Tales from an Iraqi gripe center

Safwan Ahmed's brother-in-law stole his car and ran it into a ditch. Nasser Sadoon had his pistol confiscated and wants it back. Khalan al-Husseini is a sheep herder looking for a job.

Each is in line at the cracked pink marble reception desk of the Mosul Hotel, once the five-star pride of this city. Today it's home to the 101st Airborne's Regional Information Center (RIC), otherwise known as the office for public complaints.

"We have never been able to complain as much," says Ziad Hamadi, who has come here to explain about his nephew's bad shoulder and ask for treatment in the US. "It's marvelous, the American way."

In many ways Mosul is Iraq's first postwar success story. Since Saddam Hussein's fall, this northern city has a new mayor and a town council, and is a model for other cities wanting to hold elections.

But the streams of people queuing up at the RIC show one of the challenges of pulling Iraq out of decades of tyranny.

Few here are used to doing things for themselves, always running to the authorities to lodge even the smallest complaint. That this lingering mentality of dependence is so strong in Mosul, which had a degree of autonomy under Mr. Hussein, foretells difficulties ahead for bringing self-rule to the new Iraq.

Talal Ahmed al-Atraqchi, an interpreter working at the Mosul Hotel RIC, is not surprised by the numbers of those coming in - more than 300 a day here, hundreds more at other RICs around town, and thousands across the country. He is also not surprised at the requests.

"For 35 years Saddam Hussein trained us to go to the top power for every need," he says. "We did not have PTA organizations or unions or elected representatives. If you had a problem, you tried to go to the senior minister. Usually, that did not work well. But that was the only way."

"People have been robbed of initiative in this country," says Saman Zia-Zarifi, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. "And now, with expectations raised, they expect miracles to be done for them.... America and Britain have to address these needs - when you occupy a country you have to take it along with its neuroses."

Sgt. Jeremy Vance, at the Mosul Hotel RIC desk, ran a similar service during his time in Bosnia. "It's a lot different here," he says. "In Bosnia they knew how to find solutions to their problems on their own. So those who came for help, mostly, did not want to do it themselves. You knew who you were dealing with. Here you have no idea who you are dealing with."

A scruffy man with teary eyes approaches the reception desk. He had been selling black-market fuel and is here to lodge a complaint against the soldiers who confiscated his fuel cans. The next man in line is an elderly sheikh who wants help organizing an election in a nearby village of Tel Afar. After him comes a woman who thinks her former son-in-law intends to come to Mosul from Baghdad to steal the family furniture. Vance has no idea, he admits, how to help her, and suggests, meekly, trying to have a chat with the man.

"That many years of dictatorship will turn anyone into a zombie," he says. "We really need to wean them off this dependence."

Most of those who approach the RIC are told which hospitals are open, where they can find a carpool to school, which mosques are helping the destitute, and which international aid organizations are in town. They are also advised to call on the mayor - and to think about a solution themselves.

"Ninety-nine percent of those who come here, leave happy," says Capt. Antony Williams, the officer in charge of this RIC. "They get a chance to voice themselves, and even if we don't have a tangible solution to their problem, it must feel good to be heard."

But across town is where ending the culture of dependence will take place in earnest. Mayor Ghanem al-Basso, elected May 5, is just moving into the second floor of the old governor's office. The mayor's staff wander around peering at one another's US-issued name badges - "mayor's adviser," reads one, "mayor's mail carrier" reads another - trying to figure out their new English-language titles.

L. Paul Bremer, the chief civilian administrator for Iraq, met here Monday with Mayor Basso and the town council, and roundly praised them.

"It is great to see what the Iraqi people can do by themselves once they're released from the tyranny they've suffered from for the last 30 years," he said. Kirkuk, planning to hold its own elections next week, is using Mosul as a model.

However weak the mayor and his council might seem in these early days, their existence is, in itself, a big step forward, argues Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, who initiated and oversaw the elections process.

Chosen by representatives of the various ethnic groups in town, the council meets twice a week to discuss everything from what to do with unexploded ordnance lying around town to what to do with the remaining Baathist functionaries. Trade with Syria has been reopened, schools are functioning, and police are patrolling together with the Americans.

Basso, an unassuming former Army major general with a shy smile, meets daily with General Petraeus and the two sign all the city's directives together. The deputy mayor, a Kurd, is consulted on everything.

"For now, we are showing them the way, coaching and mentoring them, and encouraging self-reliance. They want to be democratic but are not always exactly sure how to go about it," says Petraeus, who holds a PhD in international relations from Princeton and seems to be reveling in the real-world experiment here. "Everything we would talk about around the coffeepot at Princeton is being played out in Mosul," he says. "These are extraordinary times, and this can be a big-time success."

"We truly need the Americans now, as we regain our strength and learn how democracy is done," says Basso, adjusting a small Iraqi pin on his lapel. "But when the country is back on its feet and the interim national government is in place, we will revisit this need ... and carry on to success without them."

"Ana Mosulawi" - I am one with the people of Mosul - Petraeus likes to respond, playing on John F. Kennedy's words from a different era of reconstruction in a different place. "Your success is my success."

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