Iraq's seesaw of progress and peril

A refurbished bridge opens in Tikrit, but poor security and publicity mean few Iraqis are aware of the US-funded success.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When this city on the Tigris River - the birthplace of Saddam Hussein - recently celebrated the reopening of a bridge left impassable by the war, the rededication ceremony seemed complete.

A ribbon was cut, balloons in the three colors of the Iraqi flag were released, and a US military band played the Iraqi national anthem. Iraqi and US officials assembled in the tar-melting sun spoke of the $5.4 million USAID-funded project as a symbol of the Iraqi-US partnership and the forward march of a democratic, prosperous Iraq.

Only one thing was missing: average Iraqis. With the life of the governor in attendance threatened and security concerns having caused months of delays on the bridge repair - within the last month an engineer and three workers were killed for working on the project - no one could take the risk of inviting the local population.

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Yet this is just the kind of effort that many Iraqis say they simply don't see. It's an example of why, some 18 months after the fall of Mr. Hussein and confident promises of progress, many Iraqis are estranged from a US presence they originally embraced.

One American objective in Iraq - and a key aspect of the war on terrorism - was to begin winning Muslims over by liberating Iraqis from a despot and building a freer and better country. But then the US profile shifted from liberator to occupier in the eyes of many Iraqis. Growing numbers of people seized upon the US presence to explain staggering violence, while reconstruction stalled or - as in the case of the Tikrit bridge - went unsung.

Now the question is whether the US, in a supportive role to the appointed interim government, can win back the hearts and minds it has lost.

Views among analysts and average Iraqis vary widely. Some insist the US can preserve goodwill only by starting to draw down its troops. Others fear the US may give up what they see as its historic calling to reform an backward and unstable region.

In between is the position that only a firm withdrawal date will convince Iraqis the US is here in their interest. Even some experts opposed to the US military presence say the US will win here only if it restores security and helps ensure transparent elections.

"No one should expect the Iraqi people to trust the American government's claims and slogans when nothing it promised has been accomplished and the country remains under military occupation," says Nabeal Younis, a noted Iraqi public policy expert who has consulted with American officials since the war. "But I think that if they help reestablish security, rebuild the state institutions, and ensure fair and honest elections, then it is possible to accomplish some of their goals - and to be friends with the Iraqi people."

The US government says it is doing just that. But even some people closely involved with US-funded projects say they are disappointed by efforts to inform Iraqis and to win them over to the reconstruction process. "I don't think it's conducted very well, but it's something that should be key," says Terry Valenzano, program director for Bechtel Corp. on the bridge and other projects.

The US has cleaned up or refurbished more than 2,300 schools, and undertaken thousands of projects ranging from water and sewage facilities and road repairs to new computers for ministries and cropdusting.

President Bush said Saturday that US spending on reconstruction is accelerating and that within the next "several months" $9 billion - as opposed to just over $1 billion now - would be spent. But some analysts note that a growing share of US reconstruction funds is being eaten up by security, while costs like foreign contracting mean that Iraqis aren't seeing a large part of the huge amounts the US is spending on their behalf.

US officials say that even as more "visible" projects like highway paving and school repairs come on line, the plan is to place a high priority on elections slated for January.

With surveys showing Iraqis more hopeful about elections than about the current appointed government, the idea is to have even imperfect elections demonstrate a nascent democracy - and America's role in it.

A key part of the elections focus is to return a US presence and Iraqi government authority to areas of the country that have resisted the US effort in Iraq. The American military recently reinstated a cooperative local council and resumed infrastructure work in the formerly off-limits town of Samarra. Initial results have been mixed, however, with the new police chief having resigned after repeated death threats.

The US military is also pressing its return to Sadr City, the huge Baghdad slum that over recent months has fallen under tightened control of forces backing the antioccupation Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. US military officials say their plan is to establish a beachhead on the sector's more cooperative south side where infrastructure and cleanup projects can proceed, and serve as an enticement for the rest of the district of 2.5 million people to give up its resistance.

Many Sadr City residents say the US has a strange way of trying to win people's hearts, with night air raids and street skirmishes over recent weeks targeting Mr. Sadr's armed supporters.

"The Americans say a lot, but they never do anything - this is all they know how to do," says Hatem Zuaia Zamel, as he surveys his charred paint store. The shop was destroyed last week when, according to Mr. Zamel and a crowd of angry neighbors, a US tank firing indiscriminately sent ammunition into the store and ignited its combustible products. "They have destroyed me," adds Zamel, kicking blackened paint cans. "Who could ever welcome someone doing this?"

A few streets away, Nasser Aboud points out the crumpled metal of what was his home's front gate and holes in exterior walls - results of US tank fire. "The worst is that five family members were injured, one will probably lose his legs," he says.

Still, Mr. Aboud says the Americans would be welcomed in Sadr City if they came to rebuild a poor district - and weren't wearing uniforms. "We would welcome civilian contractors," says the retired Army officer, "but if they come to us atop tanks and pointing weapons, it will never work."

Indeed, the US military has fitfully tried to work on infrastructure and public health in Sadr City for at least a year, but the delayed start on public works cost it local goodwill, and after violence broke out this summer, it became almost impossible to carry out construction work.

Emblematic has been an effort to rebuild Sadr City's creaky sewage system. Instead, it has gotten worse, and this summer has seen an epidemic of water-borne diseases in the area.

It is this rejection of a foreign military presence, which many observers tie to Iraqis' nationalist sentiments, that has some experts advocating a timetable for US troop departures. "Iraqis will never accept a military presence, but if the Americans were to tell us when the soldiers are leaving that would reduce Iraqi doubts and they would be better accepted for that remaining time," says Daoud Salman, director of religious law studies at Baghdad University. "If that allowed the Americans to accomplish even a part of what they promised, then they could leave Iraq with their head held high."

Yet even some who support the US presence say they worry that intensifying violence is spurring more Iraqis to blame Americans for this deterioration. "The terrorists want to convince the Iraqi people it is bad to have America in Iraq, and I fear they are accomplishing that goal," says Mohammed Nabil, whose popular soda shop on Al Rabiya Street was devastated by a car bombing last week.

Authorities say seven people died, but shop owners deride those figures, saying that many more shoppers and people trapped in burning cars were killed.

For American officials looking to salvage the quest for Muslim support, it may be this rising toll of innocent civilians that proves to be the biggest stumbling block.

In Baghdad's Amiriya neighborhood, a family of refugees from Fallujah - the center of Sunni resistance - laments lost lives and suggests the prospect of more has turned them against anything the US might do. "When the Americans first came to Iraq, they came to Fallujah without a problem," says Muji al-Dariji, a gray-headed man helping families who have fled Fallujah.

But Mr. Dariji says a US offensive against Fallujah in April, and more recent airstrikes against what the US military says are terrorist sites, have changed even the uninvolved population's view.

"There was a resistance in April, but now it is innocent people, normal people who are dying in these attacks from the sky," he says. At least 15 people died in the most recent airstrikes and artillery fire Saturday.

Dariji's son, Ali Badri, who was married in Fallujah during the April siege, says the US can only lose more Iraqi support by attacking places like Fallujah.

"When Americans did patrol in Fallujah they damaged cars and houses, which was bad enough," he says. "Now they are killing people, even relying on information that sometimes comes from one family looking to settle scores with another. I used to think the US soldiers were useful if they stayed on their bases and supported stability, but now I think they should leave. They are only making Iraq worse."

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