Flash Gordon Left Me The Keys


Saturday, April 05, 2003

Argentine voters don't appear to have many choices in the April 27 presidential election. The top three candidates all are from the ruling Peronist Party -- and none of them seem to have coherent ideas for solving the country's profound economic and social problems.

As it was in Kosovo, the "international community" is a threat to postwar Iraq.
by Stephen Schwartz
04/14/2003, Volume 008, Issue 30

THE WAR FOR IRAQ'S LIBERATION began on March19. The fourth anniversary of the NATO intervention in Kosovo was March24. Kosovar Albanians, a majority of whom are Muslims, lead the Islamic world in their enthusiasm for America. But they hate the United Nations and the European meddlers in whose hands their fate was largely left after NATO's bombing ended. And Kosovar journalists are now warning the Iraqis of the fate that might await them if the U.N. is entrusted with their country's reconstruction.

My own experiences in Kosovo after the NATO intervention may shed some light on the feelings of these journalists. I remember one night in particular, in the capital, Prishtina, in July 2000. Late in the evening, I had gone to a favorite café that served roast chicken. I had just finished my meal when the electric power went off throughout the province--a frequent occurrence. A groan swept through the little restaurant, because the place had no gasoline generator, and without power it couldn't cook, or serve food, or make coffee, or even get its dishes washed. Candles were lit on the patio, and a few hardy souls--Albanians, not foreigners--sat and smoked, drinking wine and brandy. The owner and waiters came out and joined them.

I got up and began making my way home, through the ancient Ottoman streets, with no light to guide me. I knew the town pretty well, and felt safe there; my only real worries were the potholes, other unseen obstacles, and the task of getting up the steps of my apartment building without tripping. My leg still hurt from an incident on another night without power, when I had thought something down in the darkness, pressing against my leg, would give way, and found out the hard way that it was a steel stanchion; I'd come away with deep cuts, and limped for a month.

Once I got home, there would be nothing to do; I had learned that one can't really read by candlelight, and I had no oil lamp. My television wouldn't work, I couldn't check e-mail or otherwise use my computer, and couldn't even listen to music. Like the restaurant I had just left, I had no generator. I wondered if the water would also shut down, leaving the toilets unflushed. I thought about the morning, and wondered whether there would be hot water, which depended on the power supply. I could wash my face and shave using bottled water. But without power I couldn't bathe, make coffee, or watch the news before heading off to my job. And there would be no air conditioning, not even an electric fan, in the oppressive summer heat.

Just then I passed the headquarters of UNMIK, the United Nations Mission in Kosovo. The building, a skyscraper formerly occupied by a successful Yugoslav bank, was ablaze with light. All the windows shone, as if the bureaucrats within were working late. Of course, I knew almost nobody was there; by then they would have headed home to apartments better equipped than mine, where they might even have generators. The structure stood out in the darkness, a symbol of U.N. power in the wartorn province. And it struck me that the contrast between the burning lights and the surrounding darkness was also a symbol--of the gap between the two worlds in the occupied territory, the world of the international authorities and the world of the people. It fleetingly occurred to me that U.N. officials might actually have ordered the lights kept on to taunt the Kosovars with their might--but of course that couldn't be.

Yet in Kosovo, the thought was not necessarily paranoid. True, people living in such conditions might easily experience a mild disorientation, as the power cuts and the filth imposed by unreliable water supplies took their toll. But it was also the case that jaundiced thoughts were a normal concomitant of life under the U.N. and its sister agencies in the "reconstruction" of Kosovo. Along with the U.N., the European Union (E.U.) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) made up the "Four Pillars" charged with the healing of Kosovo: The U.N. handled the First Pillar, police and justice, and the second, civil administration, while the E.U. took charge of economic reform, and the OSCE handled democratization and the formation of institutions.

The result has been a wholesale disaster, which, if it can serve for anything, must be taken as a textbook illustration of how not to proceed in postwar Iraq. The acronym UNMIK closely resembles the Albanian word anmik, which happens to mean enemy, and it was not long before this linguistic parallelism became a source of grim humor among Kosovar Albanians. Today, the leading Kosovar journalists fill their newspapers with commentaries on the bitter lessons of "reconstruction" by the U.N., the E.U., the OSCE, and their handmaiden, the "humanitarian mafia."

THE ELECTRIC POWER SITUATION, still a contentious topic today, was problematic from the beginning of reconstruction. In that same hot July 2000, in the very same plant that failed to produce electricity, I interviewed the chief technical officer of the Kosovo power system, an Albanian. I listened to his litany of complaints about the foreigners--the lack of resources, and the endless appeals to his workers to commit their time and energy whether or not they were paid. What kept the power system going, he said, was "personal appeals and patriotism." In the second quarter of 2000, the 10,000 employees of the system had each been paid a total of 150 deutsche marks, or $77. At the end of our discussion, he suddenly turned to me plaintively and said, "Most of the foreigners I have met here don't seem to care what happens. You seem interested. You must help me. What is your advice to me?" The moment was as disturbing to me as it must have been to him.

Now, nearly four years after the fighting stopped, Kosovo still endures a two-hour power cut every four hours, night and day, and even that schedule is by no means reliable--this in a province that, before the Milosevic era, exported power for hard currency to neighboring Albania and Greece.

Ibrahim Rexhepi, economics editor of the Prishtina daily Koha Ditore, wrote on March 21, "The United States promises that the Iraqi people will have a completely different life after the war--salaries, repaired roads, and electricity around the clock--whereas Kosovo, four years after the war, is facing low salaries, a disastrous economy, roads rebuilt and then torn up again, and power cuts, as well as cuts in the supply of water and heat." Estimates of the funds disbursed for the reconstruction of Kosovo range from $2 billion to $9 billion, the latter figure coming from the U.N. As Rexhepi pointed out, "The funds were spent, but Kosovo now is not very different from what it was four years ago."

One problem is that not all the funds were used as intended. At the end of April, the former chairman of the Kosovo Energy Corporation's advisory board, a 36-year-old German named Joe Trutschler, will go on trial in Germany. Trutschler is charged with embezzling $4.3 million in E.U. funds earmarked for purchase of power for Kosovo from Bulgaria. Trutschler himself was paid $500,000 for his services in Kosovo over three years, according to Koha Ditore, and faces a second indictment for falsifying his academic credentials. The missing money was transferred to Gibraltar, and Trutschler was located in nearby Alicante, Spain, where he surrendered to German authorities in December 2002. Trutschler reportedly offered differing cover stories for the theft, saying, for example, that he had taken the money with the intention of protecting the Kosovo workers' pensions. Unnamed Kosovars are suspected of complicity in the scheme.

Maybe it seems unimaginable that Iraq, with its immense oil resources, could ever be without electric power in its cities. But, to repeat, Kosovo once exported electricity, and its power plants were undamaged by the NATO bombing. The Kosovars themselves blame the chaotic state of their power system on the foreign reconstruction authorities. Koha Ditore editor Veton Surroi, in a column published March 22, described his surreal conversation with a Tunisian official of the International Monetary Fund. She was surprised that nobody spoke French in Kosovo, and recommended that money be spent on education. But she had no idea where the money for education would come from, commenting, "We must analyze this." In reality, there is no money, and there is not even a Kosovo state budget law.

The francophone Tunisian recommended an opening to foreign investors, and when confronted with the lack of legal guarantees for investment, repeated, "We must analyze this." As to the lack of electricity, she suggested importing energy from neighbors . . . except that there is no money to pay for it. For that, she had an answer: The Kosovars must pony up for the power they use. Some Kosovars themselves say revenue from power consumers could finance other needs, like education. But this is fantasy. Few Kosovars can afford to pay their current electricity bills; far fewer can pay their arrears; and even if they could, there is no accounting system in place to permit the responsible handling of the resulting revenues. Not surprisingly, Surroi concluded, "I was glad when I read in an article in the Wall Street Journal that the United States had decided to conduct the initial reconstruction of postwar Iraq itself, with contractors who work for the U.S. government. At least the Iraqi people will not have to undergo experiments."

KOSOVARS can offer a valuable insight into the situation we expect to face in Iraq. The U.N., they point out, never supported the NATO bombing of Serbia in the first place, so why should U.N. functionaries care how they carry out a mandate given them for reconstruction? Americans were naive, say Kosovars, to believe that the U.N. would effectively fulfill the tasks ceded to it in Kosovo, after the international organization had opposed the intervention.

Many people seem to misunderstand what the U.N. is. They hear about potential United Nations involvement in Iraq, and believe that the peoples of the world will unite, through their U.N. ambassadors, to make Iraq whole after the war. But this perception is mistaken. The U.N. is not the nations of the world united. It is an enterprise located in a building in New York, with satellite operations around the world, employing a certain cadre of people of many nationalities, most of whom are time-servers and ideologues.

In my six years' experience in postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, I never met a U.N. representative who failed to conform to a certain professional profile. They call themselves "internationals," and are generally young and inexperienced, although the heads of their missions tend to be old and uninterested. They have a strong prejudice against privatization, and too many of those chosen for economic responsibilities hail from Sweden and other countries where statist socialism remains the political religion.

Internationals have a bias against administrative regime change, and many rationalizations as to why areas they control should continue to operate under officials held over from totalitarian regimes. Recalling the socialist past of Tito's Yugoslavia, Surroi dubs the postwar regime in Kosovo "UNMIK socialism." After NATO's intervention, the U.N. did everything possible to maintain or restore the positions of former socialist bureaucrats. Nor was restitution of private property seized under the Nazis, Communists, or the Milosevic regime ever considered. When U.N. and USAID officials cooperated to draft a regulation on privatization, Kosovar experts objected that its principal effect would be to reaffirm state ownership of nationalized property rather than to restore private property rights. The website of the Kosovo Trust Agency, the body overseeing privatization, states, "The KTA has been established to preserve or enhance the value, viability, and corporate governance of socially owned and public enterprises in Kosovo."

UNMIK socialism dispenses with even the deficient standards of auditing and accounting that existed under the old Yugoslav system. Writes Surroi, "Millions and millions of deutsche marks went from one hand to the other in the guise of rents or incomes of enterprises, and not one pfennig was ever placed in a Kosovo budget account. During three years, hundreds of millions of deutsche marks have gone from one pocket to the other without the slightest exercise of public oversight. In Kosovo, there are institutionalized opportunities for theft and corruption. Meanwhile, there are no opportunities for enterprises to function and new jobs to be created."

The internationals also have an unfortunate collective culture. Most of them sign three-month contracts, and can't wait to get away. Internationals do not learn the local languages. They do quickly acquire boyfriends and girlfriends from among the local populace, but they otherwise fear the natives, and tend to stay locked up in their compounds, driving around in large vehicles while local people walk. At worst, they introduce sexual exploitation in the form of prostitution; in Kosovo, Moldovan and other impoverished women were imported for this purpose. If pleasant vacation spots are handy--like Dubrovnik for those stationed in Bosnia, or Greece for those in Kosovo--the internationals spend as much time there as they can.

Once these locusts have descended on a country, the economic gap between them and the local population quickly yawns, with scandalous results. Internationals are typically compensated at 10 times the wages of the highest-paid local expert or employee, and while locals may have to pay taxes, internationals do not. Though local professionals, such as university teachers, earn the munificent sum of $100 per month (usually at least two quarters in arrears), their children earn $750 working as translators and drivers. In Kosovo, at least 30 percent of all income was based on services to the internationals in 2000, according to UNMIK. If anything, the figure has risen since.

