Step 1: quelling Iraqi fears
As a new overseer arrives in Iraq, US troops face many problems - from rumors that they have X-ray vision to reports of abductions.
BAGHDAD — When US soldiers first arrived here in Thawra, in eastern Baghdad, rumors swept through the thickly populated Shiite Muslim neighborhood that the Americans' high-tech night vision goggles were capable of seeing through women's clothing.
In a conservative Muslim neighborhood, such a suggestion is almost too much to bear. So an Army representative took a pair of goggles to a respected religious leader to show him that they merely enhance vision at night.
US officials believed the demonstration put an end to the issue. But some Iraqi rumors never seem to die. The latest version is that some sunglasses worn by American troops allow them to see through clothing.
Now, US forces are letting Iraqis try on their sunglasses.
"The capabilities of our technology have been overexaggerated by the local population. It's like Superman - we swoop in and do these amazing things," says US Army Capt. Cory Davis. "When they find out it is not true, it just blows their socks off."
Here on the front lines of the battle for peace in Iraq, US military officials are confronting a full array of street-level problems - both real and imagined. Some can be resolved with a glance through dark-colored glasses. Others seem to defy solution.
Of primary concern among residents are reports of armed robberies, carjackings, and abductions of schoolgirls and women at gunpoint.
American troops are trying to reestablish stability. But the proliferation of weapons, combined with Saddam Hussein's decision last January to empty Iraq's prisons of 800,000 inmates, has left the country flooded with a large cadre of well-armed criminals who are taking full advantage of Iraq's newfound freedom.
Efforts to revive the Baghdad police force have been hindered because many Iraqis don't trust anyone who was a policeman under Hussein. The plan to rehire everyone in the former police force - from lieutenant down - is under attack. In the meantime, Iraqis complain of armed criminals stalking their streets.
Suhad Marhan Murab, a high school student, waves down a US Army patrol. She says she's afraid to go to school because she has heard that two girls were kidnapped at gunpoint.
"I heard that those people [who are] doing that belong to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party," she says. "I do not feel safe."
Captain Davis of the Second Armored Cavalry Regiment is sympathetic. "In other neighborhoods, the father walks his daughter to school. Until the police come, [that] is the best way," he says to Ms. Murab.
Davis says he's not sure whether the abduction reports are verifiable. Many of the rumors are spread by those opposed to the US presence in Iraq, to make Iraqis fearful, he says.
But the issue may be more complicated, he says. Crimes such as rape often aren't reported because it is a sign that a man cannot protect his family.
"In the Iraqi system you can't say I lost a woman because it is a big disgrace to the man," says Ahmad al-Abid, a Baghdad University student. That mindset makes it difficult to investigate certain crimes, he says.
But Mr. Abid is hopeful about Iraq's future. "Anyone who tells you that life was better in the time of Saddam is a liar," he says.
"Day by day, it is getting better," he adds.
A few miles away, Capt. Stacey Corn, also of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, notices about 100 agitated customers outside the locked gates of a state-run Al-Rasheed Bank. His two-truck convoy pulls a U-turn.
The captain confronts the throng at the bank. There are reports that, prior to the war, Hussein cleaned out many of the country's bank vaults and absconded with the cash, leaving many bank customers broke.
"These people here now need their money. They haven't gotten a salary in four months," says Louis Hillawi, a bank client. "The bank manager said, 'There is no money - go away.' "
Rumors were rampant on the sidewalk that the bank manager himself had stolen the money.
Inside the bank, the manager, Jasem Mohammed, tells Corn that the bank needs permanent guards. Corn responds that he would provide protection when the manager begins releasing money to account holders.
"I can't give the people their money," the manager says. He says the banks' central computer system is not functioning.
The manager then leads Corn to the back of the bank, to an iron-bar door where three padlocks were cut open with a blowtorch. The door leads to a room with safe deposit boxes and a large walk-in vault. A 2-by-2-foot square has been scorched into the vault door. The torch was able to penetrate only half an inch.
The manager says he believes the attempted robbery was an inside job. The Iraqi policemen who provided security for the bank prior to the war have never returned to work. "Those who guard the bank did this," he says.
Outside, the crowd again turns to Corn for help. "We have no food, we need money to support our families," Mr. Hillawi says.
Corn is concerned, but has no solution. "I have done a lot of good in Iraq," he says, as he drives away. "But when stuff like this happens, it bothers me."
"I know everything is going to turn out all right," he adds, "but I just wish I could portray that to these people."