WASHINGTON – President Bush insists we are “liberating” Iraq, but someone forgot to tell the Iraqi people.

As liberators last week tossed food and water to hungry Iraqis in Safwan, some of them chanted, “With our blood and our souls, we sacrifice for you, Saddam!” Children threw rocks at American tanks.

You’d expect to hear such pro-Saddam Hussein slogans from the Republican Guard in Baghdad, but not from Shiite peasants in southern Iraq, who supposedly hate Saddam and his Sunni-dominated Ba’ath Party.

Nearby Basra and Umm Qasr were expected to fall easily because they’re also made up largely of anti-Saddam Shiite Muslims. No such luck.

Irregulars have put up stiff resistance there. They’ve not only not surrendered, as expected, but have pretended to surrender and then fired on Marines. Such anti-American treachery was the last thing expected of Saddam’s ragtag volunteers.

Even rural civilians unconnected to the Fedayeen have set up small bunkers in southern towns and staged hit-and-run attacks on Marines. An old man dusted off his rifle and reportedly helped down an Apache chopper. Iraqi children have fired on Marines in An Nasiriyah.

Why would the “oppressed” Iraqi people bite the hand that frees, and even feeds, them?

The Pentagon says Saddam and his thugs are holding a gun to their heads.

But no Iraqi who lived through the high-tech carnage of the last Gulf war thinks Saddam will survive this war, which expressly targets Saddam and his regime for destruction. And yet we are led to believe that, somehow, they still fear him enough to do his evil bidding.

That’s also how the Pentagon explains Saturday’s suicide bombing in Najaf that killed four soldiers. If you believe the official spin, Saddam has ordered Iraqis to go south and blow themselves and U.S. soldiers up, or face execution. In other words, kill yourself or Saddam will kill you – to which the poor Iraqi ponders, “Gee, I don’t want to die, so I better go die.”

Please, that’s too much for even Rush or Sean to buy.

Truth is, many, if not most, of these Iraqi civilians are killing our troops because they want to kill them, not because they are threatened to do so. To them, we are not liberators but infidel invaders, and this is jihad, or holy war. They may hate Saddam, but they hate George Bush and Tony Blair more.

Bush claims Iraqis yearn for “freedom” and “democracy” – and, by golly, he’s going to give it to them. “The nation of Iraq is fully capable of moving toward democracy and living in freedom,” he said just before the war.

But freedom and democracy are incompatible with Islam.

Despite talk of Saddam’s secular regime, Iraq is demonstrably an Islamic nation. In between the Baghdad bombings, you can hear the calls to prayer; and whenever the smoke clears, you can see the minarets. In the countryside, women wear head-to-toe black abayas. And suicide bombers kiss the Koran before they kill our brave young men and women in uniform.

For Muslims in the Middle East, Islam is a complete system of religion and government, ethics and the law, military and jihad, as well as worship. And the Koran is their constitution. There is no room for Western values – separation of church and state or military and state, and equal rights for all citizens, men and women alike or Jews and Christians and Muslims alike.

If you don’t believe me, listen to Reza F. Safa, a Shiite Muslim who converted to Christianity after fleeing Iran.

“The goal of Islam is to produce a theocracy with Allah as the ruler of society, a society with no separation between religion and the state,” said Safa, author of “Inside Islam: Exposing and Reaching the World of Islam.” “This society would have no democracy, no free will and no freedom of expression.”

Thus, in Islamic countries, opposition to Islam or those believed to be appointed by Allah is prohibited. So, too, are lifestyles that take away from Allah. You can’t be a slave to Allah if you are a slave to the almighty dollar, for instance.

“Islam to a Muslim is more than a religion, more than daily rituals. Islam is a way of living, thinking and reasoning,” Safa added. “Knowing this will help you understand why Muslims think and reason so unlike people in Western societies. Islam obliges its followers to follow Muhammad’s way of thinking,” as espoused in the Koran and the traditions (hadiths) of the Muslim prophet.

Unfortunately, our commander in chief who got us into this protracted war has not read the Koran, nor have most of his military leaders prosecuting it. (I’ve read two translations of the Koran, plus the commentary by Abdullah Yusef Ali, in case you’re wondering.)

Too bad, because if they had read the Koran, they might understand why:

  • Right after Bush “liberated” the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan from the “oppressive” Taliban mullahs, Afghans went right back to Sharia, or Islamic, law to mete out punishment for crimes, and women went right back to being treated like second-class citizens and didn’t bother to burn their burkas.

  • Kuwait didn’t establish a democracy after Bush’s father “liberated” it.

  • No other Muslim-dominated country has a true democracy.

  • By a 2-to-1 margin, the people of Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia, Turkey, Lebanon, Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and even Kuwait say they resent America (Gallup would no doubt have found the same sentiment in Iraq if it had been allowed to poll residents there).

  • The Turks and the Saudis denied us troop staging from their countries, which forced our ground troops to invade from a grudging Kuwait, hundreds of miles from Baghdad, thereby creating a long rear supply line vulnerable to ambush.

  • Iraq isn’t following Geneva Convention rules for treatment of prisoners of war, and has tortured and executed our soldiers.

If this is a battle for the “hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people, as Bush claims it is (it is actually over Israel and oil), then we have already lost. He can change the Iraqi regime all he wants, but he won’t change the “hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people unless he changes their religion. And I doubt Bush, born-again Christian or not, plans to proselytize 24 million Muslims.

Despite the alleged gassings, tortures, body shreddings, summary executions, burnings and rapes, the people of Iraq will, in the end, choose a brutal Muslim dictator like Saddam Hussein (named after the prophet Muhammad’s grandson) over what they perceive to be a benevolent Christian conqueror.

Bush maintains that Saddam and his thugs are holding back the gratitude of the Iraqi people. And he predicts that once they’re ousted, the Iraqi people will warmly embrace their American liberators.

Reality check: the Iraqi people are devout Muslims, and they will never – repeat, never – warmly embrace what they see as infidel occupiers of a sovereign Muslim land with deep historical and cultural significance to Islam.

It is pure folly to think we can create in Iraq the first Islamic democracy in history, and dangerous folly at that. Our troops are being drawn into a meat grinder. And even after they take Baghdad – which they will do, albeit later rather than sooner – there will be lasting and violent repercussions. Brace for the Bush blowback from the Muslim street.

Which begs the question: Why is it again that we are having to liberate and occupy Iraq, sacrificing our sons and daughters in the process?

Yes, we all know the ever-evolving and revolving reasons and excuses posed by this administration and its cheerleaders, who have duped the public over the past several months into thinking the operation is tied to the war on terrorism.

But if on Sept. 12, 2001, the president had asked the American people if they wanted to “liberate” the Iraqi people in response to the al-Qaida terrorist attacks, they would have told him to go jump in a lake.

“Pipe down about that tinhorn dictator Saddam, and nail that bastard bin Laden,” would have been the chorus.

Those of us who haven’t been brainwashed by this non-sequitur war, this sharp left turn from the war against al-Qaida, are still waiting for Bush to finish the real one – before it’s too late.

Related columns:

Saddam bin Laden

The Iraq echo chamber

No Basra this time

If pigs could fly …

My picnic with Bill

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