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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Muayab Jajo hasn't written a poem about the fall of Saddam Hussein. But he speaks as if he's started one.

"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."

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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.

The latest occurred earlier this month - a family of four died when their chicken truck was fired on at a US checkpoint. Several weeks ago, a US helicopter was shot down near here, killing 16 Americans. Fallujah is often described as a bastion of Sunni support for the old regime, but Mr. Diraa vehemently denies this. "We aren't fighting for Saddam. He was just a man on TV. We are fighting for Iraqis."

Diraa says he has a contract to supply US troops refurbishing schools. To him, there's no contradiction in his criticisms and the profits he's making off of the US presence. "If you kill my son, it's not enough to build a school," he says.

US soldiers trying to create goodwill in Fallujah echo the bitterness. "We thought we were doing something good when we built a soccer field," says Maj. Allen Vaught. "We brought in engineers, earthmovers, welded goal posts, and trucked in some smooth dirt."

The next day looters took everything. "Goal posts, nets, and the good dirt. How can you help people who steal dirt?" he asks incredulously.

If Fallujah is the desert grit in the US plans for Iraq, Sulaymaniyah, to the north, is the oil. Not just religion but geography and ethnicity define perspectives in this new era.

When our car pulls up to a checkpoint an hour from the city, a Kurdish soldier approaches and grills our driver. Upon hearing there are US journalists on board, his expression softens. "Americans?!" He steps back, puts his hand on his heart in a salute, and waves us through.

Later, in the office of the prime minister of the Kurdistan regional government, Barhan Selay says Iraqis here know that "Americans came here to liberate us from tyranny."

Still, he wants them to leave; he endorses the plan to accelerate a handover of power to an Iraqi assembly by June. "It's unfair for Americans to be risking their lives on the streets of Fallujah, Basra, and Baghdad. It's our country, our responsibility."

Since April, Mr. Selay says, the US has pumped $261 million into the local government, which has tripled bureaucrats' salaries. A construction boom is creating a labor shortage.

Perhaps Ahmed, a barber in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, should move his shop to Sulaymaniyah. On a slow Saturday night in the grimy streets of Sadr City, he grooms a couple of scruffy US journalists. Before the war he worked in a top hotel, but it was looted and hasn't reopened. He earns much less now. Frequent power outages halt business.

Yet he and a few patrons aren't critical of the Americans. Shiites were oppressed under the last regime, and this neighborhood was often ignored. Though US soldiers accidentally shot the chairman of the new district advisory council just a week earlier, there's little ill feeling. "We've received good treatment from the Americans. This [incident] won't change our feelings. The Americans respect the people," says Ahmed's brother.

US soldiers have hired Iraqis to refurbish 19 soccer fields and have built a $100,000 stadium, with sprinklers for the grass, in Sadr City. Of 143 schools in the area, 101 have been painted and had bathrooms upgraded, says Maj. Art Videl, who is stationed here at Camp Marlboro - a US base set in an old cigarette factory. The coalition is paying about 1,400 Iraqis $3 a day to pick up garbage. "They tell me that's 20 times what they made working under Saddam," says Fadya Reshed O'Neill, an Iraqi-American from Toledo, Ohio, who's working as an interpreter for US troops. Some residents say there hasn't been regular city trash collection since before the 1991 Gulf War. The US and UN have provided troops with funds for 77 sewage projects in the area, including repairing water pumps that haven't worked since 1994.

After ticking off the projects that US soldiers are working on, Maj. Paul Gass of Humble, Texas, pauses. He's a gung ho, 19-year career soldier. But he's frustrated. He's worked s7-day weeks for nine months and probably won't see his wife and twin daughters for another five months. "Officers aren't getting the two weeks of R&R," he explains with a tight smile. "We shouldn't have to be doing this kind of work. This is NGO work. When are they going to get here? When it's a secure environment? Well, it ain't yet. Deal with it."

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