The "democracy" imported by the humanitarian mafia is an unattractive product, as well. In Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo alike, foreigners imposed bizarre systems of "weighted" voting, and demanded that, to satisfy their own addiction to political correctness, 30 percent of candidates be women. Media came under the supervision of Europeans who do not believe in the First Amendment conception of freedom, or in libel laws as a remedy for press excesses, but who do believe in censorship and the licensing of journalists.

Worst of all, whole areas of public life are simply ignored. In the Balkans, the internationals were uncomfortable meeting with religious leaders, and almost never did so. They cared nothing about labor reform, or repair of collapsing pension systems, or culture. In Kosovo, during decades of Serbian domination, the Albanians had established an extraordinary "parallel" school system, in which teachers were paid in clothing, food, transportation, and other goods and services. Kosovo had 28,000 education workers, serving 400,000 students in more than 800 institutions. Children were transported to and from their classes, hot lunches were dispensed, medical personnel were available, and school premises kept clean--all by parents and other volunteers. The teachers, who represented the civic conscience of the Kosovars, looked forward to U.N. expenditures to regularize their schools. They were out of luck. The first action of the international administration in Kosovo was to announce that education must start over from zero.

Since the U.N. had no money for education, the teachers would be paid in scrip, exchangeable for relief supplies. But first, all janitors, cooks, and nurses were fired. No more milk or hot food would be served; school bus service was shut down. It is no wonder, then, that the streets of Prishtina soon filled with children spending their days out of school, selling cigarettes. Nor was it surprising that in 2002 the first group of public employees to strike against the foreign rulers were schoolteachers.

The Kosovars had also done a marvelous job, under Serbian domination, of maintaining a "parallel" private economy, thanks to remittances from their large diaspora in Western Europe and the United States. Here again, the attitude of the U.N., E.U., and related entities was one of unrelieved hostility. Banking and insurance were not among the U.N.'s priorities. No support was given to Kosovar entrepreneurship, investment by the diaspora was discouraged, and the only schemes for economic revival were modeled on Yugoslav socialism. The Sharr cement plant, for example, was offered for tenders by prospective new owners in the spring of 2000, with great fanfare, but with all the familiar featherbedding and a discretionary fund for the political use of bosses. Kosovars soon came to understand that economic reconstruction meant going back to Tito's "self-managed" socialism, every industry top-heavy with parasitic bureaucrats. Claims to ownership of property by the former Serbian masters of the region were given equal standing with those of long-oppressed Albanians--hardly surprising, since no proper judicial system was put in place.

IS THIS THE FATE that awaits the Iraqis? Will they see the statist economy established by the Baath party preserved? Will ordinary people find, if they go into a government office, that the same Baathist bureaucrat who bullied them before "liberation" still sits at his desk? Will Iraqi workers continue to be dragooned into Baathist trade unions, with strikes virtually outlawed, while entrepreneurs find they must operate without secure banking and insurance systems? Will Shia, Kurdish Sufi, and other Iraqi religious leaders, including representatives of the country's significant Christian communities, find the doors of the internationals closed to them?

Will Iraqi journalists discover that "media commissions" have been established to govern their reporting? Will Iraqis vote under rules designed by foreigners who do not speak their language? Will internationals create a dual society, in which they live off the fat of the land while the locals are humiliated? Will a sex industry thrive off foreign patronage? Will Iraqis find, as Kosovars did, their streets patrolled by retired police from Europe and America looking for a job involving little work--or by incompetent police imported from Third World countries, some of whom had never driven a car or fired a sidearm? Will Iraq, like the Balkans under the humanitarian mafia, become at once a playground for restless young careerists and a dumping ground for has-beens?

Kosovar journalist Beqe Cufaj, German correspondent for Koha Ditore, summed up the situation eloquently on March 23: "This morning when Berlin announced that the U.N. secretary general and the Security Council have tasked Germany and its government with compiling an urgent plan for humanitarian aid to postwar Iraq, a Kosovar could not help but shudder. . . .Let us hope this really involves humanitarian aid and nothing else. . . . Because if the Iraqi people have to undergo anything like what we have in Kosovo, God help them. . . . That should be the message to the Iraqis from the Kosovars, a people experienced with the U.N. and exhausted by life in UNMIKistan!"

The same message should also go out to President Bush, who should carry it forward as his own, American conception of postwar reconstruction in Iraq. The president should stress economic freedom and investment as the bases of political and social transformation. He should make it clear we stand for the downsizing of government under a new administration free of Baathist holdovers. He should announce a new orientation in the work of the relevant U.S. agencies: toward privatization and supportive of entrepreneurship.

President Bush should also outline a strategy of exporting American political principles rather than our specific institutions. While institutional transplantation may or may not work, an injection of basic American values such as freedom of the press, business accountability, and the security of contracts cannot fail.

President Bush should further state that our intention is not to repeat the experiences of Germany and Japan, in which an American postwar authority completely reorganized economies and imposed constitutional arrangements. Rather, he should point to South Korea and Taiwan as models: countries where the United States extended an umbrella of security that permitted local entrepreneurial and creative energies to be liberated, transforming each country from within, on its own cultural terms. Some of the most progressive Islamic figures today--exemplified by democratic politicians in Turkey--point to South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan as countries that have attained stability, prosperity, and freedom without sacrificing their non-Western cultural traditions.

Finally, President Bush should form a special task force of experts in privatization, drawn from the private sector and from academic departments committed to the free market in countries where privatization and democratization have been successful, such as Spain, South Korea, and the Czech Republic--countries that are, not coincidentally, members of the coalition of the willing.

Kosovars are not alone in seeing parallels with Iraq; the province's ugly experience is widely invoked. Michael Steiner, the current U.N. governor of Kosovo, said only days ago that he believes Iraq must be rebuilt by the U.N., with ten times as many foreign functionaries as flooded into the Balkans--hundreds of thousands. Iraqi opposition leader Bakhtiar Amin visited Kosovo at the same time and said the trip left him convinced the U.N. must be excluded from the reconstruction of his country.

The United States must not permit the U.N., with its terrible record in the Balkans, among the Palestinians, in Africa, in Cambodia, and elsewhere, to inflict its incompetence and neuroses on the people of Iraq. Iraq is fighting for its freedom, after the long brutalization it has endured. America the liberator must prove that we meant what we said about the freedom and prosperity of the Iraqi people--while the U.N., the E.U., and their associates preferred the status quo. Iraq deserves better--and so do we, for the sacrifices we shall have borne. The first step is to recognize what not to do in postwar Iraq. And the name of that tragedy is Kosovo.

Umm Qasr, Iraq
THE WHEELS of the four Humvees in our convoy had not stopped turning when Ali al-Ethari jumped out of the back of the second vehicle and sprinted toward the front of the Port Authority building here in Umm Qasr, Iraq. The 15 others in the convoy--11 American soldiers, two Iraqi Americans, and two reporters--knew where he was headed.

Tributes to Saddam Hussein appear everywhere in this southern port town. A smiling, avuncular Saddam hovers over a corner market on a plastic plug-in sign, like the ones that advertise cheap beer in bars throughout America. A few feet later, Saddam the conqueror, wearing a black-brimmed hat and a Western suit, fires a rifle one-handed in a portrait inside one of the U.N. compounds here. Further on, in the middle of the road, a billboard-sized tile edifice depicts a menacing military Saddam, in green fatigues and a black beret, firing a pistol toward the sky. On the flip side, for vehicles traveling in the other direction, is a grinning Saddam in a white naval uniform with gold trim. Each of these monuments had been defaced--one with red X's over the dictator's mug, another with red paint splashed across his face, others simply torn apart. Only the one in front of the port authority building was still untouched.

Of the anti-Saddam Iraqis I've met over the past several weeks, Ali al-Ethari is the quietest. In that time, we've spoken twice, and on those occasions, only briefly. In group settings, too, he lets others do the talking.

He said nothing before bailing out of the moving vehicle. As Ali ran towards the unmolested canvas, the other two Free Iraqi Forces soldiers called out.

"Wait for us," said Ali al-Mohamidawi, with a chuckle. "We'll help you." Al-Ethari ignored them, unhitched the long knife on his belt, and began shredding the 15-foot painting. By the time the other two Iraqis joined him, most of the work was done. Several American soldiers from the convoy team joined the Iraqis in front of the few remaining scraps of canvas. They laughed about their friend's uncharacteristic outburst. But when al-Ethari turned around, he wasn't laughing.

The other Iraqis understood, withdrew their playful smiles and, for a moment, said nothing. Everyone has a mission. This was part of Ali al-Ethari's.

Al-Ethari is a member of the Free Iraqi Forces, a program that brings together Iraqi exiles with American soldiers to liberate Iraq. The Pentagon began seeking volunteers for the FIF as early as last August, working through opposition groups and running radio ads in areas with a heavy concentration of Iraqi Americans. The program is not nearly as large as originally conceived--there will be fewer than 100 soldiers who wear the Free Iraqi Forces uniform. The orders for the air base in Taszar, Hungary, where these troops were trained, called for accommodations for 3,000 men. The need for extraordinarily careful vetting, coupled with the slow churning of the vast Pentagon bureaucracy, limited participation. But the numbers reflect no lack of enthusiasm. Thousands of Iraqis in the United States applied to join the FIF--some were rejected, others were bogged down in process and simply never made it to review.

That's a shame. The Iraqis who made it back to their native land are spread throughout the country--from Umm Qasr, to Najaf, to An Nasiriyah--and are contributing to the war effort in valuable ways: reassuring a panicked population in the south that food and water are on the way; helping compile a "blacklist" of Baath party members and Saddam sympathizers who will be prosecuted after the war; describing the underground bunkers that protect the regime; educating military police in the ways of Islam to help them better handle prisoners of war; giving the precise location and capacity of a water plant near Basra. Two Free Iraqis Forces soldiers identified a tattoo on the arm of a captured Iraqi as the mark of the fedayeen--Saddam's death squad irregulars. Another was speaking to a relative on the street in Umm Qasr when two would-be suicide bombers heard him describing his duties in Arabic and, comforted by the presence of a fellow Iraqi, surrendered. The list goes on.

The stories of these Iraqis--each of whom fled Saddam's regime, many with a bounty on their head--are extraordinary. Anyone who wonders what Iraqis think of the war of liberation need only listen to these men.

Base camp for the Free Iraqi Forces is a firehouse near the Iraqi border. The U.S. Marines live in the kitchen. The Iraqis are in a conference room, and the 11 Army reservists and 10 members of the Florida National Guard who helped train them live, two to a room, in small offices throughout the building. Most of our time here is spent waiting for word that we will move forward, deeper into Iraqi territory. The Iraqis huddle outside the front door, chain-smoking, drinking Taster's Choice coffee from the MREs, and following war developments on the radio. The most accurate news, they say, comes from Radio Sawa, a U.S. government outlet that broadcasts in Arabic, and from Kuwaiti Radio. They closely monitor the numerous Arabic-language stations critical of coalition efforts here. Their listening habits mirror those inside Iraq, according to the Iraqis we have met in southern towns such as Umm Qasr and Safwan.

When FIF soldiers finally get word of their assignments, they are sent ahead with a trainer or two--men who have been with them since shortly after they arrived in Hungary in mid-January. They are then integrated with other military units, primarily those whose duties are in civil military operations.

At first blush, the firehouse might seem a collision of two worlds with little in common. Of the 50 or so Iraqis in the first cohort from Taszar, only two are Christian. Some of the Muslims are devout, others less so. But one of the first rules established by Lt. Col. Dan Hammack, the commanding officer, is that training will stop for prayers. It is not uncommon to be in the middle of a conversation with an Iraqi who abruptly excuses himself to pray.

