TOPICS : US exit and education key to Iraq success

Iraqi mothers want the same thing for their children American mothers want for theirs,” President Bush has said. “A place for their child to grow up and get a good education and be able to realise dreams.” The two institutions Iraqis prize most are family and education. But the US military occupation and the insurgency have produced a total disruption of both. Can Iraqis return to social normalcy so long as US troops — and their enemies — are engaged there?

One has to look no further than the Palestinian territories to discover the long-term effects of children not going to school. Israel’s occupation and perennial lockdown of Palestinians created a new uneducated generation seeking salvation through the radical Islam of Hamas. In Iraq, disruption of education and family life seems to be having a similar effect. The lesson should be obvious: Foreign military occupations of Muslim lands from the Crusades to the present are disruptive of indigenous cultures, destructive, and sooner or later, hated.

An unfortunate truth is that Washington’s plan for nation building has been hamstrung because the insurgents have been targeting contractors and construction workers. This lethal violence manoeuvred the US into a “security first, reconstruction later” mode, reminding us that on every battlefield, the enemy always has a vote.True, the US has poured billions into Iraq. But the standing joke among Iraqis is that a US company will be awarded a $10 billion contract. The work is then subcontracted to a construction company in Kuwait, which in turn subcontracts to an Iraqi firm, which in turn hires four kids to paint a school. In addition to focusing on massive nation-building in an ethnically diverse country, the US might even now try to concentrate on the little things that weigh heavily on Iraqis’ hearts. A modest start: Recreate secular educational institutions. Today, only half of Iraqi children attend primary school, compared with 80% in 2005. By the late 1980s, Iraq had mostly wiped out illiteracy. But today, nearly one-third of Iraqi adults can’t read.

The tragedy of Iraq was not created by the Americans. It is a product of the violence and despotism of Hussein. But more than five years after the invasion, it’s hard not to conclude that the US has thrown more than a trillion dollars at a problem it helped create without a clue how to fix it. But Iraq is not too broken to fix. It’s clear that the brunt of the “fixing” is going to have to be done by Iraqis. They certainly have money. The question to is: Will the Iraqis ever assume responsibility for themselves as long as the Americans remain?

Since the start of the war, there have been some reminders of what Iraq might once again become. The most notable: the surprising and monumental victory by the Iraqi soccer team over Saudi Arabia in the July 2007 Asia Cup. All Iraqis rejoiced with every win. It was a small but significant reminder that Iraqis have something to be proud of, and that even with a devastating war, victory can sometimes be theirs. — The Christian Science Monitor