Jobless soldiers fuel anti-US riots in Iraq
Baghdad, Basra, and Bayji have been the scenes of unrest and rioting in recent days.
BAGHDAD — Former infantryman Khadim Hasan has spent the better part of a week in the desert sun outside a US military compound in Baghdad waiting for $40 that will never come. He considers himself a victim of Saddam Hussein's regime, and rolls up his sleeves to show scars up and down both arms that he says were inflicted after criticizing Mr. Hussein in front of an officer.
Mr. Hasan was delighted with the US invasion, which he believed was a chance to start on a new life. But six months later, tired, hot, and frightened of a future in which he may not be able to provide for his wife and three children, he blames the US-led coalition for his problems and is growing increasingly angry.
He'd been hoping to get the $40 - a one-time payment the coalition had promised to some 370,000 demobilized conscripts from the old Iraqi army - but like many, he'd been told at the US base that he wasn't on the list. "I'm glad that America invaded, but you have to give us our rights or there will be more trouble,'' he says. "They're not giving any money to us. They should get out."
For the past four days, angry former soldiers like Hasan have been at the center of violence in at least three places in the center and south of the country. Police stations and cars have been burned in Baghdad, Basra, and the oil-producing town of Bayji, 150 miles north of Baghdad; rioting ex-soldiers destroyed four shops in a wealthy Baghdad neighborhood; and at least four Iraqis were killed in the violence.
The jobless conscripts are perhaps the most volatile of the 60 percent of Iraqis that the coalition estimates are unemployed. Their bleak prospects were brought home this week by the swearing in of the first battalion for a new Iraqi Army slated to number just 40,000.
Coalition officials say Baathist loyalists incited the violence. But the speed with which the crowds grew out of control illustrates the mix of poverty, disillusionment, and anger that continues to confront the coalition, even as basic security improves for Iraqis and services like electricity are restored and schools reopen.
Coalition officials complain that bad news is disproportionately reported. "We are making good progress in Iraq," President Bush said Monday. "Sometimes it's hard to tell when you listen to [critics]. The situation is improving on a daily basis."
But to a significant minority of Iraqis, the US military presence is a daily irritation, and it seems unlikely that incidents involving soldiers are going to abate soon. Though many Iraqis are delighted to be free of Hussein, they, like Hasan, increasingly blame their economic struggles on the US.
On top of this group is a smaller but still significant group of Saddam loyalists who are growing adept at manipulating such situations to create chaos.
"Very senior Baathist officers, some of whom are now in custody, were stirring up these crowds,'' said Charles Heatly, the coalition's chief spokesman.
Events yesterday illustrate the challenges the coalition is facing. A rocket-propelled grenade or mortar hit the Foreign Ministry, though there were few injuries. Protesting former members of Iraq's intelligence service threw rocks at American soldiers, demanding that they get their jobs back. US troops also faced a protest in response to the arrest of a Shiite cleric.
The violence began Saturday, the last day for demobilized conscripts to collect their payment. Though it seems a pittance, under Hussein, soldiers received a salary of just $3 a month.
Coalition officials say at least 350,000 former soldiers have received payments. Under Hussein, agencies were thoroughly corrupted and to make complaints about the government was quite literally to take one's life in one's hands.
Today, it's safe for Iraqis to speak out, but many have a deeply ingrained suspicion of any governing authority and a vigilante mentality engendered by so many years of abuse. Security is improving for average Iraqis on the streets of the cities.
But in Baghdad and in the southern city of Basra, angry crowds, roasting in the desert heat, roiled and surged outside the compounds guarded by coalition forces and Iraqi police.
Some claimed they were stiffed by corrupt clerks, others that they had been unfairly left off the list. Still others were just angry that they had no more money coming to them.
Two former Iraqi soldiers were shot and killed by coalition forces in Baghdad. A similar incident in Basra ended with one former Iraqi soldier killed by a British soldier. Dozens of Iraqis were injured, as were two US soldiers.
That there was incitement seems clear. But a visit to the area the next day, where around 500 former soldiers were still loitering in the hopes of receiving a payment, reveals how volatile Iraq's unemployed masses are after so many years of abuse by their own government and a period of postwar uncertainty.
In the crowd, there is both deep anger at the US and deep gratitude that Hussein was removed.
Sometimes both positions are reflected in the same man.
As Hasan speaks, an angry crowd gathers around, some shouting insults at America, others asking advice on how to get payments, still others just eager to tell their story.
In moments, the scrum is about 200 men pushing and shoving, and the mood turns ugly, with some grabbing for a reporter's bag and others beginning to pound on the car he has arrived in.
"I served 25 years in the Army and then the Americans came. Now I have nothing,'' spits Adnan Hussein, a 40-something former tank captain in a tattered shirt. "These American soldiers are insulting and the police that help them are traitors." Another man shouts out: "They are starving us."
As the crowd seems to veer toward another riot, a small detachment of US soldiers approaches, shouting and threatening, and the men begin to back off.
No shots are fired, and no one is hit, but some of these men will undoubtedly add the incident to their catalogs of US insults.