"What do you think about the Americans? How long do you think they should stay? Are they doing a good job?" I ask.
The answer is very complicated while at the same time very, very simple. It is the "politically correct" thing to do to complain about the Americans, say they are not wanted and tell them to "go home."
The reality, though, is very different.
As usually happens throughout Iraq, people look around before they tell their true feelings. Simply put they are still afraid to speak the truth. Before it was Saddam, now it is the Shiites and others who frighten them.
"The Americans are doing wonderfully. We want them to stay forever," I hear.
I am not surprised. It is exactly like I thought. When I was in Iraq before the war, the reported feelings were that while the people of Iraq did not like Saddam, they would fight for their country and were against the war.
As I said then, the people wanted the war to come so they could be liberated from Saddam but were not free to talk. The same situation with a different twist exists today.
It is not widely reported, nor fashionable to say the Americans are loved and wanted in Iraq, but in fact as they were wanted before the war, they are wanted now.
"We hope they stay forever" is the true feeling of the silent majority in Iraq, contrary to what is reported.
The logic is very simple -- the Iraqis do not trust their leaders. Faced with a very complicated situation of a 60 percent Shiite majority, a former police state, Iran at their doorstep trying with all its might to destabilize
their country, and desperately relieved and happy to be finally liberated from nearly 30 years of Saddam, they want the United States to stay.
The greatest fear of the man on the street is that the Americans will tire and leave. "We pray that they stay and stay forever" is the feeling of the vast majority, but they look both ways before they say it.
Why? The answer is quite simple. The following is the translation of a letter being given out throughout Iraq in various forms.
"'In the name of God the most merciful and compassionate'
"Do not adorn yourselves as illiterate women before Islam (From the Koran)
to this noble family,
We hope that the family will stand with brothers of Islam and follow the basic Islamic rules of wearing the veil and possessing honorable teachings of Islam that the Muslims have continued to follow from old times.
We are the Iraqi people, the Muslim people and do not accept any mistakes.
If not, and this message will be final, we will take the following actions:
1. Doing what one cannot endure (believed to be rape)
4. Burning the house with its dwellers in it or exploding it.
This message is directed to the women of this family.
This message from a Shiite Islamic organization says it all and explains in a nutshell why, though finally liberated, the Iraqi people still live in fear.
They are not in fear from the crime and looting that is reported in the press. Of course, it troubles them that the electricity is not up and running properly yet, garbage is still scattered and the schools are not yet functioning, but these are all items that the Americans are working to fix. It will take time, but they will be ultimately solved.
An interesting discussion followed one of the daily meetings we attended with U.S. authorities to coordinate activities. Following a long litany of things that do not work and a regular complaining, one Iraqi at the table spoke up: "I think many of those did not work properly even before the war."
Suddenly there was silence at the table as the reality of his statement sunk in.
The much reported anger of the Iraqis at the slowness of bringing Iraq up to speed is much exaggerated. Of course, people are frustrated -- I am too when the electricity suddenly goes off, the water is sporadic, or garbage sits in the street.
At the same time, we just got through a war! Standing in front of the Palestine Hotel watching a large group of Shiite Muslims complaining, I asked a simple question: "Could you hold a demonstration like this before the war?" There was a stunned silence and then a sheepish grin.
What people truly fear is the takeover of their finally liberated country by a group of what they term simply "crazy" people. When fellow Muslims call them "crazy" and they send letters like the above -- a similar one that came to one of our bishops a few days ago -- one begins to understand their true fear.
If there is one mistake being made by the Americans on the ground, it is that they are just too "soft" on the "bad guys."
In the desire not to offend, the Americans in the view of the silent majority have been too soft on the "crazies." If there was one single event that put fear in the hearts of the regular people, it was when one crossed the border into Iraq. A man that even Saddam Hussein would not let into Iraq for 23 years -- the leader of the Shiite Muslims who had been living in Iran as an exile, Ayatollah Mohammad Bakr Al Hakim.
Upon returning to Iraq, he promptly called for the creation of an Islamic state, similar to Iran.
What can the United States do?
As one who was born and raised in Japan -- a mirror of what is happening in Iraq took place 58 years ago -- I for one feel Japan's example can be a "road map" for the future of Iraq.
