Friday, September 19, 2003

Iraqis are on the road to democratic self-government.

Friday, September 19, 2003 12:01 a.m.

I have just returned from Iraq. What I saw there convinced me, more than ever, that our liberation of Iraq was in the best interests of the Iraqi people, the American people and the world.

The Iraq I saw was a society on the move, a vibrant land with a hardy people experiencing the first heady taste of freedom. Iraq has come a long way since the dawn of this year, when Saddam Hussein was holding his people in poverty, ignorance and fear while filling mass graves with his opponents. The Iraqi regime was still squandering Iraq's treasure on deadly weapons programs, in defiance of 12 years of United Nations Security Council resolutions. While children died, Saddam was lavishing money on palaces and perks, for himself and his cronies.

Thanks to the courage of our brave men and women in uniform, and those of our coalition partners, all that has changed. Saddam is gone. Thanks to the hard work of Ambassador L. Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority, Iraq is being transformed. The evidence was everywhere to be seen. Streets are lined with shops selling newspapers and books with opinions of every stripe. Schools and universities are open, teaching young Iraqis the skills to live in freedom and compete in our globalizing world. Parents are forming PTAs to support these schools, and to make sure that they have a voice in their children's future. The hospitals are operating, and 95% of the health clinics are open to provide critical medical services to Iraqis of all ages.

Most important of all, Iraqis are on the road to democratic self-government. All the major cities and over 85% of the towns have councils. In Baghdad, I attended a city council meeting that was remarkable for its normalcy. I saw its members spend their time talking about what most city councils are concerned with--jobs, education and the environment. At the national level I met with an Iraqi Governing Council that has appointed ministers and is taking responsibility for national policy. In fact, while I was there, the new minister of justice announced the legal framework for a truly independent judiciary.

The Governing Council has appointed a central bank governor who will be in charge of introducing Iraq's new, unified currency next month. It also recently endorsed new tariffs and is now discussing world-class reforms to open the country to productive foreign investment. Now, the Governing Council is turning its attention to the process for drawing up a democratic constitution for a democratic Iraq.

I was truly moved when I met with my counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari, free Iraq's first foreign minister. He will soon be off to New York as part of the Iraqi delegation to the opening of the United Nations General Assembly.

Iraq has come very far, but serious problems remain, starting with security. American commanders and troops told me of the many threats they face--from leftover loyalists who want to return Iraq to the dark days of Saddam, from criminals who were set loose on Iraqi society when Saddam emptied the jails and, increasingly, from outside terrorists who have come to Iraq to open a new front in their campaign against the civilized world. But our commanders also briefed me on their plan for meeting these security threats, and it is a good one.

We also need to complete the renewal of Iraq's electrical grid, its water treatment facilities and its other infrastructure, which were run down and destroyed during the years of Saddam's misrule. Here, too, we are making progress. Electric generation now averages 75% of prewar levels, and that figure is rising. Telephone service is being restored to hundreds of thousands of customers. Dilapidated water and sewage treatment facilities are being modernized. But it will take time and money to finish the job.

Indeed, that's Iraq in a nutshell. With our support, the Iraqis have made great progress. But it will take time and money to finish the job. President Bush has asked Congress for $20 billion to help rebuild Iraq's infrastructure. Next month, the international community will meet in Madrid to pledge additional assistance for Iraqi reconstruction. With these funds, and our continued help, I know the Iraqis will take great strides in rebuilding their battered country.

How long will we stay in Iraq? We will stay as long as it takes to turn full responsibility for governing Iraq over to a capable and democratically elected Iraqi administration. Only a government elected under a democratic constitution can take full responsibility and enjoy full legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqi people and the world.

Anyone who doubts the wisdom of President Bush's course in Iraq should stand, as I did, by the side of the mass grave in Halabja, in Iraq's north. That terrible site holds the remains of 5,000 innocent men, women and children who were gassed to death by Saddam Hussein's criminal regime.

The Iraqi people must be empowered to prevent such mass murder from happening ever again. They must be given the tools and the support to build a peaceful and prosperous democracy. They deserve no less. The American people deserve no less.

Mr. Powell is secretary of state.

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