Commentary: Ice Cream in Baghdad?

By Ken Joseph Jr.

Baghdad, Free Iraq - The Al Jaiha Ice Cream Parlor in Baghdad is booming! The TV Monitors blare Egyptian Music Videos while a line is developing at the counter for the house favorite - a huge Ice Cream Sundae and customers are talking at a steady buzz!

Ice Cream in Baghdad?

The news from Baghdad is bombing, terror and all bad these days but one must be careful to make a distinction. For the foreign journalist, soldier and others targeted by the non-Iraqi terrorists who are determined to block any progress in Iraq it may be dangerous. But for the average Iraqi hope is in the air!

The two William sisters - Vinos 23 and Florence 21, the two Lazar brothers - Remon and Simon, 25 and 21 and Robert George, 25 are digging in.

To the question `how does Al Jaiha compare to when Sadaam was in power` thy are quick to respond. `When Sadaam was in power we would be watching one of the three Sadaam TV Channels with him on TV or some old, boring black and white movie. Nobody would be talking freely and we would quietly eat and leave`. says Remon.

`We lived in constant fear` continues Robert George. `You never knew when someone would be taken away for saying the wrong thing. It was a constant state of low level terror` he continues as he shares the story of his dear friend, Amir who was imprisoned for 3 years for simply trying to assert he was an Assyrian and promote the use of the language of the indigenous people.`.

The Al Jaiha Ice Cream Parlor is a good barometer of how things are in Iraq. Ignored by the international media who for some reason, at least according to the regular Iraqi have a bias towards any good news from Iraq, Iraq is doing just fine, thank you!

Ice Cream is not exactly a staple, and when people have enough extra money and hope to be packing out the Ice Cream Parlor on a Sunday night things must not be too bad.

A quick look outside the window shows the real problem in Baghdad these days - massive, hour long traffic jams, crammed stores overflowing with everything imaginable for the Iraqis finally freed from decade long pariah status.

And the future? `We are getting married in July!` chimes in Remon and Venos. `Everything is completely better` continues Robert George. `For the first time in our lives we have hope! We are getting jobs - not for $60 a month that would be the regular but for $600 and more. It is because the Americans cared for the people of Iraq and were the only ones with the courage to set us free.`

`For the first time we can travel overseas, we can watch Satellite TV, we can surf the internet freely, we can buy cars and things from all over the world. Most of all, though the best is we no longer live in fear.`

Prices are booming and the value of the Iraqi dinar is rising. A house that would go for 30,000 $ months ago is nearing $100,000. The Iraqi dinar which before the war fluctuated in the 2500 to 3,000 to the dollar range is now nearing 1200.

For the average Iraqi it is the best of times. Something they never even dreamed of..

27 year old Weena Aref, a Kurd agrees. She is the manager of an Internet Shop. `Business is booming. On a recent afternoon all the terminals were occupied with paying customers paying $3 to get online!

`It is wonderful Sadaam is gone. We always lived in fear` she says. `As Kurds we were always persecuted and although we had our own relative autonomy in the North it was difficult for those of us living in Iraq.`

`The best part is that we no longer live in terror! We do not fear somebody taken away` she says, echoing other Iraqis.

It is the best of times, but at the same time the worst of times

The `bad`? It is the deep, palpable, undercurrent of fear that is gnawing at everybody, although few will speak of it.

It is the planned July 1 handover of power in Iraq. While the original plan was to as in Japan and Germany, have a constitution, elections and a government in place, due, the Iraqis say to fears of the impact of Iraq on the upcoming US Presidential election the schedule was suddenly changed.

`If the current plan goes forward there will be civil war in Iraq beginning on July 1` says an American official asking to be anonymous. `I have been told privately by both senior officials of the Coalition Provisional Authority as well as the Iraqi Governing Council this. In addition, the airport will close as no airline will fly into an airport without a government in charge` he continues.

`I do not understand why the United States, the champion of freedom and democracy wants to leave Iraq before her job is finished - before a secular constitution, elections, government and local autonomy are in place and risk undoing all the good she has done in liberating Iraq` says Hekmat Hakem, a member of the Constitutional Committee charged with drafting Iraq's constitution.

`The members of our committee do not want a muslim government. We do not understand this at all.`

Robert George goes further. `I am an Assyrian. The Assyrians are Christians and we are the original people of Iraq. If the July 1 schedule goes forward we will be massacred. The last time this happened 2/3rds of the Christians of Iraq were slaughtered in the Assyrian Holocaust. We will not allow it to happen again. We cannot understand why the Christians of the world do not support us and demand that Iraq be free, democratic and secular.`

A trip south shows the reality on the ground. Town after town in southern Iraq does not fly the Iraqi flag over government buildings, but the green flag of Sistani, the Iranian leader of the Shiites.

`Why does the American Government talk to this man`. Robert George continues. `He is not even an Iraqi - he is an Iranian. The Americans should simply say that only Iraqis can have a say in the future of Iraq and send him back to Iran where he came from.`.

Few in the rest of the world seem to realize this little known fact - the main source of trouble to the US authorities is in fact not an Iraqi but an Iranian.

`We do not want to become like Iran. We do not want a muslim government.` echoes Shiite muslim Sadek Tarik, 36. We just want to be normal. We are finally free.`

Sunni Muslim, Ahmed Tarik, 23, joins in `We just want to be left alone. Sadaam was terrible, but becoming like Iran would be worse.`.

As the July 1 date nears a sense of doom is quietly growing underneath the outward sense of optimism, hope and joy that one sees everyday living outside the elite hotels where the foreign journalists are.

`Did the United States go to war and lose so many lives to create an Islamic Government of Iraq` says Robert George? `I do not think the American people would ever agree to that. I think they want for us what they have - freedom, opportunity and a better life. As Christians we get along good with our muslim neighbors and as the original people of Iraq we pray for autonomy in our homeland in Nineveh and Dohuk provinces so like the American Indians we can administer our local affairs.``

It took the United States seven years to move Japan from a police state to a free and democratic society. The outbreak of civil war on July 1 would seem to even the most casual observer to have a far greater negative impact on the November elections than the improving situation in Iraq.

For a first hand look, the Al Jaha Ice Cream Parlor is living testimony to the fact that the war was worth it, that good times are truly around the corner and the worst possible thing for Iraq would be a premature handover of power.

Rev. Ken Joseph Jr., known as `God`s man in Baghdad` is an Assyrian, brought the first postwar relief truck into Baghdad and directs

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