In contrast, some of the American soldiers do their best to live up to stereotypes solidified in Hollywood. "So what if I nailed Saddam's daughter right in front of him?" asks one Marine, in the company of two Iraqis and a reservist with two grandchildren back home. He follows up with a story about a fellow soldier's sexual encounter in Korea. The tale, extraordinary if true, gets an uncomfortable reaction from the other three. "If you take f-- and s-- out of the English language," says Saib al-Hamdy, a Free Iraqi soldier, "the Marines wouldn't be able to talk."

"I know," says the Marine. "Your English is better than mine. Most of us guys didn't go to college. You come to Chicago and that's what you hear every other word." After a moment, though, he is contrite. "If it offends you, I won't say it."

Accommodations of that kind are made daily. Major Bret "Huge" Middleton, a banker and former college football player from rural Kansas, keeps an English version of the Koran on the box of water at his bedside. He's made his way through the first several chapters. "It's pretty amazing. It's not much different from the Bible at all."

Hammack, a Special Forces officer now in the reserves, makes the same point at a briefing for 100 U.S. military police officers tasked with handling enemy prisoners of war. "For the Shia, a father and son were martyred in Iraq, in Karbala and Najaf," he says, turning to an Iraqi to double-check his pronunciation. "It's Na-jeff, right?"

"Na-jaaf," says the Iraqi.

"Na-jeff," continues Hammack. "In Christianity, it's the same thing. Some leader was brutally murdered. It's still a very painful event. If you really look at it, and get right down to it, there are many beliefs that are very similar to that. It's key that you respect that."

Major Mark "Evil" Green, a reservist from Oklahoma with "three confirmed kills," offers a useful example. "If you ask men to strip nekkid in front of other men, you will be offending everything they are. Give them that respect and that dignity and it will go a long way."

Some of the Americans living in the firehouse say the mission has caused them to lose their prejudices. "After September 11," says one, speaking of Arabs, "I would walk into the Magic Market and give them a glare. These guys here have ruined my life--but in a good way. They've changed my life. Lots of the things I thought I knew before coming here, I don't believe anymore."

The camaraderie among the Iraqis, the Marines, and the Army reservists is genuine. Most of the Iraqis have been given nicknames. Ahmed is "George Michael," because he looks like the British pop star. Another Iraqi is known simply as "Tupac." Before he introduced himself to any of the Americans he flashed gang signs and asked one of the soldiers whether he listens to rapper Tupac Shakur. His brother and father, "Three-pack" and "Six-pack" respectively, are in Iraq now working with American soldiers. Another goes by "Tim." "His name is Tahib or Tabib or something like that," explains one of the Americans. "But no one could pronounce it, so he's 'Tim.'" There's also "Burt Reynolds" and "Robert De Niro." "I don't even know what his name is," recalls Sergeant First Class Curtis Mancini. "Every once in a while we'd get him to say, 'You tawkin' to me?' He was perfect."

The Americans were hand-picked for this assignment, and some of them were ambivalent when learning about the specifics. "It was intimidating," says Hammack. Now, as stories about FIF successes in the field trickle in, units who were not pre-assigned soldiers from the Free Iraqi Forces are requesting them.

ONE OF THOSE REQUESTS came on Thursday, March 27. A civil affairs unit already relatively deep in Iraq needed a Free Iraqi Forces soldier. The soldier would be Hakim Kawy, a soft-spoken but at times garrulous man from San Diego.

A group of Americans and Iraqis gathered in front of the firehouse after lunch that day. We listened to the radio and chatted about any number of things--the water supply in Basra, a huge T-Bone with button mushrooms, the Italian Deli in Arlington, Virginia, our wives, fiancées, and girlfriends. Beer. "I'd drink a warm Pabst Blue Ribbon right now," said Gunny Sergeant Randy Linniman, unaware that he was insulting this Milwaukee native.

Hakim seemed distracted. He approached me and began to explain that he hadn't been in touch with his family in weeks. Among those living in the firehouse, I alone had the answer to his problem--a satellite phone. I offered it to Hakim and was surprised when he declined. He told me that he can't talk to his family. It's too emotional. In the two months since he left, he has been in touch with his wife and four children only through intermediaries. I anticipated his next question.

"Will you call my family?" It was just after noon in Iraq and just after midnight in California, when I dialed his home. A groggy voice on the other end paused for a moment when I identified myself as a reporter who had been in touch with Hakim. "Is he okay? Where is he?" I told Hakim's wife that her husband was doing well, was in good spirits, and missed his family tremendously. Hakim paced in the sand about 10 feet from where I stood with the phone. I answered what questions I could and agreed to pass on a message. "Tell him I sold the house," his wife urged. "He'll be so relieved."

The conversation lasted three minutes. Hakim came to me when I put the phone back in my pocket. I reported on my brief chat, and then told him the news. "Your wife asked me to tell you that she sold the house. It's in escrow." Hakim's tense shoulders relaxed and he began to cry--not the loud wailing of the distraught or the muffled sobbing of the overjoyed. Hakim simply wept in silence--cathartic tears of reprieve. He took out several napkins to dry his eyes and offered one to me. "Thank goodness," he said.

When Hakim left home in mid-January, he and his wife discussed the possibility that a prolonged absence from his construction business could cause financial hardship. He urged his wife to sell the house if circumstances worsened. They have. For an average American, having to sell a home under financial pressure would represent something of a life crisis. Hakim Kawy is not an average American.

He arrived in the United States in the mid-1970s after a harrowing escape from his home in northern Iraq. Hakim was serving his compulsory year in the Iraqi military in 1974, after graduating from the university with a degree in mathematics and statistics. He was posted at the top of a mountain, and on leave one day bought some candy to give to Kurdish children who, he says, were left undernourished by civil war raging in northern Iraq. "One of the secret military was watching me, and I went to torture for three months," he says matter of factly.

"You have no idea. I would get so weak I cannot stand on my feet. Psychological and physical abuse. They slam me, and they throw me, and they spit on you. Sometimes they keep your hands like this [he holds his hands up, as if being frisked] for a long time. They punched me in the face while I sleep. They let you bleed and nobody see you. And at the end of the day they throw you piece of bread, old, and water."

In a final effort to make him talk, Hakim says, "they did something to me horrible." His captors loaded him down with a sheet of "light metal," perhaps aluminum--he says it was approximately eight by ten feet--and made him climb the mountain with it, through minefields and hostile Kurdish peshmerga fighters, to reach his former post. They waited for a windy night and sent him on his way.

"The wind threw me twice and I fell on the stone. The second time there is water," he says, indicating a small pool of water among the rocks. As he sat on the rocks, he remembered that he had a small piece of rope in his pocket. He rolled the metal into a tube, tied the rope and made his way to the top.

"They couldn't believe I make it to the top. They were so surprised and also so angry."

Hakim often takes breaks from the chronology to offer his thoughts on the current war. "It's not just ruthlessness they sanction. They enjoy this. They enjoy this. They like to do this--they take you and kick you and try to disturb your dignity." He continues: "Yes, it is a personal tragedy, you know, but I hope the world will look at it as not me only. Everyone should know that Saddam and his terrorism is like a disease--he has no border, nothing to stop it."

Hakim was taken to a judge, accused of being a traitor. He had harsh words in the courtroom in northern Iraq. He knew the judge, who was related to a well-known Shia cleric. "I told the judge in Erbil, 'Sir, I look like your son. I'm just 22 years old. I'm not going to torture for the next six months. This is what I'm saying and it is the truth. If you want to finish it, get your gun and do it.' Like they say, go ahead and make my day--you get to that point. Just finish it." The judge gave Hakim one week to report to another court in Baghdad. His mother told him to leave the country at night. "You are my youngest," she told him. "I cannot lose you all. I need you to go out."

Hakim tells me what his mother meant when she said, "I cannot lose you all." His brother had been jailed earlier that year, and although the government claimed to have released him, he was never heard from again. "And the story keep going like any other Iraqi's story," he says. "It's nothing."

I hadn't talked to Hakim much before this conversation, and I apologized for taking several hours of his time--more than either of us had planned. He didn't mind. "The more I talk, the better I feel. I put a small nail in [Saddam's] coffin. It is my small part."

ON SUNDAY, MARCH 30, shortly after Ali al-Ethari attacked the Saddam portrait in front of the Port Authority in Umm Qasr, he and I ventured inside, accompanied by another FIF soldier, Saib al-Hamdy. The building bore the scars of a battle that had taken place there just a few days earlier. Some of the walls were pocked with fresh bullet holes, paint chips scattered on the floor below. Everything in the building, like everything in the country, was covered with a light dusting of sand.

The scene looked as if it had been frozen in place the day before coalition troops rolled into town. In a glass case in the lobby were routine announcements that revealed no worries about war. One flyer declared that Saddam Hussein had cancelled law 30-999, effective June 1, 2003. "No more taxes will be collected to build the new mosque." Another memo, signed February 23, praised port workers for successfully delivering 218 new cars from an incoming freighter to Warehouse 21 without an accident. The port manager requested bonuses from a government higher-up. Scribbled across the front of the memo, accentuated by a yellow highlighter, was the approval--7,000 Iraqi dinars ($2) to each worker for a job well done.

Deeper inside the complex, we came upon the personnel office. Stacked neatly on the shelves were three-ring binders with records dating back more than a decade--a treasure trove of information for the civil affairs units here. One of the key elements of the postwar reconstruction is returning Iraqis to their jobs. Early last week, the British running the relief efforts had already rehired several drivers. The Free Iraqi Forces in Umm Qasr are helping the Brits determine who previously worked at the port, and in what capacity. They've found several Iraqis who were formerly laborers reporting back to work as self-promoted managers.

When we left the port to assess the situation in the town, our convoy was greeted with the kind of reception the White House and Iraqi Americans had long predicted. Iraqis here lined the streets--waving their arms, giving thumbs-up to American soldiers, cheering. "America good, Saddam bad," one elderly man in tribal clothing yelled from the side of the road. Tributes to Saddam Hussein had been defaced. Tile edifices were splashed with red paint. Paintings of the dictator were ripped down from walls. The Baath party headquarters had been vandalized.

Written tributes to the Iraqi tyrant on the crumbling walls and the dilapidated buildings had also been defaced. One, in perfectly stenciled Arabic lettering, declared: "Yes! For the leader Saddam Hussein." The new graffiti sent a different message--"Dun Saddam, Good U.S.A."

But the time we spent in southern Iraq was not all jubilation. Many Iraqis here, unaccustomed to their newfound liberty and the harsh reality it presents, seemed to be fighting their own emotions, lurching unpredictably from gratitude to desperation to apprehension. And the residents of both Umm Qasr and Safwan badly needed water. Even as we circled the town in military Humvees to the cheering of locals, the children were practicing their elementary English. "Mister . . . water," they said, cupping their hands in front of them. "Mister . . . water."

We drove around long enough that we began to pass children we'd already seen, still lining the roadside. Their cries grew more frequent, as if they were calling someone by name. "Mr. Water, Mr. Water, Mr. Water." One pre-pubescent boy hiked up his shorts and showed a little leg as he pleaded for water. He and his friends were barely old enough to understand the significance of his attempted tease, but they doubled-over laughing anyway.

When our convoy stopped, many Iraqis rushed the soldiers to shake their hands, thanking them for liberating their town. The Iraqis quickly gathered around the three members of the Free Iraqi Forces to talk about the progress of the war. Although they appeared grateful to have Arabic-speaking American soldiers, they immediately began venting their frustrations about food and water. "My children have not had water for seven days," said one man, waving off a reporter trying to snap pictures. "We do not want people to see us like this. We need water."

