On a Baghdad street, patience
In one neighborhood, concern about postwar difficulties is tempered by a sense of opportunity.
BAGHDAD — A tiny figure cloaked in black, Um Khalid squats in the street beside an illegal water tap, fills up a blue plastic bucket, and carries it on her shoulder into the crude dirt and brick construction site that her family calls home. In a dark corner, she lights a kerosene stove to boil water for morning tea.
As hard as life is in Baghdad for this middle-aged mother of three, however, she says it's better in many ways than before the war. "There's more opportunity, more chances to earn money," she says, resting on a piece of cardboard.
One hundred days after the US-led occupation of Iraq began, American troops are facing daily guerrilla attacks. And a report released Friday by the Center for Strategic and International Studies warns that time is running out for the coalition authority to demonstrate progress on security and services - or lose the cooperation of the Iraqi people.
Yet a day spent on a typical street in Baghdad's Al Karradah neighborhood reveals more decidedly mixed attitudes about the postwar situation here than suggested by the daily incidents of violence. Indeed, voicing clear gains as well as difficulties in day-to-day life, all of the residents in a small but varied sample seemed willing to give the occupation force time to stabilize the country.
The need for greater security was a common concern of residents, though several said the situation had improved since the early days of looting and robberies. In contrast, many residents said their income had risen or stayed the same, while their freedoms had expanded dramatically. Only one person of a dozen interviewed said American forces should leave Iraq right away - while the rest wanted US troops to stay until a new government had been established and security achieved.
"The Americans brought us freedom, but there's still a lot to do in terms of security," says Um, who asked simply to be identified as her son's mother. "If the Americans leave now, we won't have security at all in Baghdad," adds her son, Haider Majeed, a high school student.
As economic migrants to Baghdad, Um's family is one of many benefiting from the end of residency restrictions. Um was working as a farm laborer in a village south of Baghdad when the war broke out. A widow whose husband died in 1986 fighting in the Iran-Iraq war, she was supporting her family mainly using her late husband's monthly pension of about $29 and by selling whatever food rations she could scrimp.
When the war ended, she moved to Baghdad, taking shelter at first in the bombed out Muasker Al Rasheed military camp. Then, with a relative's help, she found a job providing security for a construction site, and moved her family to the site in the Al Karradah district of eastern Baghdad.
Soon, she found a second job as a janitor. Her sons, meanwhile, work mixing cement and hauling sand - more than doubling the family income. The family sleeps on mats on a dirt floor, and limited electricity means that the fan that is their only respite from 100-degree heat runs only a few hours a day. Still, Um and her children say they have far better job prospects now. "I still can't buy a TV or a refrigerator, but we have all the food we need," she says.
Just then, Ali Shaban, the portly owner of the apartment building under construction, steps through the open brick doorway to inspect the work. A native of Al Karradah who waited out the war in Syria, Mr. Shaban says the building market in Baghdad is booming.
"I had a house worth $100,000 before the war that I just sold for $260,000," he boasts. He says property values are doubling around Baghdad as Iraqis from abroad buy real estate. He's traded his currency for property, even selling his 1980 Datsun to buy iron for a project. Soon, he plans to be living off revenues from apartment rents, he says.
Shaban complains about the lack of phone service and electricity shortages that hamper his work. "The only means of communication is the car," he says.
Still, he's benefited from other changes. Fewer restrictions on population movement means he has a larger labor supply, which holds down prices. He also welcomes the end of bureaucratic mandates that, for example, required that each new building include a large and costly air-raid shelter.
"There's about 10 tons of steel in this room," he says, gesturing towards the air-raid shelter already built. "It's expensive and there's no need for it."
Overall, he says, his situation has improved. "There is a lack of security, but psychologically, things are better, because freedom is nice," he says.
Strolling down the street outside, with her black robes billowing, her six-month-old granddaughter in one arm and a bag of fresh pita bread and eggs in the other, is neighbor Um Haider.
Her husband, Shakir Hassan Ali, who makes his living selling Pepsi and cigarettes on the nearby boulevard, is now freer to do business wherever he likes. Sales are up, though he says a curfew and crime worries curb his hours. Both parents had to escort their 15-year-old daughter to school. But even before the war, they forbade the girl from going out alone. "Let the Americans stay, they protect us. I don't see them hurting anyone," the mother says, from her apartment cooled by a generator-run fan.
Mr. Hassan Ali enjoys the many newspapers springing up. "Before it was all about Saddam and his followers. Now there are different topics," he says.
The teenage daughter, Marwa, is relieved that books on the Baath Party have been taken off the curriculum and mandatory school fees - which held her back a grade when her family once failed to pay - have been eliminated.
A few doors down, a furniture shopkeeper, an ethnic Kurd named Auday Haji Yehya, says apart from crime troubles, his life has changed little. He says he dislikes seeing US soldiers in the street, and felt insulted when they tossed food at residents. "We just kicked it," he said. He says he knows many former Iraqi Army officers who would like to attack Americans, but even they are biding their time - for now. "They are being patient, waiting to see if the Americans keep their promises," he says.