Iraqis' impatience, guarded hope
A week's travel through the streets of Baghdad, Fallujah, and Sulaymaniyah yields a collage of intensely held views on new freedoms and the US occupation.
Muayab Jajo hasn't written a poem about the fall of Saddam Hussein. But he speaks as if he's started one.Skip to next paragraph
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"Saddam's exit is like the lid has been lifted off our coffin; the light is pouring in," says the assistant professor of English literature, standing in a packed hallway at Baghdad University. He rhapsodizes about going on the Internet without restrictions and the end of a proscribed curriculum.
"Before, in my Introduction to English Lit class, I had to teach Blake's "The Sick Rose," and "Death of a Salesman," and "Wuthering Heights." All gloomy. All about death," he says. "Now, we read Steinbeck," he beams. "I received my BA, MA, and PhD here in English literature and never once was [John] Steinbeck even mentioned."
The before and after of the Hussein era is still crystallizing for most Iraqis. This is a nation caught in the eddies of a monumental transition. Ask an Iraqi if he's better off almost eight months after the arrival of US troops, and the answers are often contradictory - and based purely on personal experience. The attacks on US soldiers, say some, reflect a simmering anger over how Iraqi civilians are abused in the hunt for what the coalition calls "noncompliant" forces. But the same Iraqis say they would shoot Hussein if they found him.
Ahmed, who didn't give his last name, embodies the collective impression of impatient yet guarded hope that this reporter took away after a week of conversations with Iraqis and homesick US soldiers.
"This will be the last war," he declares firmly. This well-educated, middle-aged Iraqi left his family's computer-controls business last month to work with a Spanish NGO. He's making less money bringing medical care to children here. "The Americans are making a lot of mistakes. They don't understand the Iraqi culture. But I want to be a part rebuilding my country at the grassroots," he says. "This is the time to make a difference."
The arrival of a new regime, to Adnan al-Nedawi, means regaining influence as a parent.
"In school, my two daughters were taught that their baba, their father, was Saddam. Whatever he says, not me, is true. He told them America is bad," says the hotel cabbie and former Iraqi army officer who was a POW in the first Gulf war. "I would tell them that I am your father. You must listen to me. I work with Americans and they are good. They are paying for your food."
He's grateful to the US for cleaning and painting the primary school his daughters attend, and for the new textbooks sans Hussein photos. But there are days when Mr. Nedawi keeps his daughters home. He listens to the journalists he ferries and does his own daily risk assessment. There are Iraqi security guards posted outside the school, something that was never needed under the old regime.
While many UN and International Red Cross workers have pulled out of Baghdad, and other NGOs have reduced staffing levels, there are still dozens of smaller NGO groups working here. Xavier Tissier arrived just two weeks ago, newly graduated from a French business school. He's managing the office of an EU-funded coordinating group. Like Nedawi, he thinks about security a lot. "I try to keep a low profile. We avoid any contact with the UN, the CPA, or the American soldiers. Even when we are eating at a restaurant and one of them comes to eat there, we must leave."
In Fallujah, where Iraqi civilians and US soldiers have died in a series of mishaps and clashes, one finds a different kind of wariness about the US presence. But for American reporters walking the streets, talking to Sunnis outside of a mosque after Friday prayers or in the shops, there are harsh - sometimes wildly speculative - views expressed, but no open hostility toward us personally.
"Every day there is an 'accident,' " says Mohammed Diraa Jumjili while waiting to bring home some chicken for his family's iftar, or Ramadan fast-breaking dinner.