With all the news coming out of the Middle East, here is a detail you might have missed: A few weeks ago, the United Nations shut down the Ashrafi refugee camp in southwestern Iran. For years Ashrafi had been the largest facility in the world housing displaced Iraqis, tens of thousands of whom had been driven from their homes by Saddam Hussein's brutality. But with Saddam behind bars and his Baathist dictatorship crushed, Iraqi exiles have been flocking home. By mid-February the camp had literally emptied out. Now, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports, "nothing remains of Ashrafi but rubble and a few stones."
Refugees surging to Iraq? That isn't what the antiwar legions told us would happen if George Bush made good on his vow to end Saddam's reign of terror. Over and over they warned that a US invasion would trigger a humanitarian cataclysm, including a flood of refugees from Iraq. This, for instance, was Martin Sheen at a Los Angeles news conference a month before the war began:
"As the dogs of war slouch towards Baghdad, we need to be reminded that as many as 2 million refugees could become a reality, as well as half a million fatalities."
Writing on the left-wing website AlterNet last March, senior editor Tai Moses dreaded the coming of a war that "could create more than a million refugees in Iraq and neighboring countries." The BBC, citing a "confidential" UN document, predicted that up to 500,000 Iraqis would be seriously injured during the first phase of an American attack, while 1 million would flee the country and 2 million more would be internally displaced -- all compounded by an "outbreak of diseases in epidemic if not pandemic proportions." The Organization of the Islamic Conference foresaw the "displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees," plus "total destruction and a humanitarian tragedy whose scale cannot be predicted."
Wrong, every one of them, along with all the other doomsayers, Bush-haters, "Not In Our Name" fanatics, and sundry "peace" activists who flooded the streets and the airwaves to warn of onrushing disaster. How many have had the integrity to admit that their visions of catastrophe were wildly off the mark? Or that if they had gotten their way, the foremost killer of Muslims alive today -- Saddam -- would still be torturing children before their parents' eyes? Instead they chant, "Bush lied, people died," and seize on every setback in Iraq as proof that they were right all along.
But they were wrong all along. Operation Iraqi Freedom stands as one of the great humanitarian achievements of modern times. For all the Bush administration's mistakes and miscalculations, for all the monumental challenges that remain, Iraq is vastly better off today than it was before the war.
And the Iraqi people know it.
In a nationwide survey conducted for ABC and the BBC by Britain's Oxford Research International, 56 percent of Iraqis say their lives are better now than before the war; only 19 percent say things are worse. Asked how things are going for them personally, seven out of 10 Iraqis say that life is good. Because of "Bush's war," Iraqis today brim with optimism. Fully 71 percent expect their lives to be even better a year from now; less than 7 percent say they'll be worse. Iraq today may just be the most upbeat, forward-looking country in the Arab world.
With hard work and a little luck, it may soon be the best governed as well. The interim constitution approved by the Iraqi Governing Council last month protects freedom of speech and assembly, guarantees the right to privacy, ensures equality for women, and subordinates the military to civilian control. It is, hands down, the most progressive constitution in the Arab Middle East.
Nearly a year after the fall of Baghdad, Iraq is hugely improved. Unemployment has been cut in half. Wages are climbing. The devastated southern marshlands are being restored. More Iraqis own cars and telephones than before Saddam was ousted. Some 2,500 schools have been rehabbed by the US-headed coalition. Spending on health care has soared thirtyfold, and millions of Iraqi children have been vaccinated. Iraqi athletes, no longer terrorized by Saddam's sadistic son Uday, are training for the summer Olympics in Greece.
Above all, Iraq's people are free. The horror and cruelty of the Saddam era are gone forever. In the 12 months since the American and British troops arrived, not one body has been added to a secret mass grave. Not one woman has been raped on government orders. Not one dissident has been mauled to death by trained killer dogs. Not one Kurdish village has been gassed.
Is everything rosy? Of course not. Could the transition to constitutional democracy still fail? Yes. Do innocent victims continue to die in horrific terror attacks, or at the hands of lynch mobs like the one that dragged the corpses of four Americans through the streets of Falluja this week? They do.
But none of that changes the bottom line: In the ancient land that America liberated, life is more beautiful and hopeful than it has been in many decades. Bush's foes may loudly deny it, but the refugees streaming homeward know better.