My parents were among the thousands that responded to Gen. Douglas MacArthur's call for 10,000 young people to help rebuild Japan following the war.
They came with many others who gave their lives to see a war-mongering, pseudo-religious police state transformed into the economic powerhouse and leader for good in the world that Japan -- for all its many problems -- is today.
Just like Iraq, immediately following its surrender, there were the voices calling for more consideration for Japan's "culture" and leaving the basic institutions in place.
Instead, strong accountability was put in place, war criminals punished and executed, pre-war institutions that had created the war machine eliminated, and a strong constitution put in place, which included a watertight prohibition against any religious involvement by the state. This small but critical U.S. presence 58 years following the war remains.
Why? As any Japanese will tell you, quietly because it is still "politically incorrect," they want the Americans to stay.
As Iraqis told me before the war, "we are not afraid of the Americans' bombing. There will be mistakes. People will be killed, but we do not believe the Americans will ever purposely bomb us." People when they are free to tell their true feelings inherently trust America.
They will all bring up the myriad of other interests they feel the United States has in its cards -- oil, control of the world, and on and on -- but at the end of the day they want America to stay involved and fear most of all that the American people will grow tired and leave them to the "crazies."
What can we do to ensure that Iraq will go on to become another "Japan" and be a leader for good in the Middle East?
The answers come from the common people. I will never forget discussing with many of the peace activists I originally supported before the war, asking whether they had talked with the common people to ask what they wanted. "No, we don't have to. We know what they want," was the response.
What do the "regular people" in Iraq want? Just like they wanted the Americans to save them from Saddam and were ready to pay any price personally to do so, their advice is simple and we ignore it at a price.
First, don't be soft on the Shiites! Don't listen to all the voices saying be "culturally sensitive." People who say if you don't believe like we do, we will rape, kill, kidnap or burn down your house, do not deserve to be talked with. As the "regular people" say, "they are crazy and cannot be talked with."
An important first step? Send Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim back to Iran, where he spent his exile torturing Iraqis in Iranian prisons.
"Cut out the cancer that will destroy our country" is the feeling on the street.
Second, immediately stop the daily cacophony of speakers that blare from mosques across the country. This is not an issue of respecting religious institutions. The use of massive speakers to blare out "calls to prayer" is a recent phenomenon.
According to the "regular people," one of the best things the British troops did in 1991 in the areas they controlled was to visit with each mosque and tell the imam that there was complete religious freedom. They told him he could do whatever he wanted, but the blaring of speakers all day long and into the night was not religious but political and was banned, as has been done in many other Islamic countries.
Even neighboring Jordan has banned all such blaring speakers except for one in Amman.
This one move immediately changed the atmosphere for the "regular people" and sent a strong message that there was a future and the British at that time meant business about a secular Iraq with freedom and opportunity for all.
There will be cries to be "culturally sensitive" on this issue but the constant blaring is a constant political statement that says there is no equality. It is the simplest but most single important step that can be taken to give Iraqis hope that things will be different in the future.
In addition, the Islamic headdress, which we saw battled in Afghanistan and is now an issue on the ground in Iraq, should be banned. Many other Islamic nations have come to the simple conclusion that given the example of the letter sent out and the reality of the weakness of the position of women, there is no situation in which a woman can be thought to be in a position to freely choose to wear the veil, covering of the head or the full body covering.
The only solution is to ban it completely so it does not become an issue and used by the "crazies" to impose their values by intimidating the weakest of the population -- the women.
Third, begin immediate 24-hour television in Arabic, Kurdish and Assyrian -- the principle languages of Iraq. It is unbelievable that to date, it is not up and running while neighboring Iran continues to blare unbelievable messages into Iraq.
The "regular people" are confused and upset not at what they see -- in each of the regular homes I have stayed in, the Americans tanks drive by patrolling the streets at least three or four times each night -- it's what they do not see.
What is most needed on the ground is information. In the absence of it, the "crazies" get the edge. Television, newspapers and radio with information on the progress of reconstruction, information on daily needs and encouragement for the future are necessities.
Fourth, don't be so overly sensitive to Islamic issues. It will be the "death knell" to success in Iraq. As was done in Japan, the "cancer" needs to be rooted out. Virtually all the "crazy" positions that are imposed are not in the Koran and have nothing to do with Islam.
