Iraqis taste freedom and chaos

Free speech and real elections grow, but security, gas, and money are still lacking.

Six weeks after the fighting stopped in Baghdad, Iraqis are enthusiastically exploring their newfound freedoms, trickling back to work to earn salaries many had not seen for months, and looking forward to normal lives they have not enjoyed for years.

At the same time, however, there is growing impatience with the slow pace of change - from local political leaders demanding more liberation and less occupation by American soldiers, to ordinary citizens frustrated by the lack of most basic services.

"I work here, but I still get no salary. I go to my car, but there is no gasoline. I go home, and find no electricity," complains Bashir Mohammed, head of the emergency room at Al Kindi hospital. "Only when we get security, gas and money will everything be normal."

Dr. Bashir did, however, get the chance this week to taste one welcome fruit of the coalition's military victory in Iraq. On Wednesday, along with about 750 other hospital staffers - from chief resident to the cleaning woman - he voted freely for a new director.

"I think elections are a human right," said Louaie Mohammed, a junior doctor, after casting his vote. "Elections are like revolutions in the past - but they were done by guns and these are done with pens. This is humanity."

Recent days have seen similar elections in ministries, universities, state-owned businesses, and residential neighborhoods around the country as Iraqis begin reclaiming some power over their lives.

But freedom has looked like chaos too often in recent weeks for many Iraqis to embrace it unreservedly. "Yes, of course we are free, but the negatives are more than the positives so far," says Hisham Abbas, an unemployed laborer, as he drops his son off at school. "What good is freedom if we do not feel safe?"

The wave of looting in Iraq, followed by the persistent violence, robbery, car-jackings, and general insecurity in the capital, has unnerved many Iraqis accustomed to rigid order under Saddam Hussein.

A crackdown on crime

Paul Bremer, the new administrator of the Provisional Coalition Authority, who now runs the country, has ordered a crackdown on crime in the past week. The US Army has stepped up its patrols of city streets, no longer turning a blind eye to looters. And Iraqi policemen, armed with pistols or Kalashnikovs, have begun to join US Military Police patrols from 17 police stations that are now open in Baghdad.

On Friday, Mr. Bremer was expected to proclaim a ban on the possession of automatic weapons by civilians, in a bid to calm the atmosphere of violence. Many homeowners, however, are likely to resist such a ban while they feel a need to protect themselves. Baghdad morgue records examined Thursday suggested that the death rate from gunshot wounds has not declined significantly over the past week.

Iraqis outside the capital, however, have less reason to be nervous. In regional centers such as Basra in the south and Mosul in the north, crime rates have dropped, coalition officials say, and order has been more or less restored. Clashes between Arabs and Kurds in and around Kirkuk, however, mostly in disputes over home ownership, claimed 10 lives recently.

Much of the gunfire heard after dark in Baghdad is attributed to common criminals taking advantage of the power vacuum left by the Iraqi regime's collapse. But US officials also blame remnants of the old Baath Party regime for vandalism and attacks designed to undermine the coalition forces' authority and credibility.

US authorities are trying to dismantle the Baath Party's influence on daily life, enforcing an edict that Bremer issued last Saturday banning senior party members from jobs in the public sector, and prohibiting the public display of Saddam Hussein's likeness. Thursday US Gen. Tommy Franks ordered all full members of the Baath Party to identify themselves to the US military. Up to 1.5 million Iraqis belonged to the party, but only 25,000 to 50,000 were full-fledged members.

Sometimes, "de-Baathification" would appear relatively simple. Two nails in the wall, for example, are all that mark the spot where Hussein's portrait once hung in the office of Haybet Abdul Hussein, headmistress of the Al Khakha primary school in central Baghdad. And Ms. Hussein says she no longer teaches her 12-year-old pupils lessons from the old civics textbook with chapter headings such as "The important role of Saddam Hussein, may God preserve him, in determining victory in war."

But the process can also be complicated. At the Al Kindi hospital, for example, the staff elected a former director to be the new deputy director, despite the fact that under Bremer's edict, he is barred from the job.

Conversely, in Basra, local residents forced the British authorities there to rescind their appointment of a former Baathist official to head an interim advisory council.

Bremer's edict allows exceptions to the rules on a case by case basis, and "borderline cases" involving low-profile senior Baathists who have critical expertise will probably be allowed to keep their jobs, says a coalition official.

There will be no exceptions made, however, for the 55 top government and party figures - headed by Saddam Hussein and his two sons - that the US is hunting down. Twenty-five of the men and women in the "pack of cards" are now believed dead or are in custody, but most of the aces and kings remain at large.

