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Iraqis begin warming to US presence

A recent poll shows nearly two-thirds of Baghdad residents want the US to stay until Iraq is stable.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 1, 2003


Starting at dawn Monday, American soldiers searching for weapons on the southern outskirts of Baghdad knocked on door after door, visiting house after house. On 2,300 separate visits, they were let in by quietly cooperative Iraqis, and then moved on.

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The last major sweep of the two-week-long Operation Desert Scorpion netted just eight Kalashnikovs, a sniper rifle, and a handful of pistols. But it also showed how many Iraqis - despite a recent surge of lethal anti-US attacks - are resigning themselves to American occupation.

Nearly three months after the fall of Baghdad, and amid still chronic shortages of basics like electricity, Iraqis and US military and civilian officials alike say relations are beginning to mature, as both sides adjust to the new reality across Iraq.

"We are now in a situation where there is no substitute for the Americans in our city," says Taha Bidawi Hamid, mayor of Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad, where US troops killed 16 protesters in late April. Now Mr. Hamid works closely with US forces to dole out school-building and other contracts, while calming the frayed nerves of families who have lost relatives, and want revenge against US forces.

"There is a debate," the mayor says. "When you go to the street, people say: 'We are against the Americans.' But sheikhs, imams, and educated people say: 'Don't hurt the Americans, because that hurts us, too.'"

Mayor Hamid even presided over a meeting last Friday during which religious leaders in Fallujah "agreed that it was no longer allowed to shoot Americans in the city, and instead to work with the Americans. All of them agreed."

That shifting attitude reflects the results of a first-ever poll of Iraqis, reported by CBS earlier this month, that nearly two-thirds of Baghdad residents want US forces to stay until Iraq is stable and secure, and that only 17 percent want US troops to go home immediately. Iraqis say that result is accurate, but by default: While they are grateful the US has removed Saddam Hussein, and note that US troops are now critical to reestablishing yearned-for security, they still don't approve of their stay here.

"They are occupiers," says Fallujah truck driver Nouri Khalil, clicking his small wooden prayer beads while waiting for business on a sweltering street corner. "But if they leave, there will be no security. We want the Americans to form an Iraqi government, so they can go."

That was the mood early Monday on the streets of the Doura district of southern Baghdad. The only incident seen in the search of 2,300 homes - resulting in Americans having close contact with well over 10,000 Iraqis - was when a soldier fired warning shots to stop an angry son from hitting his father with a length of iron pipe during an argument.

But calm Monday does not a pacified city make, says Lt. Col. David Haight, who ran the search. Two days earlier, a large sweep in a nearby neighborhood was distinctly unfriendly - and the differences in any one military sector can vary, street by street.

When this battalion first did a major sweep here a month ago, it was new - and there was no Iraqi reaction. Now, Colonel Haight says, Iraqis know what is coming through word of mouth, and "either do the right thing, or get [unauthorized] weapons out of their houses."

Another neighborhood this unit patrols divides evenly right down a main street - with slightly more posh houses on one side. On the "poorer" side, "they love us to death. You can't drink all the tea they offer us," Lt. Col. Haight says. But on the other side, full of Baath Party loyalists, it is "pretty anti-American."