The United States is failing to make use of what should be its most valuable asset in this war: the many Iraqis who are willing to fight and die for their country's liberation.
Those who imply that a rising surge of "nationalism" is preventing Iraqis from greeting American and British troops with open arms are wrong. What is preventing Iraqis from taking over the streets of their cities is confusion about American intentions -- confusion created by the way this war has been conducted and by fear of the murderous brown-shirt thugs, otherwise known as Saddam's Fedayeen, a militia loyal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who control the streets of Iraqi cities and who are conducting the harassing attacks on American and British soldiers.
The coalition forces have not yet sent clear and unmistakable signals to the people of Iraq that, unlike in 1991, there will be no turning back before Hussein's regime has been overturned. In order to do this effectively they must count on the Iraqi opposition, which has so far been marginalized.
Iraqis do not get CNN. They have not heard, as we have, constant iterations of how Hussein's demise is imminent. More important, they have not seen evidence of his difficulties, as they did in 1991, when they revolted after two months of not seeing his image on TV or hearing him and his henchmen on the radio. Coalition forces so far have been content to position themselves outside cities in southern Iraq; only after incessant urging from members of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) have they finally begun to disrupt Iraqi TV -- Hussein's principal means for not losing face in Iraq. Above all, coalition forces have not allowed Iraqis to go in and organize the population to fight for liberation, something they are eager and willing to do.
Hanging over the head of every Iraqi like a sword of Damocles is the memory of March 1991, when the uprising of the people of southern Iraq was mercilessly suppressed -- with particular brutality in Basra. If Hussein came back from the grave after 1991, Iraqis are thinking to themselves, what guarantees do they have that he will not do so this time? Phone calls that the Iraqi opposition has received over the past two days from sources in southern Iraq confirm this sense of ambiguity and hesitation. A group of rebels in Nasiriyah called the leadership of the Iraqi opposition in the north. They wanted to know what to do with a number of abandoned military vehicles they had found, including a tank and some armored personnel carriers. Should they sequester them and turn them against the regime? The answer was no, they would be shot by coalition forces because they had not been given the special device necessary to be identified as friend, not foe. Such is the state of coordination between the opposition and the coalition forces.
No American or coalition soldier can quell the perfectly legitimate fears of ordinary Iraqis living in places such as Basra and Baghdad. Only other Iraqis, attentive to the nuances of their own society and culture, can do this. Communication with Iraqis about such things cannot be reduced to an index card listing rules of engagement. Only Iraqis can get messages distributed through the local social networks, and only Iraqis can reassure other Iraqis that they are truly to be liberated this time.
Hussein's image and the images of his henchmen have been visible throughout the fighting. Hussein rules through his face, through his ubiquitous presence in daily life. That is what his millions of larger-than-life wall posters are about. Every day that aired image reinforces an aura of invincibility. That is why Iraqi state TV must be put out of commission, permanently.
But eliminating his image is not enough. An alternative image must be projected -- and by Iraqis, not Americans. Give them the equipment inside Iraq to do it immediately. The INC has been trying to get TV and radio belonging to free Iraqis on the air in Iraq since 2000. Members of Congress and other powerful friends of the INC have proved helpless against the remarkable machinations of those who have fashioned entire careers around hobbling the INC as an organization and fighting force in Iraq.
The coalition needs the Iraqi opposition -- Iraqis who can sneak into cities and help organize other Iraqis, who know how to communicate with their entrapped compatriots, who can tell them why Hussein really is finished, and who are able to root out his cronies when they try to melt away into the civilian population.
One cannot liberate a people -- much less facilitate the emergence of a democracy -- without empowering the people being liberated. It is much easier for an Iraqi soldier to join other Iraqis in rebellion than it is to surrender his arms in humiliation to a foreigner who is unable even to communicate with him. And the more that Iraqis help, the less that coalition soldiers will have to engage in house-to-house fighting in cities.
It is both morally right and politically liberating for Iraqis to participate and share in their own liberation. They are willing to give their lives for this cause. Their participation is indispensable as it will add legitimacy -- and therefore stability -- to an Iraqi interim authority that otherwise, no matter how you look at it, would be chosen by American officials.