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Not a pretty picture

The footage from Fallujah was a jarring reminder of the violence that is occurring every day in Iraq, out of Americans' view.

Published April 2, 2004

Millions of Americans were disturbed by the gruesome scenes from Iraq: Four Americans working for a security company were shot, set on fire and dragged through the streets of Fallujah. Two of the disfigured corpses were hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River.

And dozens of local residents danced and cheered as if they were at a holiday parade.

Some people were upset that the Times and other news organizations showed images of the barbarity in Fallujah. No one likes seeing such violence, particularly when the victims are Americans representing our country overseas. Although the media refrained from transmitting far more graphic scenes, the ones shown were hard enough to stomach.

However, a better case could be made that our government and media have gone too far until now to keep our citizens sheltered from the reality of the war in Iraq. (The same day the U.S. contractors were killed in Fallujah, five U.S. soldiers were killed in an explosion a few miles away. Americans at home were spared images of their deaths.)

When more than 100,000 of our fellow citizens are at war half a world away, not even the most callous and inattentive of us should be unaffected. More than 600 Americans have been killed in Iraq in the past year, and thousands have been grievously wounded. Thousands of Iraqis have died, also. Almost all of that suffering has taken place outside the view of most Americans, but it should not take place outside our consciousness. Grousing about gas prices and complaining that the news from Iraq spoiled our breakfast are not the hallmarks of citizenship.

Like the news media, our government also has an obligation to be honest about events in Iraq. For many Americans, the sight of Iraqi mobs gloating over the bodies of dead Americans must have been as jarring as the sight of the bodies themselves. They may have trusted our government when it promised before the war that the Iraqi people would welcome our troops as liberators. They may have believed more recent reports from our political and military leaders that most of the continuing violence being directed at our troops is being carried out by a handful of non-Iraqi insurgents. The footage from Fallujah told a different story.

Fallujah is in the heart of the notorious Sunni Triangle, focus of the most violent resistance to the American occupation. But conditions have been deteriorating in other sections of Iraq as well. Shiite leaders, who have generally tolerated the occupation until now, are opposed to important details of the plan to transfer power to Iraqi authorities on June 30. Grand Ayatollah Sistani opposes Iraq's interim constitution and may forbid his followers from participating in a transitional government. U.S. authorities just shut down a newspaper controlled by another Shiite cleric who is more radical than Sistani. And throughout Iraq, U.S. authorities acknowledge that the task of recruiting and training Iraqi police and security personnel has gone more slowly than hoped. The systematic slaughter of Iraqi trainees has not helped recruitment.

None of this bodes well for the planned transfer of power. Many good things are happening in Iraq, and they are reported upon almost daily. But Iraq is far from the political and military stability required for a real transition from American to Iraqi control, and it is difficult to see the path that leads to stability rather than civil war. The Bush administration, which alienated much of the world in the runup to war, desperately needs the world's help in pacifying Iraq and extricating our forces from an increasingly bloody slog.

That's not a pretty picture. But a state of denial is not healthy for a government, or for its people.

[Last modified April 2, 2004, 01:20:42]


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