At the entrance of small dry cleaners in the town of Kirkuk, you can already see the pressed uniforms of the American army on hangers. American soldiers stop at drink and cigarette stalls to stock up on supplies for the next few days, and near the town's administration building American soldiers and freshly recruited Iraqi policemen are exchanging tales of their recent experiences.

In Baghdad, whose streets extol a daily price of American soldiers' lives, the picture is different. The soldiers are distant, a tank barrel near the Sheraton hotel is directed at a mosque in the square, and the contact with the civilians is nonexistent. "This is modern colonialism," says a Suni student in Baghdad University. "Colonialism in which the occupier feeds you, pays your wages, gives you its uniform to press, just so you don't rebel."

"This is freedom even if it means occupation," says a Shi'ite student. "Five months ago I wouldn't have dared to dispute my Suni colleague."

The debate on the essence of freedom does not end on the personal level. "Is this our chance to be a free country, I mean, a country which is no longer bound to embracing the Arab line? Will we dare not to be members of the Arab League, which has done nothing for us, either in Saddam's period or during the war?" asked an Iraqi newspaper. The editor hopes for a new Arab era for Iraq. "An era in which an Arab state can preserve its nationality without having to take into account neighboring Arab states, build an independent policy according to the will of the people rather than its ruler. That is the heart of democracy, is it not?"

The Kurds have no doubt at all. "We will not permit it to be written in our new constitution that we are an Arab state," says the interior minister of Jalal Talabani's faction. "We will not let the present Iraqi flag be raised over the Kurdish districts," promised Massoud Barazani, chairman of the Kurdistani Democratic Party. The Shi'ites are also not crazy about the Arab flag. The zealots among them want a halakhic Iraqi sate. The secular ones do not see themselves as part of the Arab nation and want to be part of the western business world.

This is not merely an Iraqi dilemma. The Arab League does not know how to ingest this new creature - an occupied state which is not fighting with all its might against the occupier, an Arab state that is not insisting on being a member of an Arab framework. The Arab embassies are operating on various levels in Iraq, but the heads of the Arab states have not yet declared their recognition of the new government. Businesspeople from all the Arab states are already acting intensively in Baghdad's markets, but no head of state has come to visit.

"It's like discovering your sister, whom you grew up with, is, in fact, not your sister," says a diplomat from an Arab state. "We shall have to make a decision soon to determine whether we adopt Iraq and preserve the Arab unity of rank, despite the fact that this is a government appointed by an occupier, or we let things take shape on their own."

Iraq's self formulation may develop into alienation toward the existing Arab frameworks. "This could be the resounding failure of the Arab governments," the diplomat says. "The loss of such an important, rich Arab state, could be the detonator that blows up the entire Arab League. Look what efforts we have invested to keep Libya in the League and now we shrug vis-a-vis Iraq. And what if Iraq decides tomorrow to make peace with Israel? Iraq has no territorial dispute with Israel, there is no need for negotiations or for a road map. Saddam, who adhered to the Arab line, is gone. Now there are Kurds and Shi'ites and Turkmenistanis and what not. Each nation has its own policy."

This creates a paradox for the Arab states. Iraq's political freedom of choice depends to a large extent on the rapidity with which the Arab states embrace the new Iraq. On the other hand, precisely because the United States is the one seeking Arab (and international) recognition in Iraq, the Arab states are apparently not eager to grant it.

"We have always been experts in gouging both our eyes on condition that we can gouge one of the enemy's eyes," concludes the Iraqi editor.