Now they were filling the streets, passionately voicing their faith as they marched under green-and-black banners of Islam.

Iraq has suffered so much pain in the two years since then; it often seems more like a Good Friday story of suffering than an Easter one of joy. People have died so senselessly -- young Iraqi men standing in line to join the police or military, American soldiers ravaged by suicide bombers and roadside explosives, Iraqi families whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What most Iraqis wanted from America after liberation was security, stability and a chance at normal life. What they got instead in the beginning was chaos and bloodshed, as the United States bungled the first year of occupation and allowed a cruel insurgency to take root. Historians will spend the next generation trying to assess whether that story could have turned out differently if America had planned better.

In his poem "Easter 1916," Yeats wrote words that convey the cold ruthlessness of the killers, the suffering of the victims and the deformation that war brings: Hearts with one purpose alone/ Through summer and winter seem/ Enchanted to a stone/ To trouble the living stream. . . . Too long a sacrifice/ Can make a stone of the heart./ O when may it suffice?

This year Iraq began to look like an Easter story again. The Jan. 30 elections were a kind of resurrection after so many months of despair. The election's success seems inevitable now, but it was an audacious experiment. The Bush administration believed that Iraqis would prize freedom and democracy as Americans do, yet until that morning, nobody could be sure that this assumption was right. The first voters walked into those polling places thinking they might die, but they went anyway -- that is how badly they wanted to vote. And there was the answer to the experiment, written in blood. For Iraqis, and I think for the whole world, something was reborn that day.

I've made some misjudgments over the past two years in trying to anticipate developments in Iraq. It has been at once the most encouraging and discouraging story I've witnessed as a journalist. Over time I've tried to temper my optimism and pessimism: It's never as bad as it seems in the low moments and never as good as it seems in the peak ones.

That wary stance -- hoping for the best even as you recognize the possibility of the worst -- seems appropriate now, as the world watches a new Iraqi government prepare to take the next steps. Will Iraq's newly governing Shiite majority be wise and inclusive? Or will we see another round of settling of scores, more chapters written in blood, more hearts enchanted to unyielding and inflexible belief? We really can't say. We hope the sacrifices made by Iraqis and Americans will prove to be justified. But we don't know.

That uncertainty is what makes Iraq truly an Easter story this year. You can't be sure with scientific certainty how the story will turn out. It's a matter of hope, of prayer and of continuing bloody struggle. What you can plainly see is that the stone has been rolled away from the tomb of the old Iraq. Has the country been reborn? Is this a story of redemption and triumph? Nobody can tell you the answer yet. For now, it's a question of keeping faith with the people who dreamed, two Easters ago, that they had gained a new life.


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