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U.S. presence causes disillusionment among Iraqis

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Omar Abid al Mugeeth doesn't care whether Saddam Hussein is still alive or gone for good.

Since U.S. troops liberated the Iraqi capital in April and forced the former dictator into hiding, the 31-year-old moneychanger has been robbed twice at gunpoint, losing thousands of dollars on both occasions.

"When the Americans first came, trust in them was 100 percent," Mugeeth said, as he sat with his friends in his cramped, sweltering shop in downtown Baghdad. "But now there is none. There is no security. There is no electricity. There is no water. At least we had these things under Saddam. Before, I hated Saddam. But right now, he is better than the Americans. I swear if I get hurt by the Americans again, I will take up a gun against them myself."

Sentiments such as Mugeeth's are common these days, especially in the capital and the so-called Sunni Triangle, where most attacks against U.S. troops have occurred. Nearly four months after liberation, the euphoria most Iraqis expressed over Saddam's ouster largely has evaporated, replaced by disillusionment over the American presence.

The discontent suggests that finally removing Saddam from the picture won't help restore order in the country the way some U.S. leaders have suggested.

American troops, once viewed as liberators, increasingly are seen as occupiers. And as attacks against them continue, the low-level guerrilla war that U.S. military officials insist is waged by former regime loyalists, foreign terrorists and criminals let out of jail before the war risks becoming a widespread nationalist struggle.

"The killing or capture of Saddam Hussein will do nothing," said Mungith M. Daghir, the vice president of the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, an analysis group that Baghdad University professors founded after Saddam was ousted from power.

According to a poll by the center, only 32 percent of 1,000 Iraqis surveyed believe that former regime loyalists are behind the attacks, Daghir said. Nearly 25 percent think the struggle has become one of "national liberation." Another 22 percent blame the attacks on American "provocations," including nighttime raids on people's homes, U.S. soldiers searching women and violating other Muslim taboos and the killing of innocent civilians in the ongoing military operations.

Only 10 percent say foreign terrorists and other outsiders are responsible for the attacks. Another 10 percent say people who have "personal reasons" for fighting the Americans are waging the guerrilla war.

"We think the American forces ... want to believe ... that Saddam Hussein is responsible for everything," Daghir said. "But they don't want to admit that they are responsible for some things because of their hasty decisions or the bad advice they've been given."

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, estimated the strength of the guerrilla resistance at 5,000 fighters.

"We're fighting a low-intensity conflict that is multifaceted," he added, listing disparate groups including "criminals," Saddam loyalists and "radicals" who oppose the American presence.

Sanchez said the use of timed, rocket-propelled grenades, trip wires and packed explosives bore the marks of al-Qaida. He added that Iraq is a magnet for foreign terrorists. U.S. intelligence officials say Syrians, Saudi Arabians, Algerians and even a few Albanians have turned up to battle American troops in Iraq.

"This is the place to come," Sanchez said.

A number of groups with no apparent links to Saddam have claimed responsibility for attacking American troops. One extremist Muslim group said on Arab satellite networks that it was planning attacks on U.S troops and American officials. Other anti-U.S. groups have sprung up, including the Return Party and the Iraqi Liberation Army, which claim to have no allegiance to the former regime.

Several radical Islamic groups, claiming ties to al-Qaida, have claimed responsibility for attacks in the restive towns of Ramadi and Fallujah, west of Baghdad.

Locals in the holy city of Najaf, a center of the Shiite branch of Islam, have reported that extremist clerics of Saddam's Sunni branch of Islam from those towns have visited Najaf, attempting to enlist Shiite clerics in the fight against the Americans, said Lt. Col. Chris Conlin, the commander of a small contingent of Marines stationed in the city. Shiites are a majority of the Iraqi population.

"So far, the clerics have rejected them," said Zaid Mohammed, 34, an unemployed mechanical engineer. "They told them that we Shiites were suppressed for too long by Saddam, so we don't want any trouble now. The clerics say they are willing to give the coalition forces one year to see if things improve, and after that they will issue a fatwa (religious declaration), but no one knows what it will be."

