Clock ticking for US to sway Iraqis

Anti-US flyers and occasional tapes from Saddam Hussein are trying to capitalize on popular frustration.

The voice of Saddam Hussein - or someone who sounds like him - echoed through the streets of Baghdad this week exhorting Iraqis to "wage holy war against the foolish invaders." The public reaction here to the former Iraqi leader's "return" via audiotape offers a window on how the US is doing in its battle for hearts and minds.

"I was a political prisoner, so I enjoy our freedom more than most people," says Furkhan Mohammed, who teaches his neighbors to use a computer from a cramped corner of his wife's dental office.

"But I have some advice for the Americans: If they can't provide basic services, they had better bring back Saddam."

Electricity, water, and jobs remain in short supply.

Though expressions of nostalgia for the old days often seem rhetorical, some observers say that popular dismay at the state of their country is eroding many Iraqis' faith in the Americans. While not actively opposing the US, they may be turning into more passive observers.

"The majority of people, I fear, have come to be spectators of events, not parties to them," suggests Gailan Ramiz, a former professor of politics at Baghdad University. "Life has become negative, and though almost all Iraqis are against attacks on the Americans, they are not going to be active supporters to prevent them."

An Arab-language satellite TV station broadcast Wednesday a tape purportedly made by Mr. Hussein demanding that US commanders negotiate their immediate withdrawal from Iraq with the former regime leaders they have captured. American deaths, now totaling 73 since the end of hostilities, "have begun to eat away at the enemy like wildfire," the voice on the tape said. "You must increase your grip and armed struggle."

Few Iraqis believe that such messages recruit significant numbers of men to the ranks of the guerrillas who have been launching around 15 attacks a day on US troops in recent weeks, with small arms, rocket propelled grenades and home made bombs. "People have heard enough of Saddam's lies," says Mr. Mohammed's wife, Walaa.

Fliers echoing Hussein's call can be found on Baghdad's sidewalks left under bricks for passersby to find. One such message, headed: "Statement No. 6 from Muhammed's Brave United Iraqi People" urges Iraqis to "act as one hand against the nonbelievers, the Americans," adding, "God is fighting them with your hands."

But you do not have to support the former regime, or follow fundamentalist Islamists, to resent the Americans in today's Iraq, where nervous soldiers habitually shout at citizens who do not understand them, point their guns at passersby, and subject suspect travelers at checkpoints to humiliating treatment.

"A few people who benefited from Saddam are fighting the Americans, a few hate him so much they support the Americans, and the rest of us will just defend our country," says Khaled Ibrahim, a retired businessman, as he sips his morning glass of sweet tea outside a cafe in central Baghdad.

"At the moment we are patient, waiting to see the results of the invasion, to see when they will hand over authority to Iraqis," he adds. "So far we have seen no achievements: Saddam Hussein and his regime are gone, but security and law and order have gone with him."

It is ordinary Iraqis such as Mr. Ibrahim whom the Americans must win over if they are to forestall the development of a sea of public sympathy in which the anti-US guerrilla fish might swim.

Anti-US attacks show no sign of abating. US troops were ambushed in the central Iraqi town of Khaldiya Thursday; attackers used a remote control bomb and gunfire to damage a Humvee and two American trucks, according to Reuters. And on Monday, Khaldiyah's police chief was killed in an ambush as he was returned to his home in Fallujah.

The central challenge, Iraqis and US officials agree, is to restore law and order, and with it the sense of personal safety that is at the top of almost every Iraqi's list of priorities.

Nearly 60,000 Iraqis have been enlisted in the police, a border guard unit, a civil defense force and the fledgling New Iraqi Army, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said this week, as US forces answer widespread Iraqi pleas to hand security duties over to local officials who are familiar with their beats.

But the police are poorly armed and equipped, short of radios and patrol cars, not to mention office furniture in police stations that were mostly looted after the war. And some officers say they are hesitant to arrest thieves who might seek revenge if they are released quickly for lack of a properly functioning court system.

The continuing shortage of jobs, due largely to the length of time it is taking to rehabilitate the once dominant but now largely looted state sector of the economy, is also feeding disaffection with the coalition authorities.

If ideology does not motivate many people to take up arms against the Americans, money might tempt some. At a small but vociferous demonstration earlier this week, Industry Ministry employees sacked by the former regime complained that they had not been reinstated or paid as they said they had been promised.

"Why do they force us to take the wrong path?" one man who asked not to be identified wondered aloud bitterly. "Saddam is giving $10,000 to anyone who kills an American soldier. That's enough to live on for a year."

Such problems will be solved in time, say optimists, but they will take time. "Next year will be very important because we will have a $33 billion budget to work with," says Noshirwan Mustafa, deputy to Jalal Talabani, who represents the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan on the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. "I think that with that money we will be able to solve the main problems of joblessness and salaries, and even security.

"But the violence will still continue beyond the end of this year," he predicts.

Attitudes towards the coalition forces clearly differ among ethnic and religious communities: the Shiite Muslim south of the country and the Kurdish north have seen few attacks against occupying troops, while the central region, inhabited largely by the Sunni minority whom Saddam favored, is the most dangerous for Americans.

The Shiites, who make up 65 per cent of Iraq's population, are clearly key to the country's future. Having borne the brunt of Saddam Hussein's brutality in the aftermath of two uprisings in 1991 and 1999, they are relieved to be rid of him and largely tolerant of the American presence.

"I don't like having an invading army here, but the Americans should stay until they have restored security, rebuilt the country and we have our own president," says Nasir Abbas, a falafel cook at a Baghdad restaurant. "Then they should leave. But whatever the Hawza says, we will follow."

The Hawza, a collection of Shiite religious scholars in Najaf that enjoys massive respect among Shiite Muslims, appears divided between moderates and radicals over the approach to take towards the Americans.

But the loudest voice emanating from this opaque institution is that of the most outspoken cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, a young man who comes from a long line of authoritative ayatollahs and who appears to enjoy the widest support among ordinary Shiites, especially the younger ones.

Using the Hawza's biweekly newspaper, Mr. Sadr has been stirring up anti-American feeling, blaming coalition troops for every evil that besets the country, and calling for their immediate withdrawal.

In Thursday's edition of the paper, for example, he branded America as "Satan," echoing the leader of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini.

He has so far stopped short of urging his followers to take up arms against US troops. "But we are all waiting for the religious leaders to give us a sign," says Mr. Ibrahim, whose cafe seat gives him a view of a mosque minaret damaged by US shelling during the war. "If the scholars tell us it is time for jihad [holy war], even the women will go out to fight."

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