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Despite some progress, Iraqis losing faith

A suicide blast in Baghdad on Sunday adds to a general sense of unease.

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / October 14, 2003


Hussein al-Jubari should be the perfect illustration of President Bush's recent insistence that "Iraq is making progress." Mr. Jubari sits wedged between stacks of stereos from Japan, hair dryers from China, and satellite receivers from South Korea in his tiny shop across from Iraq's central bank. Business is picking up, he says. Sales of satellite receivers, illegal under Saddam Hussein, are particularly brisk.

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But he takes a dim view of Iraq under US administration. "Sure, it's safer than it was immediately after the invasion, when looters were everywhere,'' he says. "But it's much worse than it was immediately before the invasion. Unless they can give us security immediately, America should get out."

Just as his visitors leave, a distant boom rattles the shutters and draws an involuntary flinch from almost everyone in the crowded street. Later, it turns out the explosion was a suicide attack that killed six bystanders at the Baghdad Hotel on Sunday, where some US officials and members of the US-appointed Governing Council live.

If more evidence was needed that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) grip on developments in Iraq is tentative, it was found in the tense US soldiers guarding the blast site and the chanted taunts from a small crowd of Iraqis at the scene.

Two-front fight

The US coalition is now fighting a two-front public relations war, against critics at home who argue the bombing campaign is evidence that more authority should be shifted to the UN, and here in Iraq, where the view from the streets is that Iraqis are losing faith.

Whether you ask a member of Baghdad's largely Sunni commercial class or one of the generally poorer Shiite community, who were oppressed under Hussein and have the most to gain from regime change, gratitude for any improvements is usually drowned out by frustration that more hasn't been done.

On Friday, the fiercely anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has built a base of hundreds of thousands of supporters including his own militia, declared he was setting up a government to rival the US-appointed Governing Council.

A clash with US troops last Thursday near his Baghdad headquarters left at least two of his supporters and two American soldiers dead, and analysts say he appears to be testing the coalition to see how much power he can take for himself.

To many Iraqis, a restoration of what they had at the start of this year is a minimum. Instead, many remember the strength of the economy prior to the first Gulf War in 1991 and the crippling economic sanctions that followed.

Blame for Hussein

US officials rightly point out that economic collapse was largely due to Hussein's decision to shift the government's limited finances to military industries in the 1990s and to rewarding those who helped keep him in power. But Hussein's regime successfully painted the problem for many Iraqis as almost entirely due to the sanctions. As a result, the CPA can't seem to get any credit for the progress it is making.

"Iraq went from being one of the most advanced countries in the region to one of the least,'' CPA chief Paul Bremer said in a briefing at the end of last week. Hussein "cut back spending on healthcare in the 1990s by 90 percent. Child mortality in the south, where his hand was heaviest, became worse than all of Iraq's neighbors'." The World Bank says education spending fell from $600 a child to just $50.