Although the residents here salted their complaints about life's necessities with an appreciation of coalition efforts to get rid of Saddam, the palpable sense of panic wiped smiles off the faces of these soldiers who moments earlier had been welcomed as liberators. And many Iraqis told us they did not believe Saddam would be eliminated. "How do you expect us to believe that you, the world's two superpowers, can get rid of Saddam, when you can't even get water to a small town on the border?" asked one man.

A man who bore a strong resemblance to Saddam Hussein berated the American soldiers and their Iraqi colleagues. "You have destroyed our town," he said, addressing Ali al-Mohamidawi. "You have destroyed my property. Americans and British go home. No one wants you here. We never had these problems with Saddam Hussein."

His rant drew loud and violent protests from the dozens of Iraqis gathered around us. Without warning, a bearded, middle-aged man in tribal robes lunged at the Saddam defender and grabbed him by the shirt collar. "What property? They did not touch your property! Where's the damage? Do not say these things. We want the Americans. We need the help. You work for Saddam Hussein."

Others joined in, harshly criticizing the Saddam look-alike. A man in his twenties who spoke some English took me aside to assure me that everyone in Umm Qasr supports the Americans and British. They are worried, though, that anyone who rises up will be killed if Saddam survives.

As we talked, the bearded man dashed from the scene and returned 30 seconds later. His younger brother, carrying a heavy metal pipe, accompanied him. The man's wife came too, wailing loudly and begging him to walk away. Ali, backed up by Dan Hammack, tried to settle the group, at one point reminding them that the Americans had powerful guns that would have to be used if the situation worsened. The crowd, now in the hundreds, struggled to keep the combatants apart. After several tense minutes, the pro-Saddam man left--alone--walking slowly back to his house. The others quickly reported that he was a well-known Baath party official, one of a handful remaining in this section of liberated southern Iraq.

Even as we left, the bearded man told us that he would exact his revenge that night. "I will kill him," he said.

We returned to our Humvee but were unable to leave for several minutes. The crowd from the town square had followed us. They wanted to know more from Ali. One man who couldn't make his way to the front of the cluster ran around to the back seat, behind the driver, where I was sitting. He leaned far inside the vehicle, over my lap, and grabbed Ali by the shoulder.

"How do you know Saddam Hussein will be gone?"

"He will go. I promise you. 100 percent."

"But how can you be sure? He will live."

"I promise you with my life, he will go. 100 percent."

The four of us in the Humvee rode away in silence. Ali wondered why the coalition couldn't get water to the town. On the trip here, he noted, we passed several semi-trailers filled with water. Why was it taking so long? His frustration grew when we returned to the port. On a quick tour, we were stunned to see boxes upon boxes of bottled water lying around. Ali spoke up again. "Why is this water sitting here? What can we do?" One of the soldiers--a mid-level American officer who had not been part of the Free Iraqi Forces group--offered an answer meant to be reassuring. "It's being taken care of," he said. "All of the stuff is being taken to warehouses for storage."

The Pentagon reported early last week that a water pipeline between Kuwait and southern Iraq had finally been opened. The 610,000 gallons of water it will pump daily should wash away the concerns Iraqis here have about their own survival, and allow them to focus on the survival of the dictator in Baghdad.

As we set out for Safwan, our convoy came upon a group of Iraqis along the side of the road. They were up to something, but it was hard to tell what. The convoy came to a sudden stop, and the Americans jumped out of the vehicles, guns drawn. They immediately, almost reflexively, formed a perimeter around the Iraqis, who dropped to the ground as commanded. One man waved a white T-shirt. Col. David Blackledge and an FIF soldier approached the group. One of the Iraqis pointed to a makeshift coffin and explained that their friend had been killed in fighting in nearby Al Zubayr. They had come to bury him where he was born. Blackledge told them to do it quickly to avoid arousing further suspicion.

AHMED, known to everyone at the firehouse as "George Michael," moved forward last week. When I talked to him shortly before he left, he told me his mission began in 1991. Twelve years ago last month, on March 18, 1991, he put on a business suit and sunglasses and walked the road between Basra and Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq, to surrender to the U.S. Army.

For weeks he had hidden at his sister's house. A local Baath party leader had seen Ahmed agitate against the regime and notified Iraqi intelligence. They had his name, and they knew where he lived. When the authorities came to Ahmed's house, they asked his father where he was hiding. His father pleaded ignorance. Being less concerned with punishing the actual revolutionary than with simply inflicting punishment on someone, they took Ahmed's brother, Ali. He was tortured for a week--hung from the ceiling with his arms tied behind his back. One of his arms was broken. Days later, Ali was taken to the front of a local government building that functioned as a site for public executions. As he was led to the tall, wooden post where he would be tied, he stared at horrific reminders of his ill-fated predecessors: Directly behind the support pole, the wall was painted with several coats of dried blood and clumps of human hair.

As his captors were tying his hands behind the post, Ali made a strange request. "Please shoot me in the back," he pleaded. The six gunmen, three standing and three lying on the ground, howled with laughter. Their commander, also amused, asked him what crime he had committed. "I did nothing," Ali told them. "They took me because of my brother."

"You did not participate in the uprising?" the commander asked. "You are innocent?"


With that, the commander motioned for his assistants to untie Ali, and told him, "Go home."

Ahmed calls this the "miracle." "He did not do this because he is a nice man," the Free Iraqi soldier says. When his brother returned home, Ahmed left. He turned himself in to the U.S. forces in southern Iraq, setting in motion a process that would see him bounce from nation to nation, and from one refugee camp to another, for the next two years. If he had stayed, he would almost certainly have been caught and killed by Saddam's regime. When he left, he didn't know if he would ever see his family again.

After living and working for 10 years in Portland, Ore., that moment is at hand, perhaps within days. It will not be a perfect reunion. His father died in 1999. "My father made me a cassette, and he's singing to me and crying, and he says he knows he won't see me again. He says that he's not worried about me, though. He says he's proud of me."

After his father died, he planned a trip to Syria to see his mother, two brothers, and sister, and to meet for the first time several nephews and nieces. They stayed for five weeks, trading stories and remembering their times together in Iraq. Ahmed learned then that his family had deliberately spread rumors about his fate when he fled in 1991. They told everyone that he was killed in action--not wanting to risk further retribution from the local Baath party and Saddam's henchmen.

Ahmed is grateful today that he saw his mother in 1999. Shortly before he left for training in mid-January, he received word from his sister that his mother has cancer. "Lung cancer," he explains. "The bad kind, not the good kind. How you say it?" Malignant? "Yes, malignant."

He has had plenty of opportunities to check on his mother, but he's not sure he wants to hear how she is doing until he returns home. He has relatives in Umm Qasr, the town likely to be the first official stop on his mission in Iraq. "When I get to Umm Qasr, maybe I call from my aunt's or my cousin's. If I'm there, I'm doing big thing. I could die too and could be killed in action. I don't know how I'm going to act. It's going to be the happiest day of my life if I call and they say 'Here, talk to your mom.'"

His family is expecting him. They don't know exactly what he's doing, but they know he's coming to see them. In Syria, in 1999, he devised a way to communicate with his brother. They spoke in code for years, worried that the government was eavesdropping. Whenever Ahmed mentioned the name of the local Baath official who ratted on him in 1991, the brothers agreed, it meant he was talking about Saddam's regime.

On January 14, 2003, Ahmed called his brother. "I'm going to get my money from [the Baath party leader]," Ahmed said, referring cryptically to the training he was to receive in Europe. "And [Ali] knew exactly what I mean. I asked him, 'You got it?'"

"We'll help you get the money," said Ali. "That guy owes everyone lots of money."

So Ahmed moved forward last week with a civil affairs unit. He is now working to calm the Iraqi people, to explain the mission, to lay the groundwork for the humanitarian effort to come, and to reassure small pockets of a frightened population. It is a job he takes very seriously.

"I'm going to be proud if they think I am an American soldier," Ahmed says. "I have no fear to go there. I believe we live one life and we die one time. And if I die, I die for a good cause. For my family and for my people."

Ahmed carries a picture of his girlfriend around his neck. He showed it to me with evident pride and recalled seeing her for the first time at a Starbucks in Beaverton, Ore. He shared his memories of the giddy days of new love--playing pool and bowling, making eggs at 2:00 A.M., seeing My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Before the war, he and several Iraqi friends gathered regularly at the Starbucks to talk about life, politics, and the coming war. Some of them didn't share his enthusiasm for the mission. None of them wants to keep Saddam in power, but several of his friends don't approve of his willingness to fight with U.S. troops. As he explained their arguments, he became very animated. He called them "cowards."

"Let me ask you a question--why the American people, why the American soldier have to die in our homeland? I say, we have to die there. So I said to them, [he points] you and you and you, you have to volunteer so less American people go. If you are American soldier, you go to Basra, why you have to die there?"

MANY OF THE AMERICAN SOLDIERS here with the Free Iraqi Forces, men who could die here, as Ahmed puts it, have already made significant sacrifices. Major Bret Middleton, whose brother was killed in the first Gulf War, left a wife and four little girls back in Kansas. Master Sergeant Frank Kapaun, also a former Special Forces soldier, got his orders just three days before being deployed. He left his job as a telephone line installer and an occupied apartment in Columbus, Ga., that friends and relatives would have to clean out. No one I spoke to complained. They have gotten as much as they have given, something few of them expected when they first met the Iraqis in Taszar, Hungary.

Sergeant First Class Curtis Mancini, a soldier's soldier and a 17-year veteran of the police force in suburban Fort Lauderdale, Fla., jotted his first impressions in a notebook. "They are rough looking, some look disheveled, but not unclean. They think nothing of talking to each other during lectures and loudly, oblivious to the instructors and the class. They are eager and intelligent above my expectations. Many with advanced degrees, many want to engage in intellectual conversations."

The Iraqis went through two weeks of improvised basic training in Hungary. Since many of them are older, out of shape, and accomplished professionals, they did not always take kindly to the rigorous regimen. The training had to accomplish two potentially conflicting goals: preparing men for possible combat and not alienating them.

The second part of their instruction was precisely tailored to the work they are doing now in Iraq. Kapaun was one of the first American soldiers to go forward with Free Iraqis. He was air assaulted into An Nasiriyah with one of the FIF soldiers and assigned to a military police unit, and then a counterintelligence subunit, responsible for interrogating enemy prisoners of war.

"You could not buy the assets and intelligence, all the benefits we were getting out of them," says Kapaun, who recently returned from Nasiriyah, leaving his FIF soldiers with their new unit. "Their interviews yielded time-sensitive, real-world intelligence." The Free Iraqis helped American military intelligence sort out real enemies from Iraqi civilians caught in undefined "battle space."

Kapaun, like many of the other Americans here, has become emotional about his men. "It tore my heart out to say goodbye to them," he says. "I made plans to see them back in the States, but hopefully I'll see them in Baghdad first."

THE MOMENT THE WAR began with 40 Tomahawk missiles in a "decapitation" attempt, Ali al-Mohamidawi ran to the road in front of the base and began flagging down buses heading north. None of the Free Iraqi Forces soldiers I met was as eager to fight as Ali. And with good reason.

Ali told me his story in three separate sessions in the supply room that also serves as my bedroom and office. He was dressed in the "chocolate chip" desert camos given to the Free Iraqi Forces. Emblazoned across the left front pocket of his shirt were the letters "FIF." A patch on his right sleeve gave the same identification. He sat on a box of water and began talking.

