(UPI) # From the back of our Humvee, we Marines watched a group of Iraqi civilians run across the road after we roared by. The sky was a sickly yellowish-green color, the result of a sandstorm that would shortly turn into a thunderstorm; the runners were trying to avoid either the bad weather, the fighting in the city, or both. The last man in the group gave us the thumbs-up sign and yelled something as he dashed toward the treeline.
“I thought that gesture meant ‘up yours’ in the Arab world,” I said to our interpreter, Kalid.
“No, they know it’s a good sign to Americans,” Kalid replied.
“What did he yell?”
“He said ‘thank you.'”
On that day, March 25, the second Iraqi war was only a few days old. Contrary to hopes before the war, the Iraqi people had not risen up against their Baathist overlords the moment coalition forces crossed the border. One snide American pundit, speaking on BBC World News, said this probably meant that Iraqis saw the invasion as a conquest, not as a war of “liberation,” as President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair styled it.
Those of us on the ground knew that statement was false. Granted, it’s hard to figure that out from a sound-proofed radio studio 8,000 miles from the conflict. The wartime mission of our Marine unit, the 4th Civil Affairs Group, or CAG, is to keep civilians away from the conflict, and to identify emergency civilian needs. Our eight-man CAG team, attached to the 2nd Battalion of the 8th Marine Infantry Regiment (2/8), talked with civilians on a daily basis, sometimes scores of them.
The first city we worked in was Nasiriyah, the southern city where U.S. troops fought plainclothes Iraqi militiamen. A soldier who dons civilian attire and continues to fight is an illegal combatant, but reporters rarely called this what we did: a war crime. It made life a lot harder for the Marines to tell the innocent civilians from the bad guys, especially since the bad guys would fire rifles from occupied buildings, or shoot mortars from the back of civilian pickup trucks. That meant every Iraqi male of a certain age was potentially deadly, and had to be checked.
Despite the checkpoints and searches that entailed, the people were surprisingly cooperative. As the days went by, their general mood changed from wariness to guarded friendliness. “It’s weird,” one of the other Marines on our team said. “Even when we’re hog-tying somebody as a suspected prisoner of war, a lot of them are still saying ‘Thank you for being here!'”
Their cooperation extended to more practical matters as well. For instance, they sometimes acted as artillery spotters. Our rules of engagement forbade unobserved artillery strikes # in other words, you had to see your target directly before trying to hit it # in an effort to prevent unnecessary death and destruction. On several occasions, when snipers opened up on Marines, civilians pointed out the location of the gunman. On at least one occasion, Marines under fire could not directly see where the sniper was firing from, but the civilians did. The unit radioed back and asked if they could accept the civilians’ word for it. The fire mission was approved, and moments later a high explosive ended the matter.
By the time we left Nasiriyah on April 2, the furtive words of encouragement had turned into smiles and waves. On foot patrols in the towns we were in, people on the street thronged around us, yelling the few words of English they knew: “Hello, mistah!” “Bush, yes! Saddam, no!” and “America, good!” If they weren’t cheering us, they were trying to sell us cigarettes or Iraqi dinars. A few of them begged for pornography, which they seemed to think we all kept in our pockets.
Why was the population so reluctant to work with Americans from the beginning? There were two simple reasons. First, they were wary because the last time they rebelled, in 1991, they expected us to help them out, and we didn’t; as everyone knows, Saddam’s regime took bloody revenge on the rebels.
The second reason is that anyone used to living in a totalitarian society # and Baathist Iraq fit that description as surely as any society ever has # cannot abandon the habits of a lifetime overnight. In talking casually to a couple of young brothers, one of the boys exclaimed to us happily, “Saddam is finished!” The other one smacked him on the head and told him to shut up, then looked around to see if anyone had heard him.
A good indicator of the outgoing regime’s grip was the fate of Saddam’s face. When we arrived, the dictator’s visage adorned posters, monuments, and sides of buildings, just like Big Brother. Today, it is virtually impossible to find a picture of him anywhere we’ve been (an area that includes a large swath of central and southern Iraq). Of the posters, only charred or ripped scraps of paper remain. The painted images are defaced beyond recognition. It was astonishing that even though the educational system is heavily laced with Baath party propaganda, and every media outlet was owned and controlled by the government, no one we met believed that Americans had arrived to kill them or forcibly convert them.
Still, just because they hated their masters didn’t necessarily mean they would love us. I don’t know if “love” is the right word to describe the Iraqis’ attitude towards Americans, but they clearly think we are fair. In the midst of a conversation with a group of passersby, when we mentioned that 2/8 would be leaving its position soon, one man thought we said Americans were leaving the country. He grew visibly agitated. “No, you can’t leave Iraq, you have to stay!”
We explained that we weren’t leaving immediately, that the military would set up an interim government, and a democratically elected Iraqi government would take its place. He looked skeptical, saying emphatically, “You have to stay for a long time, or else the government will start killing us again.”
Though I can’t speak for everybody in the military here, it has been gratifying to participate in the liberation of Iraq # and would anyone now call it anything other than “liberation”? Before the fighting commenced, “peace” demonstrators liked to believe they were speaking on behalf of the Iraqi people, who (they said) didn’t want a war to destroy their government. That claim is now demonstrably false. Those who persist in calling the war unjust will have to listen to the once-silent voices of the oppressed, and tell them they were wrong to rejoice at the fall of Saddam’s regime.
So to that guy running across the road in the sandstorm, and all of his countrymen: You’re welcome.