Once dominated by a single face, Iraq now reveals a multitude

A bewildering - and sometimes contradictory - collection of images has streamed out of Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime

America's occupation of Iraq: Which is the real picture?

Is it the one of Iraqi children cheering and giving thumbs up, as US troops pass by on patrol?

Or is it the image of Iraqi children competing with their friends to smash to pieces a makeshift stone memorial, left by a tearful US Army paratrooper for a brother, a US Marines gunnery sergeant killed in action in downtown Baghdad?

Maybe it is a traditional Bedouin family inviting a US armored platoon into their tent for tea, wreathed in smiles as they make the offer. Or perhaps it is the thirsty Iraqis happy for a handout of fresh water, brought to them by the US military as a gesture of good will.

Then again, the true image could be the Hussein loyalists and others with nothing to win from the US occupation - and everything to lose by its success - popping up through car sunroofs to attack US troops with rocket-propelled grenades. Or the man who shot dead a US soldier point-blank, as he bought a soft drink on the campus of Baghdad University. Or the British television journalist, gunned down under similar circumstances.

Many observers wonder who the uniformed Americans walking the streets really are.

Are they the antiterrorism enforcers, using a heavy hand as they break into houses at night, making arrests and covering heads in sacks, leading men away for interrogation - and deepening distrust of American motives when mistakes are made? Are they the Americans who shot dead a child on the roof of his family home at night, as he moved too quickly to get a look at the passing American armored patrol, and was mistaken for a gunman?

Maybe, they muse, the Americans are the cocky, fearless young robocops in wraparound shades who would rather be home, but instead are joking with Iraqi children in the streets - throwing a car tire back-and-forth in a spur-of-the-moment game?

That image contrasts sharply with the Americans as warriors - who considered the battle for Baghdad a turkey shoot, and who have boasted, sometimes shamefully, about killing too many Iraqi civilians along the way to victory.

Are the Americans the soldiers who made emergency deliveries of air-conditioning units and new examination booklets, so that Iraqi students could, belatedly, finish their school year in the heat of summer?

Then there's the graffiti. Should Americans believe, as Iraqis exercise their freedom of speech with spray paint, the words written in English on the wall near the Health Ministry: "THANK YOU - Please Stay"?

Or should the US heed the words, written in Arabic on the wall of Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison: "Bush is the occupier; Saddam Hussein is the hero of all time."

Ask any Iraqi: "What do you think of your occupiers?"

Ask any US soldier: "What do you think of your occupied?"

Each one, each day, is writing in their minds their personal history of the occupation of Iraq. All the images engraved in those memories are accurate - as contradictory and confusing as they might appear.

Sometimes, Iraqis say, the Americans who have come to their country act magnanimously, like liberators, not occupiers. Other times, they behave as soldiers in war are trained to do: Kill first, and ask questions later.

Sometimes, Americans say, they have made such friends among the Iraqis that they are sure they will keep up with them, long after this war is over. But other times, they feel targeted by every Iraqi on the street - anyone of whom could, to the US mind, pull the trigger against them.

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