Ali lives in Alexandria, Va., and works at a nonprofit foundation that helps international refugees. He knows their situation better than most, having come as a refugee to the United States in 1994 after three years in a Saudi refugee camp for displaced Iraqis. When he finally arrived at National Airport, no one showed up to get him. He was supposed to have been picked up by someone from the nonprofit that now employs him. But they forgot.

Ali didn't panic. He asked the cashier at one of the restaurants for a cigarette and waited, just happy to have finally made it to America.

Ali was one of the instigators of the 1991 Shia uprising near Basra. He and several friends had begun stockpiling weapons and ammunition months before American forces started military operations in January of that year. Ali graduated from the university in 1989, just as the Iran-Iraq war came to an end. Like all young men his age, he was compelled to "serve the flag." His Iraqi army unit deployed in northern Iraq for three months, taking the place of soldiers discharged after the war.

A disabled man from his unit had been assigned to guard a lot of old cars outside of Basra, and when that man had acquired enough points to retire, he came to Ali, knowing that he had family nearby, and offered to recommend that Ali take his place. Ali got the assignment, to the great displeasure of the other soldiers in his unit. One, from a wealthy Basra family, was particularly frustrated that he hadn't heard of the opening in time to bribe his commanders for the plum position.

Ali reported to his new post in early 1990. The cars there were mostly old and beat up, and no one ever came to check on him. "First fifteen days, I go eight and go home at five. Then nobody come look at me, and finally I go 11 and come home 12. My dad, he says, why you not go and be so lazy?" The entire time he worked there, his commander took his salary, which was around $30. So he stopped reporting to work. On August 10, 1990, Ali's unit was sent to Kuwait--part of the invading army. A fellow soldier visited him and told him to leave the cars and report to his unit immediately. Ali refused.

"I said, 'If I don't see any document I'm not going to leave, because the cars are my responsibility.'"

The documentation came several days later, hand-delivered by a small delegation from Saddam's regime. "One officer from my unit came to my house with three soldiers, one of them with intelligence. I remember that day very clear, because I was helping my father fix the water pump on his car, and I remember seeing their car. It was a military car. They said, 'Ali you need to go to Kuwait. You are going to be on the border with Saudi Arabia.'"

They wanted Ali to return with them. But Ali's father begged the men for two extra days, to help prepare the family for his son's departure. "I can give you my word that he will join you," Ali's father told the soldiers. They relented.

But Ali had no intention of reporting for duty. He and his father had discussed the invasion and agreed that Americans were not likely to let it stand. Ali went first to his sister's house, and then to his uncle's. For months, he kept in touch with his friends planning the uprising.

In late February, one friend, Ahmed, who now lives in Iran, had made arrangements to obtain bullets for the weapons they had stored. He asked Ali to retrieve the ammunition and take it to Al Kebla, a town 15 minutes away. Ali avoided main roads, taking side streets and rural roads where there are no checkpoints.

"That day, unfortunately, there are checkpoints. And I saw six people about a mile away. I'm driving and they have a motorcycle. If I stop and turn back, they are going to follow me. I said let me continue what I'm going to do, the bullets are in the trunk. And the idea come to me, I give them high beam, and I speed up so they can't recognize I'm speeding. About 100 meters they are telling me to slow, and they wasn't prepared for me. And one guard stayed in the middle and when I got close to him he go to the sidewalk. And I heard from behind me the [gun]fire and I speed up between the streets and I got away from them."

Ali returned to his house with the bullets, and his brother Karim, who had heard the shots, quickly helped him cover the car. "And he take it from the trunk and we take it to the roof. And we put it somewhere where they cannot find it. And we went to the roof--watching, watching--and no one come find us."

Two days later, on March 2, 1991, with the Iraqi Army in rapid retreat from Kuwait, their supplies depleted and morale low, Ali was awakened by gunfire. "I heard the shooting and I know the guys have started. I went to them with my father, and my three brothers--Karim, Mohammed, and Rahim. When we got there we saw our guys."

Ali paused to collect his thoughts.

"And I'm saying to history now, that Ahmed and some other 15 guys start the revolution in the south at 2 o'clock in al-Jamhoria. And when they finish call the people and shooting at the air, and the people, they listened to them. It's an uprising, and some people they come with them."

The rebels quickly set up checkpoints of their own. They stopped each car that passed, trying to convince everyone they saw to join them in the uprising. One man, driving a red car, was a well-known officer in the Iraqi army. He refused to join and accused Ali and his friends of belonging to a "mafia."

They warned the officer against moving through the checkpoint. "And he just ignored them and he left," says Ali. "And they shoot him with an RPG and they kill him."

Ali and his friends waged a fierce battle with Baath party members and Saddam's intelligence service, the Mukhabarat. The rebels kept their captives in a small mosque at al-Husseinia. Iraqis began pouring out of their homes to participate in the uprising. In less than 24 hours, the rebels had taken Basra. They assigned neighborhoods different military functions--one would serve as the mess hall, another as the ammunition depot. The rebels would control Iraq's second-largest city for 15 days.

Things turned bad quickly. The rebels were running out of ammunition. The help they had been promised--from the United States and Iran--never materialized. Saddam dispatched his Republican Guard to the south, and ordered Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as "Chemical Ali," to put down the rebellion. Some of the leaders fled to Iran, others turned themselves in to American soldiers.

On March, 20, 1991, Ali and his friends staged one final battle in al-Jamhoria. He begins the story of that last conflict with the most important detail. "And that time my older brother, Karim, gets killed. He was with me. We saw the Republican Guard. He was killed with my cousin, named Ali. He was killed and other guys, too. I don't remember their names right now, 15 guys from my small area. A lot more, actually--70, 80 guys, maybe."

Ali and the remaining rebels took the dead bodies and piled them inside a nearby house belonging to Abdul Khalik, one of the earliest instigators who now lives in Iran. "The army getting close to us--very close, very close, very close," says Ali, pacing in between rows of boxes in the storage room. "My responsibility that time--how we going to get my brother's body and my cousin's body from the house before the army burn all the area."

They agreed to split up. Ali's father and an uncle would take care of the deceased. When Saddam's soldiers confronted them, they would place blame equally on the Iraqi army and the uprising. The two men loaded the bodies in a truck. They were stopped twice by the regime. Each time, they gave the same explanation. "We don't know who killed them, the bombs from you guys or from the uprising." They took the bodies to Al Zubayr. Although each of the dead men was Shia, they were buried in a Sunni cemetery.

Meanwhile, Ali gathered the women and children in three families--all related--and began to move them to his home in Al Kebla, several miles away. After walking for 35 minutes, they were stopped by Iraqi soldiers. "A general called me over to him. When he talk to me, I know from his accent he is from Tikrit. And he asked me, what is my name. And I said Ali. And he said where is your ID, where is your unit. And he said where is your unit--and I said Kuwait. And he kept looking at me and he says, you are one of them, you are one of them. You are uprising against us.

"And my aunt, she is very brave, and she says to him, 'We are all women and we have lost all of our family and he is our only man. And you are stopping us.' And that time she gave me her daughter to carry her in my hand, so that I can avoid the people who doubt me. So it look like I'm helping, holding the daughter. She said, 'We look like we came from Israel? No. Do we look Iranian? No. Why you stop us? Why you investigate us? You don't have any children?'"

"And he said, 'I'm talking to him, man-to-man.' And he said to me, 'Tell me the truth and it's okay.' And I said, 'I'm not with [the uprising].' And he hit me, in the face like this. [Ali makes a violent slapping motion.] And he said, 'You are lying.' And that time when he hit me, my aunt and other girls start crying and shouting and cursing him. And telling him a lot of stuff, 'You are not a man, you are not a brave man and you let us go.' And he said, 'I'm going to leave you because you are with the family.' And he said, 'If I see you again, I'm going to kill you.'"

They walked for another 30 minutes, until a man in a truck stopped to ask if they needed a ride. The entire group--15 people--piled into his Toyota pickup truck. The drive to Al Kebla took 15 minutes.

When his father returned from the cemetery, they discussed their options. His father told Ali to wear his army uniform and "just get lost somewhere." Ali followed his father's advice, walking to the nearby town of al-Jammyet, to visit a friend named Sajad. When Ali arrived, Sajad took him to a small river behind the house, where they hid under a bridge. Sajad pointed to the corner. About 75 Iraqi soldiers were arranging many locals in some sort of line. Each person was linked to the next with a rope, tied around his waist. Ali recognized some of them as uprising participants, from Al Faw Island, south of Basra. The others, he said, were innocent. The captives were led to the desert directly behind the University of Basra and executed.

With no chance of another uprising and Baath party members looking for him, Ali decided he would retrieve his brother Rahim from their home and surrender to American soldiers. But first he would have to make it back to his home, and then to the Americans. This wouldn't be easy. Coalition forces had mostly withdrawn from the cities and, as they left, Saddam's soldiers and Baath party members filled the void. Basra and its suburbs were crawling with Saddam loyalists, patrolling the city with guns drawn, looking to kill rebels like Ali and his brother.

Because he was wearing his Iraqi Army uniform, he was stopped only once. He lied and said he was looking for his unit. The Iraqi Army officer let him pass. Ali saw many others who weren't as fortunate. "When they see civilians walking--oh my god--they stop him, and if he don't stop, they shoot him right away."

Ali kept walking. "At each corner of a block, seven to ten guys blindfolded, lied next to each other and they are already dead. And I asked one soldier--he said, 'You know why they don't move them? Because they want to show the people that abuse, or that miserable.' It was a big disaster, oh my god. I remember. And behind the university they just kill them."

Among the men and the pain and the killing, Ali saw an old lady pushing a cart full of vegetables. From a distance, she seemed to be going about her business untroubled by the bodies strewn about the streets. They walked toward one another and soon Ali could see her eyes. The woman offered Ali some food and some water.

"My son, why you walking by yourself?"

"I'm going to my unit." It was clear from her expression that she didn't believe him.

"And she said, 'Okay I'll ask God to keep you.' And I said, 'You don't need to cry.' And she wants to bring some water and some food to her family.

"She saw the people at the corner laid down next to each other, and she told me some of them still move and they're bleeding. And she looks like she lost her mind. And she said, 'Be careful, maybe they going to kill you.' And she saw the disasters. And she saw also guys who belong to [Chemical Ali] force these guys to drink the gasoline, and then they shoot them. They had a special kind of bullet--at the front it's red, and when it's shooted at the night, it's not going just the bullet, it's going with the fire. And when it takes the bodies of the people filled with gasoline it makes the people explode--like a bomb. Each corner, goddamn it."

Ali made it home. He stayed there for three days and reviewed his options with his brother Rahim and their father. He remembers his father's advice. "They have your name. Maybe it's better you're going to disappear." There was an American checkpoint on a highway north of Basra. It was too far to walk. On April 1, 1991, Ali called a friend, Nakeeb Karim, a high-ranking officer in the Iraqi army who had--with a cloth over his face like a bandit--anonymously participated in the uprising. He had once again taken his position in the army, and therefore could deliver Ali and Rahim through most Iraqi checkpoints without arousing too much suspicion.

Nakeeb Karim drove them to the town of Al Zubayr. The Iraqis had shut down the highway leading out of town, toward the Americans. Ali and Rahim thanked Nakeeb Karim for the ride and began to walk across the desert. They walked for perhaps one hour when they saw a tent in the distance. It made them nervous, but then, everything made them nervous. They each had a gun. As they approached the tent, they were confronted by a Bedouin and his family.