Equally elusive is any "smoking gun" to support US and British allegations that Iraq had biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction - the original justification for going to war. Though officials say privately that they have uncovered evidence to suggest that Hussein was actively seeking to develop such weapons, US and British teams trying to track them down have so far come up empty-handed, and Washington is believed to be quietly scaling back its search.

Of much greater concern to most ordinary Iraqis are the daily problems, such as shortages of money, electricity, water, gasoline, and jobs, and the piles of garbage in the streets. These problems are less acute in smaller cities and towns than in Baghdad, home to an estimated 4.5 million.

Iraqis living in the north and south of the country now have more electricity than ever before, coalition officials boast. But power stations in those areas cannot supply central Iraq because the national grid is too badly damaged. Many districts of Baghdad are still suffering from repeated and prolonged power outages that have paralyzed industry and made life without fans or air conditioning miserable in the rising summer heat. About 40 percent of the capital's residents are also still without potable water supplies, according to the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), the coalition bureaucracy charged with getting the country back on its feet. Repairing the pipes will take months, and one of ORHA's top 12 priorities is to prevent more outbreaks of cholera such as the one that has put at least 18 people in hospital in Basra.

Food is not a problem, although it is costly, especially for people who have received no wages for several weeks, or only the $20 emergency payment made to key public sector workers. But ORHA will begin paying 1.4 million government employees their back salaries on Saturday, Retired Gen. Jay Garner said.

Gasoline, however, is scarce all over the country, available only at prohibitive prices on the black market unless one is willing to wait up to 12 hours in a line stretching hundreds of yards from the pump. That situation is expected to ease with the passage Thursday of a United Nations Security Council resolution lifting the 13-year-old sanctions against Iraq.

Oil as lifeblood

When the country can export its oil, refineries that have not been able to produce enough gasoline because they had nowhere to put a bulky side-product, fuel oil, will be able to work at full speed again. A resumption of oil production would mean more output of gas, used to fuel some power stations here, which should ease the electricity crisis somewhat as well, officials predict. Equally important, oil sales will swell the Iraqi budget, to be set by coalition officials, and pump money into the economy and long-term reconstruction.

ORHA officials say that Iraq's political recovery must take more time than local political leaders would like. They had hoped, when General Garner was in charge, that by early next month they would have been able to form a provisional government that would have sovereignty and take policy decisions, even if under US tutelage. But Bremer said Wednesday that it could be mid-July before an Iraqi national conference is convened to help choose an interim authority.

Bremer and his British counterpart, John Sawers, are worried that the five former opposition leaders grouped in the "leadership council" are not united enough to form a government that could meet the challenges facing Iraq, officials close to the two men say. Washington and London are also anxious to broaden the council to make it more representative of the general population before it organizes a national conference.

The prospect that an interim Iraqi authority would play little more than an advisory role to the occupation government is especially displeasing to Iranian-backed politicians from the majority Shiite sect, who generally mistrust US intentions in Iraq.

If no Iraqi government with real power is likely to be formed in the foreseeable future, the government of occupation has been strengthened by Bremer's arrival last week, ORHA officials say. After an uncertain start under General Garner, they are pleased to have a leader who has the power to make policy, and who is clearly in charge. The White House has told the US military that its job is to support Bremer in his work. "I think the military will start showing up to meetings at ORHA now," says one senior US Army officer. "Before, they often wouldn't bother."

That will reassure ORHA officials frustrated by the unexpected difficulties of putting Iraq back to work, sequestered in rudimentary living conditions behind the high walls of Hussein's Republican Palace, and tired of being accused of dithering.

On the wall of an office in the Republican Palace, someone has taped ORHA's "Core Media Script," the message spokesmen are meant to drum into reporters' notebooks: "Nobody is underestimating the huge challenge ahead," it reads, "but I believe slowly but surely we are getting Baghdad and Iraq back on its feet. Nobody is pretending things are anything but difficult. We are turning the corner and piece by piece getting the country moving again."

After the euphoria that attended the coalition's quick military victory in Iraq, that message sums up the approach US officials here are taking now: deflect criticism, lower expectations, and project cautious hope. Now they have to sell the message to the Iraqi people. "Endings are defined by beginnings," says Adel Abdul Mahdi, an aide to Ayatollah Hakim, leader of the Iran-backed Shiite group Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. "This period is very critical."

Danna Harman contributed to this story from northern and southern Iraq.

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