New Baghdad grads size up shaky future

Confronted by US occupation and civil unrest, former students assess a world remade by war.

When Iraq's latest crop of architecture graduates lined up for their class portrait Tuesday, cheering and ululating, it was a scene familiar at universities everywhere.

Despite scalding heat, some of Iraq's brightest joked and jostled, posed and panted. Wearing their finest clothes, their hair groomed, they wiped away sweat and marked the savory moment with roll after roll of film.

But the world of these students has been transformed since the Monitor first met them before the war in early March. Then they celebrated their imminent graduation with a raucous party that made the dance floor of Baghdad's Sheraton Hotel quake.

Now, after months of occupation, the reality of the US occupation has set in. Viewing their country from the unique perspective of graduates, these 23-year-old Iraqis are poised to enter the "real world" at a time when it has been rocked by political and cultural change. Some think that dialogue and US aid may overcome the problems of a battered nation. Others understand the armed resistance against US forces. But almost all of these students are watching their post-war hopes for the American presence in Iraq turn toward despair.

"Disappointment has struck us before and after the war," says Dina Abed Ali, a student with red lipstick and a head scarf. "Before the war, we were deceived in everything. And the US, though they lifted a heavy burden, all their promises are false."

Few improvements

Students struggle to list more than one or two things that have changed for the better since the fall of Hussein. Their reaction is part culture clash, part mismatch of Iraqi high expectations and US actions, and part surprise at the apparent lack of US sensitivity on the streets and during raids.

"Watching the graduation photo, you might think we are optimistic, but we are living only day by day," Ms. Ali says. American forces "had the ability to bring in all kinds of military equipment to fight the war. They should be able to meet basic humanitarian needs."

A litany of complaints is echoed by Iraqis everywhere: sporadic electricity and running water, insecurity, and often heavy- handed treatment at the hands of US troops here.

The students, at the dawn of their professional lives, are especially concerned. Some are torn about leaving Iraq to search for work. They are trying to decide whether the turmoil will subside enough for them to practice architecture - an art that they figure must be in high demand after a destructive war.

"We expected the Americans to preserve buildings, and they could have, but they wanted this chaos," says Rawaa Mohamed, who became engaged to fellow student Sarmed Youssif, just days before the class party.

"Our decision now is to not stay in Iraq," says Mr. Youssif, nodding to his fiancée. "We don't know when things will be stable. I can't even take her out. You can see that even our teachers don't have stable jobs."

Doesn't he wonder who else might rebuild Iraq if young talents like him leave? "We are all willing to work to rebuild our country," Youssif says. "But for the time being, I don't know what I can do for my people."

And there is a deeper problem being exposed in the aftermath of the war, Youssif says: "Three-quarters of our community don't know what freedom means. People think it means the freedom to break things, and to shout anything out. That is wrong."

The aftermath of the war has had an opposite effect on Wissam Abdul-Hadi, a narrow-faced student with an easy smile and gel in his hair.

Before the war, he had planned to leave Iraq after graduation. Though he is disappointed with the slow pace of American actions to improve life in Iraq, he sees opportunity.

"Now the chances are better for a job, but if I have to wait, I will leave here," he says.

The mass graves and horror stories of human rights abuses by the previous regime "changed a lot of minds" in Iraq about the justification for a war, and Mr. Abdul-Hadi advises patience.

"The Americans need time; they expected something easier," he says, wearing a smart jacket and tie, worn especially for the class photo. "Iraqis want everything fast. They are not giving up on America, but if there are more delays [in supplying basic needs], people will give up."

A call to arms

Some Iraqis already have given up, and are taking action by joining the armed resistance to US forces, which has taken the lives of 19 US soldiers since President Bush declared the end of major combat action on May 1.

A political-science professor describes how a student came to him a couple weeks after Baghdad fell on April 9, with tears in his eyes, describing how betrayed he felt by the crimes of Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party, which "ruined the country."

But four weeks later, the same student came "to say goodbye," the professor says, because he was going into hiding and joining a secret resistance group.

Rough treatment he had witnessed led him to vow to his teacher that he was "not going to be slaughtered in front of my children."

"It is an example of how the mood changed in just four weeks," the professor recounts, "from someone who was ready to help the Americans, to one ready to fight them."

The architecture students understand that mood shift, but say that the above case of taking up arms is rare.

"They think America came in very aggressively and hostile," says Omar Ali Abdulwahid, who wears a slight beard. "People were optimistic, but when they saw the destruction, they had a bad feeling. I think the resistance you see every day is a consequence of their [US] aggressive way with Iraqis.

"They don't need to bring freedom to us - they didn't bring it to us," says Mr. Abdulwahid. "Every Arab regime is a dictatorship, and the next Iraqi regime will be a dictatorship. They go everywhere with their tanks and destroy our streets, and kill anyone they suspect of having guns. We all have machine guns, so why do they try to take them?

"These little things yield a hostile reaction among Iraqis," adds Abdulwahid, who says that US troops at a checkpoint near his house have "painted" him three separate times at dusk with the lasers on their gun sights.

"Iraqis are angry people, with a spirit of revenge, who take their rights by weapons. All people who are occupied want to defend themselves."

'We should talk'

But violence only leads to more violence, says Rabia Jabbar, a short student with an architecturally precise shaved head and Shakespeare beard, who during the prewar party was thrown into the air repeatedly by his friends.

"I don't think resistance is the right reaction," says Mr. Jabbar, who fell off his bicycle the first time he encountered US troops in the street. "Why react with force? We should use our intelligence and talk. Resistance only breeds more violence."

Still, he says, when a group of American soldiers waved to him and his friends once in a "very nice way," he couldn't bring himself to answer them. "I don't know why, but I just felt I couldn't."

Jabbar is not sure what the future holds. But he does know that he will never forget how he was thrown into the air during the architecture party at the Sheraton - when elements of his existence seemed more certain, if not particularly happy.

"That [felt like] the last moment of my life," Jabbar says, with a sly smile. "We were going to make the most of it."

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