"Who are you?"

"We are Iraqi soldiers, and we looking for our unit."

"Tell me the truth."

"We are uprising, and the government take over everything."

The Bedouin gave them water and goat's milk, and told the brothers that he had received two visits from American soldiers in recent days.

"They came from that direction and they left in that direction," he told Ali and Rahim, who started walking.

As they approached the highway, they ditched their guns in the desert. Ali says he could make out six or seven tanks in the distance and took off his shirt to wave it as a sign of surrender.

"And I separate with my brother and they can check on us and they know that we have nothing. And they knew that people come to them. We are not the first case or the last case, so they take it easy with the people. Most of the soldiers over there sympathize us and they help us. We told them we are the uprising. They wasn't hard with us, they gave us a little conversation and they brought a Kuwaiti interpreter and they help us. And they gave us food and water. There is black, big guy, lieutenant, and they give us that food [Ali holds up an MRE], and he says, 'I know you eat halal meat and we don't have it here.'"

Ali spent several years in refugee camps before making it to the United States in 1994. He has grown accustomed to living in America, and is likely to return after the war is over. He is open to the possibility, however, that he won't return at all.

"I left Iraq by fighting and I come back with the fight, and maybe I'm going to dead with the fight and I have no problem with that."

EACH OF THE FREE IRAQI SOLDIERS I spoke to expressed that same thought. Theirs is clearly--and always has been--a war of liberation. But the same is true for the Americans here. Yes, they are well aware of the more immediate reasons for this war--weapons of mass destruction, eliminating threats of terrorism, stabilizing a region. But the Iraqis' "fight is our fight," says Hammack.

Standing outside the firehouse one night last week, one of the FIF soldiers asks Major Mark "Evil" Green about his tattoos. Like many soldiers, he has several. One is a sword with lightning bolts. Another wraps around his left biceps, barbed-wire with three drops of blood, representing his kills. The third takes up most of one side of his chest. It shows a grim reaper holding crossed pistols--above it, "Death before Dishonor."

The other side of his chest is blank. For now. With one finger, he traces an outline of the one he plans to get when he gets home. "Free Iraqi Forces."

Says Hammack: "We're all FIF now."

The World has a Cold ... "the flu"...
12:20 P.M. EST

MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. Let me give you a report on the President's day and then I have a couple announcements to make.

The President spoke to South Korean President Roh early this morning. He called President Roh to thank him for the support from South Korea on Iraq, and the decision to dispatch medical engineering units for humanitarian operations in Iraq. The two leaders reiterated their intention to resolve the North Korea nuclear issue peacefully, and pledged to continue their close consultation.

After the phone call, the President had an intelligence briefing, FBI briefing, convened a meeting of the National Security Council. He met with the Secretary of Defense, he also met with the Secretary of State. He's having lunch with the Vice President.

And the President later today will meet with a group of Iraqi Americans and free Iraqis who live in this country. The President will welcome to the White House people who have stories to tell from their own personal experience, having lived in Iraq -- as recently as just several years ago, in some instances. These Iraqi Americans will talk to the President about the torture and the brutality they saw while they lived there. And it's a telling reminder of what we are starting to hear from Iraqis on the ground today in Iraq, as the yoke of repression is lifted from them.

The President will depart for Camp David this afternoon, where he will remain for the weekend.

A couple of other announcements for you. President Bush will welcome President Rudolf Schuster of the Slovak Republic to the White House on April 9th. Slovakia has been a close and supportive friend of the United States, as well as a staunch member of the coalition to bring freedom to Iraq.

The President will also welcome to the White House a group of Central American leaders. The President will welcome President Abel Pacheco of Costa Rica; President Francisco Flores of El Salvador; President Alfonso Portillo of Guatemala; President Ricardo Maduro of Honduras; and President Enrique Bolanos of Nicaragua to the White House for a meeting on April the 10th. The President considers Central America to be a region of peace and democracy, where regional integration offers the promise of promise of growing prosperity. He looks forward to that.

And finally, the President, after Camp David this weekend, will depart for Northern Ireland, where he will consult with Prime Minister Blair. The President will depart on Monday, April 7th, and return to the United States on Tuesday, April 8th. With that, I'm happy to take your questions.

Q On that trip, what are they going to discuss? I understand it's also the Middle East and Northern Ireland. And on the Middle East, is it possible that this could be the trip that the road map is released, or because of the complications with the confirmation of a Palestinian that won't be happening?

MR. FLEISCHER: The trip will focus on the operations in Iraq. They will talk about the status of the ongoing military operation, they will talk about the humanitarian relief efforts, they'll talk about reconstruction and they'll talk about the role of the United Nations. They will also talk about the peace process in Northern Ireland. And I think the subject of the Middle East could come up, as well. I don't have anything further for you about any specifics on Middle East about the road map. I don't know if that's the case.

Q Safe to say not to expect that, or --

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't like to predict every outcome of every meeting, but there's nothing that I've heard or seen that would lead me to believe that to be the case.

Q This morning you said that the President believes the U.N. will have a role in post --


Q Can you spell it out a little more?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the focus of the future in Iraq -- which I want to caution everybody, is not yet here. We still are in the middle of a battle, we still are at war. There are many dangers that can still lie ahead. And so while, yes, there is a look ahead, I want to make certain that everybody has this in the proper perspective, as America's military is still in the middle of armed conflict.

But as people look ahead and they focus on the future of Iraq, what the President sees is an Iraq that is free, that is democratic, where the people govern themselves. The people of Iraq are well educated. The infrastructure of Iraq is actually spread throughout the entire country of Iraq. And the Iraqi people are very capable people.

Through the military operation, as you can tell by the precise nature of the military campaign, much of the infrastructure of Iraq is being maintained, so the Iraqi people will be able to quickly govern themselves. The United Nations, in the President's judgment, should and will have a role. The role will be involved in humanitarian efforts. The role will be involved in help on the reconstruction efforts.

But, principally, the future of Iraq is for the Iraqis to decide. The United States, of course, is on the ground providing security, and that's an important part of this. But there will be a role for the U.N. The exact nature of it, I think, is still a little early to talk about, or to know about. I think there will be some conversations about it. That's where it lies.

Q While I have you, could I just ask one non-related question? Is there any possibility that the President and Blair will discuss any kind of peace proposal? Is there anything coming through the cracks?

MR. FLEISCHER: Vis-a-vis Iraq?

Q Yes.

MR. FLEISCHER: No, the mission is the mission. The mission will be completed with the disarmament of Saddam Hussein's regime and with the regime being changed.

Q So there's no peace proposal that's in the works or anything?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, you should not look for that.

Q Can I follow up on that? What you're talking about in terms of the Iraqis taking over their government is more long term. We haven't --

MR. FLEISCHER: Not necessarily.

Q Well, who have you identified there who is in a position to move in and --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, when it comes to the infrastructure and, of course, the vital services, the municipal services, the running of the food programs, water delivery, things of that nature -- of course the civilian infrastructure can take over, we hope, as quickly as possible as events on the ground dictate.

Now, when it comes to the over-arching larger political questions of who will run Iraq, in terms of the broader political sense, it's impossible at this date to give names. What the President has said is that this should be a matter for Iraqis from both inside and outside Iraq to govern their country, and that the territorial integrity of Iraq must be maintained. That's our approach.

Q But back to the U.N. role, I mean, you said the U.N. will help in the reconstruction effort. But others in the administration are on the record -- Secretary Rumsfeld, Secretary Powell have talked about having U.S. officials moving in and taking over various administrations or, you know, departments that still exist --


Q -- and not having the U.N. move in immediately and do that, versus what Prime Minister Blair has said.

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't think they said anything about not having the U.N. move in. As you know, the President made a statement in the Azores, which everybody -- that's the American position, and that is that there will be a role for the United Nations, exactly as I said, exactly as Secretary Rumsfeld and Secretary Powell have said, involving humanitarian aspects and reconstruction aspects.

Don't think for a second that means the United States will not continue to have the role that we are playing and the mission that we are moving forward on to help continue to provide for the Iraqi people as the security situation goes forward, as well as some type of civilian administration that reports to General Franks.

Q Finally, representatives from France, Russia and Germany today to talk about this very issue. Have there been any discussions between our government and theirs to -- about the U.N. role? Or are you strictly dealing with Blair?

MR. FLEISCHER: Secretary Powell met in Brussels with leaders of 23 nations -- I believe it was 23 -- from the European Union. And, of course, he met with his counterparts from several of those nations that you just mentioned, if not all. And the talks were described as very positive and productive. It's part of the international process.

But the central point remains that the future of Iraq, in the President's judgment, will be governed by the Iraqi people. Iraq can govern itself. The United States will have its presence there, because we will stay for as long as is necessary to provide the security and for the infrastructure to be protected and to be administered, until the point where the Iraqis can take it over entirely.

Q But that'll be the United States staying there, and not the U.N., until the Iraqis can take it over --

MR. FLEISCHER: No, but the U.N. -- exactly as I said, the U.N. will have a role. Sometimes we do things side-by-side.

Q But at what point will the Iraqis take over their government? Because there are some of them who seem to --

MR. FLEISCHER: It's too soon to say.

Q Well, some of them seem to expect, in public statements that they've made, to do it right away. But isn't the U.S. military going to effectively govern for at least an interim period?

MR. FLEISCHER: The U.S. military will effectively continue to fight a war that we're in the middle of. I still want to remind everybody that is the status of events on the ground.

Q Yes, but I'm talking about after hostilities or --

MR. FLEISCHER: That's why I say it's too soon to say. I think it all depends on how long hostilities last, and we don't know how long hostilities will last. But the situation -- the design is set up so that once the security situation is taken care of, then Iraqis from both within and without Iraq will be working as part of the interim Iraqi authority to govern Iraq.

Q But you're not saying how long a time period --

MR. FLEISCHER: -- it's not knowable. How can anybody say how long it will be with accuracy?

Q Ari, you and Pentagon officials have emphasized that the President is not micro-managing this war, that he approved the overall war plan and has left the execution to the commanders. But now we're approaching the battle of Baghdad, with the prospect of not only heavy casualties -- heavier casualties for coalition forces, for American troops, but also for Iraqi civilians.

At this point, will the President get more closely involved with the day-to-day decisions?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President is closely involved with the day-to-day, but to state the obvious, when the plan was written, it was anticipated that the plan would involve fighting in Baghdad. That's part of the plan. It was anticipated. And the plan is being implemented. And so General Franks will continue to make the tactical decisions, the timing decisions about the best way to conduct that plan, to implement that plan, which I assure you, includes how to deal with Baghdad.

Q So basically nothing has changed in regards to the planning for the battle of Baghdad since before the war?

MR. FLEISCHER: The structure remains exactly in place, where the President begins each day with the briefings from the field, through the National Security Council about the plan, how it is being implemented. He ends his day with updates on the plan, and then continually in between as necessary.

So that's how the President approaches it. These decisions remain decisions made by the field commanders because that's the most effective way to win a war.

Q Ari, there's a new Saddam tape out in which he mentions the downing of a U.S. helicopter on March 24th. Does this prove that he's alive? Have you made any sort of determination?

MR. FLEISCHER: The tape does not give us any firm conclusions one way or another. As has happened in the past, the tape will go through the typical analysis, the technical analysis to determine whether the voice is, indeed, Saddam Hussein's, et cetera. That will be done. At this stage, all I can tell you is we don't know. I can also tell you in the bigger scheme of things, it really doesn't matter. Because whether it is him, or whether it isn't him, the regime's days are numbered and are coming to an end.

