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Iraqis growing increasingly frustrated with U.S. presence

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In the days since U.S. troops occupied Baghdad, military officials have been trying to convince the Iraqi people that the troops are here to help. But the decisions by the military in the first 10 days of the postwar period have left some locals suspicious about U.S. intentions.

Residents say they have seen little change in their way of life since the city was liberated. Interviewed here, resident after resident said that if life here does not improve in the next two weeks, another round of violence could begin in the city.

Fewer residents wave at the troops as they pass and more are carrying weapons when they venture outside. There are daily protests in front of troops by people who say they want change soon. And around the Palestine Hotel, where military officials have set up an office, troops expand their defense perimeter daily. Every night, someone shoots toward the troops near the hotel.

People openly complain that they live in a militarized state that has yielded little change and that a U.S.-run militarized state is not much different from one under Saddam Hussein.

"Till now, we see the Americans have not completed anything in Iraq. Till now, they say they came for the freedom of the Iraqi people, but we see the Air Force over our heads. We need to feel this freedom," said Sheik Halim al Fatlawi, a Shiite cleric at the Al-Hakmai Mosque in the Shiite slum once known as Saddam City.

No doubt some of the unhappiness has to do with the lack of electricity and water in much of the capital and the need for work.

Capt. Lewaa Abdullah, 45, drives oil tank trucks. But the oil industry is shut down, and he hasn't worked since the war started. He said he is willing to wait another 10 days for the utilities to start working and for someone to tell him he can go back to work. After that, he said, he will start to question why the United States is here.

"We need money. We need food. If people don't get money soon, they will kill again," Abdullah said. "I cannot sleep. I need to carry my gun. I have to sleep with my gun."

But others see darker motives in what the United States has done and what it has left undone since it arrived in the capital.

They note that the United States protected the ministries of Oil and Interior within hours of entering the city, but left much unprotected—including hospitals. Looters sacked nearly every business district in the city, forcing most storeowners to keep their doors locked. They also attacked the Iraqi National Museum, which held nearly all of the country's national treasures.

"I am grateful they got rid of Saddam. I want the U.S. to be honest. I want them to say `We want oil,' " said Namer Abd al Aziz, an herbal remedy doctor.

Al Aziz said he thinks the United States allowed the looting to happen so that Iraqis would feel dependent on the United States to rebuild their country.

"We should have been smarter about protecting those facilities," said Judith Yaphe, a research fellow at the National Defense College in Washington, D.C. "We protected them during the bombing. Why did that thought not continue the day after the bombing? I think it is an important criticism."

Others say they need the United States to restore the electricity and the water to ensure that the city is safe. They said they do not understand why they have had to wait more than two weeks for the utilities, especially because the United States has said it did not do major damage to the infrastructure of those utilities.

Khazla al Sawee, an electrical engineering professor at the Technological University in Baghdad, said he does not think the restoration of power should have taken longer than two days.

"When we have electricity, we will have security," al Sawee said.

In residential areas where there is a U.S. military presence, the soldiers are doing little to stop the violence, locals say.

And at checkpoints throughout downtown, residents say they sometimes encounter tired troops who are quick to point an M-16 at an Iraqi to ensure compliance. They say the roadblocks are no different from the ones Saddam's regime had set up.

In downtown Baghdad late last week, a solider pointed his weapon at a man who drove 12 mph, instead of 6, through a checkpoint. No one told the man the speed limit.

"This is my country. This is my country," the man muttered.

U.S. military authorities concede that the Marines were not prepared originally to occupy large portions of Baghdad. That job was supposed to have been the Army's, which began moving into parts of Baghdad only Friday.

But the Marines defended their actions, saying it is very difficult to transition from fighting to protecting a city. They say they protected the buildings that are the most important under Iraq's new regime.

"Their entire economy is predicated on oil," 1st Marine Division spokesman Capt. Joe Plenzler said. "We had to prioritize, and that is what we chose."

And U.S. officials say they already have put people in place in important government positions who can best decide how to get the city running again. They have named a police chief and someone to run the electric and water plants. And they are constantly meeting with residents to determine what they want the United States to do for them. Change, they say, depends on the Iraqi people, not the troops.

But if people do not believe that the United States is looking out for their interests, they are less likely to comply with orders from new leaders, and that could create a lawless violent state, Yaphe said.

Fairly or not, populations often give "liberating" forces very little time to prove they are there to help, not to take over a nation, Yaphe said.

"Gratitude is not an easily given commodity," she said.


(Knight Ridder correspondent Matt Schofield in Baghdad contributed to this report.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.