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2/11/04 - IRAQ’S NEW ATMOSPHERE - 2004-02-12

Freedom is beginning to take hold in Iraq. It’s evident in places like the newly opened human rights center in the south-central Iraqi city of Hillah. “This is a new thing for Iraqis,” the center’s founder, Khazi al-Safa, told a reporter. “For decades,” she says, Iraqis didn’t have “any ideas about human rights and democracy.”

Before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the only demonstrations that took place in Iraq were those permitted by the Baath party regime. Today, protesters take to the street over a wide range of issues, including the form of Iraq’s new government.

The Chicago Tribune newspaper reports that political rallies “have become so popular that banner manufacturers are swamped with orders.” Feisal al-Istrabadi is an Iraqi-born lawyer from Chicago, Illinois. He told a Tribune reporter, “You are starting from scratch here. Political thought was banned here for thirty-five years.”

People from the U.S. and other coalition countries are helping Iraqis to reinvent their legal and political institutions. Sermid al-Sarraf, a lawyer from Los Angeles, California, is in Iraq to help teach Iraqi lawyers how to become defenders of human rights. Mr. Al-Sarraf says that under Saddam Hussein, Iraqi lawyers were “taught to become paper-pushers or go-betweens to facilitate bribes.” The goal is to change that culture of corruption and create the foundation for the rule of law. Those who work for such reform, says President George W. Bush, will have a constant ally in the United States:

“The nation of Iraq was for decades an ally of terror ruled by the cruelty and caprice of one man. Today, the people of Iraq are moving toward self-government. Our coalition is working with the Iraqi Governing Council to draft a basic law with a bill of rights.... Because the Baathist regime is history, Iraq is no longer a grave and a gathering threat to free nations. Iraq is a free nation.”

Freedom still has enemies in Iraq. Baathist remnants and foreign terrorists hope their attacks will undermine Iraqi progress. President Bush says that “when given a choice, people everywhere, from all walks of life, from all religions, prefer freedom to violence and terror.” Iraq will be an important test of that conviction.