I do note that there was one reference in the tape -- Saddam Hussein saying that coalition forces, or United States' forces went around the defenses of Baghdad. Which, of course, is not the facts. The facts, if anybody was there to witness the facts, are we attacked the forces defending Baghdad. We hardly went around them. So I'd note that.

Q Ari, what was the thinking behind choosing Northern Ireland for this meeting of Prime Minister Blair and the President?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as was indicated in the question, it also is an opportunity to talk about the peace process in Northern Ireland. That's something that the President has focused on previously and will talk about, as well.

Q That's it? So how much will be Northern Ireland and how much will be Middle East?

MR. FLEISCHER: We'll give you a report after the meeting. I think most of the meeting is going to be about Iraq.

Q Can I just ask you about the Iraqis the President is meeting with? What does he hope to gain from this meeting today with these Iraqis? What is his --

MR. FLEISCHER: The meeting with the free Iraqis and the Iraqi Americans today is a reminder to people about how much people care about freedom and liberty, and how the voices of those who are fortunate enough to have left Iraq and who can speak freely without being tortured or killed, that these voices here in America represent the voices of the people living inside Iraq today. And that's why the President wants to meet with them, to hear what they have to say, to gain their insights into what people inside Iraq are thinking today -- many of them have family. And he wants to hear from them.

Q Are they going to go back to Iraq? Do they have a role in an --

MR. FLEISCHER: I think that's a question -- many of them will be available to you afterwards. You can ask them that. I don't know in each instance what their individual plans are.

Q Was there any consideration given to holding this meeting in the Middle East?


Q Do you anticipate a trip by the President to the Middle East in the coming months?

MR. FLEISCHER: If there's anything to report, we'll report it, as always, with his travel.

Q Follow-up on Elizabeth's question. What role do you anticipate for -- does the administration anticipate for exiles in the post-war government?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, there is already a role being played by exiles in the current mission in Iraq. As you know, the nation of Hungary, to whom we are most grateful, provided training for a group of exiles. They went to Hungary and then have gone into the theater with the military. And they served very helpful roles there as translators and guides and performing other services for the military.

And one of the interesting things was that we saw as a sign of success in Afghanistan -- that I think we will see as a sign of success in Iraq -- is a willingness of people to return to their country. These people, in some instances, are Americans, but they want to return to where they were from because they taste for the first time that Iraq may be free. And we anticipate that many people who fled tyranny and torture will want to return to Iraq from around the world, not just in the United States, as freedom grows on the ground in Iraq.

Q So to be more specific, do you agree with a report in the Wall Street Journal today that the President rejected advice from aides to the Vice President and the Defense Secretary to give elevated posts in the Iraqi-post war government to exiles?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, we don't know exactly who is going to have what role in a post-government yet, so I think it's impossible to speculate about that. The exact makeup of the post-government leadership is not yet defined.

Q So the President wouldn't be opposed, then, to roles for exiles as opposed to consensus from the Iraqi people?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I've always said that the future government of Iraq will be comprised of people from both within and outside Iraq. Always it's been both.

Q Just to follow-up on that. There are reports that say that some in the administration want to have the government led mostly by exiles in the short-term -- right now, maybe in southern Iraq, maybe in and around the airport to sort of get things up running. Is that something that the White House is projecting at this point? Or are you --

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I should think for the structure of the government-to-be it is soon to say. And this is why I keep wanting to remind everybody -- just days ago people were saying we were bogged down; and now they're saying, describe for us and give us the names of the government that's going to be running Iraq in the future. We're still in the middle of war. So these things still are early. They're still unknowable. We are thinking about them. But we don't have answers yet. And we couldn't be expected to have precise answers at this stage.

Q Just to clarify, the idea of the role for the exiles in any government, as far as the White House is concerned? You're saying that you don't want them to necessarily take the lead while the Iraqis are on the ground?

MR. FLEISCHER: Let me say it again. The President has always said that the future of Iraq will be governed by Iraqis from both inside and outside Iraq. If they are from outside Iraq, they are exiles.

Q Following-up on that, are you referring to a permanent eventual Iraqi government or a interim authority? The question seems to be over the makeup of an interim authority. Previously, the administration has said that a group of Iraqis from inside and outside Iraq would meet to choose the composition of an interim authority, which would lead the way to a permanent government. So are you talking about the interim --

MR. FLEISCHER: I think even the membership on the interim authority is just not knowable with precision. But as I just reported, there already are people from outside Iraq who are now inside Iraq, who are trained to go there to be a helpful part of the mission. And we will continue to work with the Iraqi people from both inside and outside Iraq on the makeup of the interim authorities, as well as the more permanent government.

Q So are you saying that several news reports today that the Pentagon has already chosen the composition of an interim-type authority to help govern Iraq during the process, that those reports are inaccurate?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, this still is in the development stage and not every point of it is yet set in stone. We're still fighting a war.

Q But that would require a presidential decision, would it not? The President would be the one who would decide whether or not we try to establish an interim government and who would be participating?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the President has already said that we will work through an interim Iraqi authority. That's what he has said. There were calls for a provisional government to be announced now -- and we do not support those calls, we support a interim Iraqi authority, the exact makeup of it is too soon to say.

Q And what is the difference between a provisional government and an interim Iraqi authority?

MR. FLEISCHER: A provisional government, there are some who called for the naming today of the Iraqi leader -- who will not necessarily be inside Iraq. That's a provisional government and history has seen its share of provisional governments. The approach the President has taken is an interim Iraqi authority.

Q But is he having any -- it would be his decision, not the Defense Department's, right? If, in fact, he decides to name an interim Iraqi authority?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, these are decisions that the President makes and he works together with his team of national security advisors to make those decisions.

Q I just wanted to make sure it was a presidential decision, and not -- yes, right.

Now, is there -- has a decision been taken, what is the White House view on whether or not an interim Iraqi authority should be declared at this point or in the next few days?

MR. FLEISCHER: Too soon to say.

Q After the hostilities are over or --

MR. FLEISCHER: We're still fighting hostilities; it's too soon.

Q So you wouldn't do it until after hostilities end?

MR. FLEISCHER: I just said it's too soon to say today.

Q Whether or not you would do it before or after?

Q Ari, last week, the military plan that has been set in motion for a war in Iraq was very much criticized, including by many ex-generals and colonels and some in active duty in Iraq.

MR. FLEISCHER: I noticed.

Q Does the President feel that the quick taking of the airport and the closing in on the troops in Baghdad vindicates the plan?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has always felt that what is important, particularly in war, is to be steady at the helm and to lead and to do what he thought was right, and to implement the plan that he always felt was on progress. He understood that there were going to be some criticisms.

And I think it's worth pointing out there was a rather remarkable correction printed in one of the nation's leading newspapers pertaining to what General Wallace was alleged to have said. Because he did not say, as was reported, that the enemy that we are up against is not the enemy we war-gamed.

He said -- and I'm paraphrasing now -- but as the correction reported, he said -- I think the actual quote attributed to him that was on the front page of some newspapers was that, this is a different enemy from the one we war-planned against, or war-gamed against. And what he actually said is, the enemy is a bit different from the one we war-gamed against. Which is an important measure, qualitative measure of how similar or different it is. That's not as stark as it had been made to -- people have been made to believe.

Now, that's a correction. I can't tell you how many stories are written off of the incorrect quote. I don't yet know how many stories will be written off of the corrected quote.

Q You have said -- you were quoting President Bush -- believes General Franks should run military aspects of the war from the site. Now that they're so close to Baghdad, is there the possibility a decision will be made instead of troops going in to take Baghdad, maybe surrounding or isolating Baghdad?

MR. FLEISCHER: You need to talk to DOD about anything operational like that.

Q What would a decision like that involve for the President?

MR. FLEISCHER: That was John's question, and there's a plan for Baghdad. The plan is being implemented.

Q Ari, I have two questions. Could you clarify -- since the Iraqi people are so fearful of Saddam Hussein, why would the government be suggesting that it might be irrelevant where he is, or his health, to the beginning of a new Iraqi governing authority or -- wouldn't it be important to know where he is and that he's apprehended or dead?

MR. FLEISCHER: What I said was, in the bigger scheme of things -- in the bigger scheme of things, it does not -- today's tape does not matter, because the regime's days are numbered, in any case. But, clearly, the leadership of Iraq matters. And we don't know if Saddam Hussein is alive or dead. We don't yet know what this tape shows or doesn't show or whether or not the information was pre-recorded or even was pre-recorded with accuracy to be released. We don't know. That's why I noted the point about the -- going around the defenses of Baghdad. That's not an accurate statement to make, as if someone were observing events today.

But it is an important issue about the leadership of Iraq because, clearly, as Iraqi people start to feel comfortable with the fact that the regime is gone -- we have seen it in the south, we're continuing to see it in areas where people see the security of the United States or the coalition forces -- they feel more free. They're coming out, they're waving more, they're giving the thumbs-up to coalition forces. Journalists who are embedded are seeing and feeling that, themselves.

Q My second question is, for the record, Michael Kelly was the first American journalist who was embedded and was killed overnight. I was wondering if the White House has any reaction.

MR. FLEISCHER: The President expresses his sorrow and his condolences to the Kelly family. And the President, of course, expresses his sorrow and condolences to all of those military, civilian and journalist who have died in this combat.

Q Ari, is the President proceeding with plans to try and create a home-grown police force, particularly in the south? There are now reports that there are discussions about getting members of the Shiite majority to actually act as their own police force, the advantages being obvious.

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I think it's a little too early to get into that type of discussion in the middle of a shooting war. But suffice it to say that the Iraqi people are a capable people. There is a difference between the Iraqi people and the top layers of the regime. And the President sees a bright future for the people of Iraq, led by the people of Iraq.

Q If I could just follow-up on Steve's question earlier, about the tape. Did you -- and I apologize if I missed this. Did you, in fact, confirm that this at least shows that he survived the initial attack?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, we don't know. Typically what happens now and what is happening now is the tape will be analyzed by the experts to do a voice match, to see if it is his voice. That still, though, remains one piece of the puzzle. You don't know if it was pre-canned. Clearly, there is some information on there that some people might think could have some indications of something that might sound contemporaneous. Although, one reference is to something that took place almost two weeks ago. And the other reference that you could look at in a contemporaneous way is something that really is off-base. It's not an accurate thing to say for anybody who is on the ground observing events today. So the bottom line is we don't know, still, if Saddam Hussein is alive or dead -- despite today's tape.

Q Great. But actually what I was asking was whether it at least shows that he survived the initial attack? Are you --

MR. FLEISCHER: No, we don't know.

Q Are you willing to go that far?

MR. FLEISCHER: We don't know.

Q Even despite the reference to the farmer and the Apache?

MR. FLEISCHER: Don't know.

Q Ari, there's a tape running now -- it may want to -- it may affect what you just said.

MR. FLEISCHER: Now, as we speak?

Q As we speak, yes.

MR. FLEISCHER: How do you know? You're sitting here. (Laughter.) You don't have one of those little --

Q Because I've got the same communication devices you do.

Q He's emplanted. (Laughter.)

Q It's in his teeth. (Laughter.)

Q -- that shows Saddam actually touring bombed-out parts of Baghdad. Was the White House aware of that in advance? I mean, ave you seen any of that?

MR. FLEISCHER: Jim, I have a longstanding policy if it comes up during the briefing I can't discuss it because I'm here -- I'm embedded with you.

Q I just wanted to know whether you had seen it before we came out?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I had not seen that before we came out here.

