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

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.

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.

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"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."

Soldiers on the ground estimate that 80 percent of Iraqis now accept their presence, or at least don't undermine it. Officers estimate that just a few hundred die-hard militants, either virulently loyal to Saddam Hussein, or virulently opposed to US occupation, exist in a city of five million - a minuscule figure of perhaps .0001 percent.

But that figure is not insignificant to the 23 American soldiers who have died in attacks in recent weeks.

The growing phenomenon of hit-and-run attacks is partly because "a month ago, they hadn't figured it out yet, and we were still a novelty," says Haight.

The danger is not just for American soldiers, but also for Iraqis working closely with them. "Translators and Iraqi police get death threats, because there is no justice system," says Haidar, an Iraqi translator working with the airborne battalion in Doura. "They warn us: 'If you don't stop working for the Americans, we're going to kill you.' In the market, they are selling grenades for just 1,000 dinars, or 40 cents. But I need to make a living somehow."

In Fallujah the problem is even more pronounced, with a list of 33 names circulating recently, of "traitors" working with US forces and the Coalition Provisional Authority. The mayor topped the list; last month, a rocket-propelled grenade hit the back of his neighbor's house, and there was recently a gun attack that sprayed 10 bullets at his office.

A second death list is expected to circulate soon, probably including aides of the mayor like Hossein Ali, a former mayor of a southern city for eight years under Saddam Hussein, until he crossed the ruling Baath Party in 2001."There are so many threats everyday, I had to take my telephone off the hook," says Mr. Ali, a former Iraqi Air Force officer. "People were calling our family, saying: 'We are going to kill you, we're going to destroy your house.' " "The Baath Party made the gap in relations between America and the Iraqi people very wide," says mayor's aide Karim Aftan, who teaches at the Technical Institute of Fallujah.

"As people see American trucks take garbage away, supply electricity and fix hospitals, that tells people the Americans are here to improve things," Mr. Aftan says, but admits that his wife and daughter, both teachers, are asked tough questions about his ties to US forces.

One face of the anti-US sentiment in Fallujah is that of Sheikh Abdallah Jannabi.

He says heavy-handed US military behavior, poor driving of tanks - which he claims damaged local cars - and shortages of water, electricity and gas have all turned Iraqis against their occupiers.

"Should I like the Americans in these circumstances?" Sheikh Jannabi asks. "Before, we considered American society to be well-developed, scientific and advanced. But it proved to be entirely opposite.

"We all agreed [when US forces came] we should not fight the Americans, and because of this the people of the city accused us of working with them," Jannabi says. "They even started sending us letters with threats: 'You have deterred jihad [holy war] - we will blow up your houses and all who are in them.' "

Similar threats echo for those who have chosen to work directly with the US. "It is less dangerous now, because many more people understand," Aftan says.

"But it is still dangerous, because you don't know who has done this, what he is thinking, and what he can do," says Mr. Ali, of the threats. "If you know the enemy, it is easier to deal with him. They don't like Americans to be their friends, but if they build schools, nobody will say no. Whenever we see Americans doing wrong, we will leave the place," Ali adds. "But we think they are helping us."

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