The American position should be to respect the Koran as a religious book and respect Islam as a religion, but to never tolerate anything done in the name of either that defies the moral principles of international society.
"There shall not be compulsion in religion," states the Holy Koran; Part 3 Surah 2 al-Baqarah 256 Page 68.
The Americans shall strenuously support freedom of religion and the freedom to openly propagate any religion, but will never tolerate any form of intimidation or even implicit state support for any one religion. It was this singular issue that guaranteed the success of postwar Japan.
Fifth, create a secular, non-religious constitution for Iraq. I do not mean ask the Iraqis to do it -- after 30 years of intimidation and living in a police state, they are psychologically incapable at this time of doing it
themselves. Exactly as in postwar Japan, we need the best and the brightest minds of Americans and Iraqis together to do this. The best tool at this time is the 1925 Iraqi constitution with the religious articles taken from the Japanese constitution.
This is critical. On this one issue, our Iraq will fail or succeed. Don't listen to the voices again about being "culturally sensitive." The United States faces a simple and stark problem -- there is no "Islamic" nation anywhere that constitutionally guarantees equal rights. Check it out.
One will be shocked, as I was to read constitution after constitution and find out that one is not allowed by either constitution or law to leave Islam. This allows a situation to be created where the most important human right -- the right to freedom of thought -- is not allowed in any Islamic country by virtue of the fact that individuals are not allowed to legally leave the "religion" they were born into, nor allowed to specify "nothing" when asked about their religious belief.
This is where Japan succeeded -- the Americans were vicious in their complete elimination of any religious test or favoritism in the Constitution and subsequent laws.
Sixth, create representative government. Don't do this in long, tedious consultations. This needs to, as in Japan's case, be imposed with consultation.
Special provisions must be made to include special rights for special people who during Saddam's time were purposely spread thinly across the country to make sure they would never be strong enough in any one area to be able to affect representation.
The Assyrians, the indigenous people of Iraq -- the "Native Americans" if you will of Iraq along with the Kurds and the Turkomans -- need to have special autonomy in their homelands so they will feel they have a future and stay to build Iraq, and exiles by the millions living abroad will see a future to return.
Along with this representative government giving special rights to indigenous people in their homelands, there must be a careful and complete settlement of all outstanding claims for land. This was one of the other major areas that caused postwar Japan to succeed -- the Americans were vigorous in breaking up the illegal land situations that had developed over the years. This situation is mirrored in Iraq.
Land must be returned completely to all those who had their land taken by Saddam so individual Iraqis will have their own land and "own" a future. There must never be any perception that Saddam's "friends," as those who assisted in the nightmare that was Japan before and during World War II, continue to benefit.
The elimination of the speakers at the mosques will show Iraqis on a practical level that the United States is creating an equal playing field for all Iraqis.
Finally, get telephones for the U.S. military and ORHA offices in Baghdad. For those of us who interact with them, it borders on the absurd. Imagine a whole "government in waiting" that cannot communicate across the few feet of various agency offices.
This touches a greater issue -- let's not think we can set up an Iraq on the "cheap."
Will it be expensive? Of course, it will. Is it worth it? Yes it is. Iraq is a rich country. It has more than enough resources without using any of the U.S. taxpayer's money. We must not forget that it took seven years of post-war occupation in Japan to root out all the "bad guys" and set up a new government.
Will it pay off? Has Japan "paid off"? It is a simple but critical question -- do we want another "Japan" or do we want another "Iran?"
It is my prayer that the United States will have the courage to stay the course -- it may take seven years of direct occupation and decades of limited basing but it will be well worth it.
Now is the time to be strong, forceful and remember the lessons of the past. Japan is our greatest example. As one who was born and raised in Japan, I grew up regularly having someone out of nowhere shake my hand and say "thank you for Gen. Douglas MacArthur and for what you did to Japan after the war."
It brought back memories as I stood with our neighbors on a dusty Baghdad street at dusk and heard them reply to my question of how long should America stay in Iraq.
"We hope the Americans will stay in Iraq forever."
(The Rev. Ken Joseph Jr. is an Assyrian and a minister who directs Assyrianchristians.com.)