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United States is losing its battle for the hearts and minds of Iraqis

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In an upscale Baghdad neighborhood, a skinny 9-year-old walked into her living room cradling a lifeless yellow parakeet. It was the family's fourth bird to die since the capital fell, and they blamed America.

Farah al Hadithi's father said the bird died because there was no electricity to run the air conditioning to keep it cool. Or maybe it was the toxic chemicals that he suspects the Americans used during the war.

Across town, shy 12-year-old twins listened quietly to their parents' worries. Their refrigerator was now a cooler filled mostly with melted ice water. Air conditioning for their stifling two-room apartment was an open window. There was sporadic power, little food, scarce money and no job.

"When I see them," Asmaa said as she leaned against her dad and smiled, "I will throw stones at the Americans."

The United States is losing its battle for the hearts and minds of Iraqis. Top American officials argue that life is getting better, but it's difficult to find Iraqis who agree.

The high hopes that some U.S. officials, especially in the Pentagon and in Vice President Dick Cheney's office, had for making a Mideast showcase of peace, prosperity and pluralism are beginning to evaporate in the heat, the dirt and the darkness. If things don't improve within a month, said one senior official in Washington, speaking on the condition of anonymity, those hopes may evaporate completely.

In the southern city of Basra, the military was able to get some electricity to about half the city fairly quickly, topping prewar levels. But now the occupying forces are struggling to get clean water to residents and to contain a cholera outbreak.

Dock workers in nearby Umm Qasr are growing frustrated with America's failure to pay them any more than a $20 emergency wage. Officials voice concern that the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance had better start paying salaries soon or America's credibility will go down the drain and create an opening for anti-American Muslim clerics.

Convoys of fuel trucks speed across the nation trying to keep up with long gas lines.

"Iraqi people believe that America is like a god, that it can do anything with the snap of its fingers like in Hollywood movies," said Mourad Diramerian, a 22-year-old goldsmith. "But America has proven that it is a failure."

American officials say that's the problem: It's not that the reconstruction effort has failed. It's that Iraqis have exceptionally high—if not unreasonable—expectations.

"We all have to confront the basic reality that this is a country that was badly mismanaged for 35 years," said one senior reconstruction official, who also asked not to be named. "The notion that America can come in and set everything right in three weeks is just not realistic."

But three weeks have become six. Iraqis who once were willing to give America the benefit of the doubt are beginning to turn sour.

Soldiers helping to rebuild schools in Najaf have been pelted with stones. Anti-American graffiti around Baghdad is growing more vitriolic. Thousands of government workers converged on a capital square this week, desperate to get one of the $20 emergency payments that American officials were handing out.

As the days without enough power, fuel, food and water drag on, there is a widening perception gap between the Americans trying to get things running and the Iraqis suffering through the shortages: Americans see the glass half-full; Iraqis see it mostly empty.

The divide is likely to further complicate efforts to rebuild Iraq as people begin to take a more skeptical view of America.

In the capital, residents scoff whenever U.S. officials claim that there is more power surging through the country now than there was before the war.

"America put a man on the moon," said Mahmoud Habib Abdullah, a clerk at the nation's Transportation Ministry who is waiting to get back to work. "How hard can it be to fix the power?"

Baghdad is full of conspiracy theories. Residents rich and poor see a hidden imperialist agenda behind the plague of street crime.

"They are using the chaos as an excuse to stay in the region for a long time, so they can take our oil and make money rebuilding our country," Abdullah said.

Reconstruction officials are doing their best to knock down such talk and assure Iraqis that things are going to get better.

Faced with a frustrated Baghdad resident who came to the reconstruction office in Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace with complaints about everything from power to food, Marine Maj. Dave Andersen tried to urge patience.

"It's like building the foundation of a house," Andersen told the woman. "Building a foundation is dirty, it's sweaty, but you've got to do it before you build the rest of the house."

The woman nodded at the major and smiled, then walked away shaking her head in disappointment.


(Nissenbaum reports for the San Jose Mercury News.)


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