Q Two questions, starting with the issue of the tape and perhaps a tape that's running now. On a broader, philosophical level, can this war be considered a success if he is not either captured or killed? What's the administration's thinking on that?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President --

Q And the second question on the U.N., some of our typical -- traditional allies in Europe have said that a prominent U.N. role for an interim Iraqi government would go a long way towards not only repairing breaches in our relations with some of our traditional European allies, but also would help U.S. relations in the Middle East where many, many --

MR. FLEISCHER: Okay, I got it.

Q -- newspapers, governments, see this as a --

MR. FLEISCHER: Got it --

Q -- U.S.-led invasion?

MR. FLEISCHER: One, on your first question, the purpose of the mission is to disarm the regime and change the leadership. And that includes the top layers of the leadership. So clearly, the future or the fate of Saddam Hussein is a factor. But as I indicated, whether he is or is not alive or dead, the mission is moving forward. And the regime's days are numbered.

On the role of the United Nations, again, there will be a role for the United Nations. And the President is focused on doing what is most effective to help the Iraqi people to govern their own country. That's where the President's focus will be. There will be a role for the U.N. in that process.

Q For the first time, we're getting reports from the field today of large numbers of Iraqis fleeing Baghdad. Is the administration -- are U.S. forces in the region prepared to deal with that? Does that complicate our planning?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, you'd have to talk to DOD about complications from any planning. But, of course, the Iraqi Information Minister said the other day that Americans were nowhere near Baghdad and we haven't even crossed the Tigres. And of course this is another reason why it's important to have embedded reporters there, so the truth can be seen from reporters eyes, in addition to be briefed by American officials there.

But anything beyond that, DOD will tell you about the plans.

Q We had had -- there were reports early on, even before the war broke out, that we talked with neighboring countries about possibly receiving refugees. Is there any larger plan for dealing with that?

MR. FLEISCHER: It's a DOD issue, and I think you have to have a very precise understanding of how many people are actually moving.

Q Well, there are reports now that there have been some chemicals found, et cetera. Is there any plans by the White House to ask Hans Blix or the United Nations to verify the possibility that these are actually chemical weapons?

MR. FLEISCHER: One, we have expert teams on the ground who would be able to make those decisions and judgments, themselves. As for the future, we have never ruled out that the United Nations inspectors might have some type of role to play. But in terms of the immediate verification, that's something that the military is taking care of.

Q Okay. And, secondly, in terms of the fighting resistance that they're getting at some of the -- south, that they may calm down and may pop up again, is there any plans to use coalition forces to sort of stay back -- I mean, other than the British and the Americans, some of the larger forces to stay back and deal with some of those pockets of resistance?

MR. FLEISCHER: That's something that the DOD officials can tell you about.

Q Ari, some of the President's allies on Capital Hill -- including Tom DeLay -- are voicing some concerns about the Middle East road map. They're concerned that the U.S. will undercut support for Israel. Do they have any foundation for this concern?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President thinks it's very important for all parties to know that he is sincere about implementing his June 24th speech in the Rose Garden, and he is going to follow through on it. And the road map is part and parcel of the June 24th speech, which was received well by all parties in the Middle East.

And so the President believes that there are important responsibilities on the Palestinians to reform; on the Arab nations to help the reforms take place; and on Israel, as well, to open up the doors toward more cooperation with a reformed Palestinian Authority and to see settlement activity as the security situation improves.

And so those are the President's stated messages and that's part of the road map and it's something the President is deeply committed to.

Q So given the compromises both sides need to make, the President is anticipating some resistance?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President is anticipating contributions to the road map from the parties to the road map, exactly as he called for in his speech in March.

Q Ari, to this point -- and I know it's early and events may change, just like she said -- but to this point, at least, they have not found any weapons of mass destruction. Like I said, I know it's early, but does the administration believe that it was justified in taking the action it has taken in Iraq, even if --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, of course --

Q -- no weapons of mass destruction are found?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I don't think that's going to happen. I thought you were asking about justified in taking the action. But you've heard it repeatedly said from the DOD briefers that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical. And we are confident that they will be found and discovered and seen.

Q And even if they're not -- the feeling is that the action was justified?

MR. FLEISCHER: You're asking about a hypothetical that I just told you I don't think is going to happen.

Q Ari, on two things. First, your critics are already coming out in reference to this regime change and name change situation. They're talking about -- they're linking regime change and the name changing of the airport. On a serious note, is that a part of the regime change? Anything "Saddam" will be changed --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, of course. I think there's nothing the Iraqi people want more than to throw off the yoke of oppression that Saddam has imposed of them. I think that the Iraqis don't want to have Saddam Hussein statues left behind, they don't want Saddam Hussein's torture left behind, they don't want his brutality left behind, and that's a message I think the President is going to hear today from people who fled Iraq.

Q Okay, and then a second question real quick. About five blocks away from the funeral of Kendall Waters-Bey the gentlemen -- one of the gentlemen who died in the helicopter crash in the war, there are a couple of students at a school called Morgan State University that are reservists, and they have been called to active duty. And some are actually going to Iraq.

Do you think kids actually understand -- 17, 18, 19 year old kids understand when they're formulating the plan, a lot of these children who don't have the wherewithal to go to college, that this indeed could be the end result, giving up your life for a college education?

MR. FLEISCHER: You bet they do. And that's why the President, when he meets with the men and women of our military, are so proud of them. And you wouldn't believe how capable and how smart these teenagers are and these young 20s are who serve in our military. And they are entrusted with life and death decisions that effect not only themselves, but their buddies, their colleagues, their fellow Marines, their fellow servicemen

-- because they have that ability, that have that sharps and they have that professionalism.

And the President sees it when he goes to see our military facilities and our military bases. The military has been a wonderful way of life for generation upon generation of Americans. And that includes the youngest, who wait until the day of their eligible birthday to sign up, because they look forward to that military style of life. And all the American people are grateful to them for the sacrifices that they know they are making when they do that, the way it can advance their lives at every stage of their life, because that's what the military represents.

Q If the President has a workable plan for the Middle East, why didn't he just put it out now?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as the President said, that the road map will be offered upon the confirmation of Abu Mazen. And that has not yet taken place, as he is still appointing his cabinet.

Q But considerable progress has been made. I mean, aren't you just kind of waiting now for a formality?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President is doing exactly what he said. Progress is being made. We're pleased with the reform. Abu Mazen is a reformer. But the President is doing precisely what he said he was going to do. I don't know why you would expect him to do anything other than that. He said he would put the road map forward and welcome the contributions on it once the appointment is confirmed, and that entails the cabinet appointments.

Q What is your current assessment of what Syria is doing to help Iraq? And what -- beyond words -- does the administration plan to do to stop it?

MR. FLEISCHER: It's exactly as Secretary Rumsfeld and Secretary Powell outlined, with the providing of some of the equipment to Iraq that raises concerns. And Secretary Powell, Secretary Rumsfeld said it all. I have nothing to add beyond what they said.

Q So in other words, there's no plan to stop it? Just let it flow.

MR. FLEISCHER: Syria has received the message that it received from the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense. And it's an important message. We hope they receive it.

Q Apparently, it did no good because the briefer this morning -- military briefer over in the battle area said that it's moving.

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, the message has been sent. It's important that Syria receive it. And, again, we don't judge everything day-by-day. It's important they receive that message, however.

Q Yesterday, the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, Paul Cellucci, said that President Bush may have to postpone his state visit to Canada because of his war itinerary. Do you have any more details on that?

MR. FLEISCHER: At this moment, I have nothing to report. As always, if we have something to report, we'll share it.

Q Also yesterday, Richard Perle said Canadians could well come to regret the decision to stay out of the war against Iraq. Should non-coalition countries expect punitive action from the United States?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, people should not expect punitive action. But the President does think it was a regrettable decision by nations not to join in the coalition. He understands their thoughts, but he is acting for the right reasons. And he's pleased to see how large the coalition is.

Q Two questions. I wonder whose idea it was to have the meeting, whether it was Blair or the President? Second question, what, if anything, does the timing of this meeting say about how the two men view the conflict? I mean, is it, for example, a sign that they think that it's coming to an end quite shortly? Are there any differences or decisions that need to be taken about post-war Iraq, the role of the U.N., need to be taken pretty quickly?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, given the fact that they met at Camp David just a week ago, I don't know that people said that's a sign it's coming to an end. In fact, at the time they were meeting in Camp David, everybody was saying, isn't it going terribly; it's off plan.

So they meet as often as they think is necessary. They think they can accomplish quite a bit in-person. It makes it easier to meet in-person than over the repeated phone calls that they have. But they're coalition allies, they're coalition partners, and the President values the judgment and the advice he receives from Prime Minister Blair.

Q Whose idea was it?

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know whose idea it was. Very often, these are kind of mutual ideas that the staff talks through, or the President and the Prime Minister talk through. And then they just agree to meet. I don't know if any one or the other had the idea before the other. I just don't know.

Q Was there a symbolic value of picking Northern Ireland -- somewhere in the mideast, a long history of ethnic strife, where peace plans have been moderately successful in recent years as a model? Is that way it's picked? Northern Ireland really connotates a lot of things to people around the world. And so a meeting there will --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, certainly, there has been a successful peace process in Northern Ireland. It's an ongoing process. And we want to talk to them about that process. That's an interesting observation.

Q Ari, the people who are meeting in the White House this afternoon, how were they picked specifically? Are all of them in agreement with the administration's position and action? And who's paying for their trip?

MR. FLEISCHER: These meetings -- any time groups come to the White House like this -- which is rather frequent for citizens to come and meet the President -- there's an Office of Public Liaison that works with various constituencies or communities to talk about who is coming and to work with those constituencies. I don't have any more specific information than that. I think we'll find out at the meeting if they're all in agreement. I suspect they all are. I don't think any of them in there are Saddam Hussein's defenders after what they lived through.

Q Ari, does the President plan to set up a new government in Iraq even before the regime of Saddam Hussein is captured and removed?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, it's just not knowable about the exact timing of when the regime, the interim authority would be set up. Just same answer as before.

Q I have another --

MR. FLEISCHER: We're going to -- we'll go back to the front.

Q Does the meeting today with the Iraqi Americans reflect a concern on the part of the administration that it needs to do a better job of countering the negative public relations backlash that's evident now across the Middle East and much of the Muslim world?

MR. FLEISCHER: The answer is unequivocally no. But, certainly, the President hopes that people everywhere in the world will listen to the message of these Arab Americans and these Iraqis who saw firsthand what a brutal dictatorship Saddam Hussein has led, the torture that he has used to stay in power. And I think you're going to hear a very welcoming message about why it's so important for the United States and the coalition to be successful at ousting Saddam Hussein. I think it's a powerful message, and it's a message the President hopes will be heard.

Q Where in Northern Ireland will the two leaders meet?


Q No, no.

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I said, "Dublin." I had written down Belfast and I said "Dublin." Belfast.

Q A historic development, Ari. (Laughter.)

MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you for the -- I was not a geography major. (Laughter.)

Q Yesterday, the U.S. Ambassador to Canada SARS virus, and is he worried about it developing into a plague?

MR. FLEISCHER: On which?

Q The SARS virus.

MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, the President has been monitoring events involving that. He's received reports about it. He continues to be concerned with it. Secretary of Health Tommy Thompson has been leading a group involving the Centers for Disease Control that has been working with the World Health Organization and other groups on the medical protection necessary to combat the disease, as well as working with Chinese authorities, authorities in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

Q Thank you.

MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you.

END 12:59 P.M. EST


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