Expectations gap rankles Iraq

Acts of sabotage and social insecurity continue to grow, narrowing the window for political and economic rebuilding.

For some Iraqis, the breaking point with the US occupation has already come. The wreck of yet another US Humvee - struck Tuesday with a rocket-propelled grenade, reportedly killing an Iraqi interpreter and wounding three US soldiers - brought that rupture into sharp focus.

"The Americans claimed they came here to liberate us - and we thank them for that - they promised paradise," says taxi driver Haidar Ali, listing a familiar index of complaints as US troops cleared away the blackened chassis. "Now it is the people revolting against them."

Only a fraction of Iraqis are turning their anger into violence - and taking action over the wide gap between unmet expectations and reality. But few Iraqis can count any postwar improvements in their lives. And as electricity still sputters, insecurity reigns, and questions dog the new political process, many are wondering how much longer the US window of opportunity can stay open.

"The majority thought America would turn Iraq into the [super-rich and luxurious Persian] Gulf overnight," says Janon Kadhim, an Iraqi-American and professor at Baghdad University. "Then came the chaos. This is where they lost the Iraqi people forever - they will never regain the faith. They had the golden moment, and they blew it."

Across the mosaic of more than 25 million Iraqis, some moan that the US is "worse" than overthrown dictator Saddam Hussein. A string of delays and unmet expectations, that began with extensive Iraqi looting that was permitted to burn itself out in the weeks after Baghdad fell on April 9, have soured many Iraqis on the American presence.

"The benefits have got to be tangible," says Margaret Hassan, the British director of the relief agency CARE, who has lived in Iraq for decades. "Schools starting on time [in late summer] will be a significant yardstick of success for the occupying powers."

But there is a deeper unease underlying the problem. "Iraqis do not connect with [the Coalition Provisional Authority], and to me it's a huge problem," says Mrs. Hassan. "From where we're sitting, we can't catch hold of a plan. This is a society in limbo - they've gone into a kind of void, not into a new liberation.

"They are losing hope," she adds. "They may go into resistance if they don't see some change."

Die-hard Hussein militants and anti-US resistance have been picking up tempo. And while the CPA struggles to engineer an interim government that will be acceptable to Iraqis, the influential and moderate Ayatollah Ali Sistani on Monday issued a fatwa, or religious decree, insisting that only elected Iraqis - not those hand-picked by the US - should be allowed to rewrite Iraq's new Constitution.

Designing, broadcasting, and carrying out CPA plans to fill the postwar vacuum are proving more difficult than the Anglo-American nationbuilders expected. Along with blossoming resistance, a host of sabotage attacks have vastly complicated the rebuilding of the electrical grid, to cite just one example.

A month ago, CPA officials flew the electrical lines from Baghdad to Basra, and found 17 pylon towers down. 11 were repaired, but last week, 27 pylons were down. "I don't think the wind brought them down," says Ted Morse, CPA coordinator for the Baghdad region.

But the perception gap with ordinary Iraqis is wide. Mr. Morse says that, after hosting an Iraqi journalist who received a 1 1/2-hour briefing from Brig. Gen. Steve Hawkins, he was flabbergasted that the journalist later commented: "The US can't be serious, or they would have fixed it."

"There is an impatience here that is impossible to deal with, as far as the short-term, quick fix," says, the 41-year veteran who has played a role in 11 postwar reconstructions. Like other top CPA officials, led by US chief administrator Paul Bremer, Morse speaks with confidence that "this will come out right." They point to Iraq's well-educated citizens, and oil wealth that will eventually be tapped.

But many Iraqis say they don't want to wait much longer, and that they have already been deprived by the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, the two wars of 1991 and 2003, and the years of strict UN sanctions. "We've played the role of Don Quixote too long," says Mrs. Kadhim.

The attack on the Humvee Tuesday was a "wake up call" for the military, and "to be expected," says US Army Capt. Brian Mescall. "We've been preaching to our guys to pay attention.... It's one of those big fears you have in the Army, that after you've been here a couple months, people begin to lose their edge."

Soft-drink seller Hamid Jassim says that within minutes of the blast, he saw an Iraqi arrive with a camera - "as if he had known of the incident before it happened." The man shot a few pictures and fled, he says.

Iraqi witnesses were angry, and nearby florist Amal Hussein condemned the attack.

"I don't think it is a heroic act," she says. But the US should keep to its promise of "leaving after forming a government."

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