Even so, the U.S. honeymoon with the Shiites could be ending as radical clerics clamor for power. Moqtada al Sadr, a fiery young cleric and the son of a respected religious leader whom Saddam's forces assassinated following the Shiite uprising after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, has called for creating an Islamic army to oppose the American presence and the U.S.-appointed Iraq Governing Council.

"The people are just waiting for any word from the clerics to fight the Americans," said Amar Ali, 28, an unemployed former police officer.

The creation of Iraq's governing council in July was an attempt by the U.S.-led interim authority to give Iraqis more ownership of their country's future. The council is charged with writing a new constitution and holding free elections, something that L. Paul Bremer, the American administrator for Iraq, predicted could happen by mid-2004.

But the unelected council—whose members Bremer picked and who are subject to his veto—is widely distrusted.

"The people are watching and waiting now," said Sadiq al Monssawi, a political adviser to Sheik Sharif Ali Bin al Hussein, the 56-year-old son of King Faisal II, who was overthrown and murdered along with most of the royal family in 1958. "But if they don't see improvements within the next couple of months, you will see opposition in the streets."

A team of outside experts that the Pentagon sent to Iraq in early July concluded that unless Iraqis see quick improvement in the next three months in security, delivery of basic services, new jobs and more Iraqi involvement in the political process, the situation probably will deteriorate. Its report recommended dramatically expanding Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority, including more international personnel, and a massive infusion of cash from Congress.

"We are sparing no effort to improve security in Iraq," coalition spokesman Charles Heatley said. "We understand it underlies everything else."

At least 60,000 new police officers have been hired and more joint patrols are taking place with U.S. troops. More than 5,000 applicants signed up the day after recruiting centers for the new Iraqi army opened on July 19. Officials hope to train and field 12,000 Iraqi soldiers this year, with a target of 40,000 over the next two years, Heatley said. Officials expect to field the first battalion of about 850 men by the end of September.

With automatic-weapons fire ringing out every night in the capital and banditry widespread, many Iraqis say they've seen little improvement so far. Three and a half months after liberation, drivers spend hours waiting for gasoline in lines that can stretch up to a half-mile. Electric power runs for two hours at a time, then goes out for four hours of sweltering heat before returning. Water still hasn't been restored in some areas. Unemployment is still soaring, with millions out of work.

There's anger every time U.S. soldiers kick in a door in the middle of the night or search a woman. And outrage when innocent civilians die because an American soldier at a checkpoint got jumpy and fired a volley of automatic-weapons fire.

That happened on July 27 when U.S. commandos stormed the wealthy al Mansour district home of Prince Rabia Mohammed al Habib, 72, the leader of 140 Iraqi tribes and chief of the Iraqi Social Party.

The troops acted on a false tip that Saddam was in the house. Eyewitnesses said seven people were shot and killed by American troops when they approached a nearby security checkpoint in their cars.

The U.S. military still hasn't apologized for the incident or offered to pay for damages. Rabia has been forgiving about it and has urged restraint among his followers, but adds that what happened at his home illustrates how American troops risk losing Iraqi good will every time they raid the wrong home or arrest the wrong person.

Later, a crowd of 1,500 to 2,000 demonstrators protested in front of his house, awaiting a call to action. Some were armed, Rabia said.

Qaism Hadi, an organizer with the Union of Unemployed in Iraq, estimated that 6 million to 8 million Iraqi adults are unemployed. Iraq's total population is 24 million. The group wants the coalition to give each of those who are unemployed $100 a month until they can find jobs, and it wants something done to kick-start the economy.

"There are people here who are ready to kill themselves because they've had no job, no money, nothing for the last three months," Hadi said. "They've had to sell everything they own."

Underground militant organizations are willing to pay 75,000 Iraqi dinars a month ($50) for anyone who joins them and 1 million dinars ($670) for every attack in which they participate, Hadi said.

"If the Americans can't provide us with jobs or money, it is possible that many people will soon join these terrorist organizations," he said.

"If the situation is still like this in a few months, then the death or capture of Saddam will not affect the attacks on the Americans in any way," said Ali Rahia, 40, an unemployed laborer. "We will fight them forever because of what they have done to us."


(Hannah Allam contributed to this article from Baghdad.)


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