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Many Iraqis dismiss Bush's visit as political stunt

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Many Iraqis on Friday angrily dismissed President Bush's brief cloak-and-dagger Thanksgiving Day visit as a political stunt to boost his ratings at home, and others said he squandered an opportunity to meet with Iraqis and see first hand the problems they face.

"He came for only two hours. He didn't see how the Iraqis are living and suffering," said Fatima Star, 38, a housewife. "He doesn't care about the Iraqi people. He only cares about his troops."

"He wants to gain political favor from people in the United States before the elections," said Mathil Aziz, 26, a teacher. "He cares more about his own personal interest than the Iraqi people."

Other Iraqis, however, welcomed Bush's visit as a sign that he and the United States remains committed to reconstructing Iraq, even as suicide bombers and guerrillas kill American soldiers on a near-daily basis.

"You have an opportunity to seize the moment and rebuild your great country, based on human dignity and freedom," Bush told Iraqis in his speech before some 600 U.S. troops. "We will stay until the job is done."

"Maybe the security situation will get better now," said Haider Khadim, 29, a tailor. But Khadim and other Iraqis said they wished Bush had addressed the Iraqi people separately. Like the U.S. soldiers, Iraqis also need their morale boosted, they said.

Electricity blackouts, poor water and sanitation, loss of jobs and an uncertain political future have plagued much of Iraq in the eight months since U.S. troops took over Baghdad.

"The U.S. Army has many leaders," said Khadim. "But we don't have any leaders. We don't have anyone to follow. He should have given a speech to the Iraqi people, not just the American soldiers."

Underscoring the danger—the reason why Bush's visit was top secret and confined to a heavily guarded compound at Baghdad's main airport—a U.S. soldier was killed on Friday. He died when four mortar shells, apparently from insurgents, pounded a 101st Airborne Division base in the northern city of Mosul.

Another American soldier was shot to death on Thanksgiving inside a military base in Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad, according to a military statement. It was unclear how the shooting took place.

With the U.S. economy showing strong signs of recovery, the Iraq war is the greatest threat to Bush's hopes for reelection next year. More than 60 U.S. troops died in November attacks, more than in any month since Bush declared major fighting over on May 1. A total of 185 U.S. soldiers have died in combat since then.

Bush's visit overshadowed Friday's arrival of two Democratic senators, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Jack Reed of Rhode Island. The two, who have criticized the Bush administration's handling of post-war Iraq, met with soldiers, coalition officials, and female Iraqi politicians. Media access was tightly restricted.

Due to power outages, many Iraqis didn't know Bush was in Iraq until Friday.

When he heard the news, Khatam Sadun, 35, was reminded of all his problems since U.S. troops occupied Baghdad. The former Iraqi army sergeant lost his job when the U.S.-led coalition disbanded Iraq's army. Today he's unemployed. He hasn't had electricity in his home for two days.

"Bush's visit to Iraq was a big illusion," he said, sitting at an outdoor cafe with his wife. "No Iraqi should welcome him because there's no improvement in our society. Whether he came or not, we're still in a bad situation."

"He came to encourage his army. Not us," said Ali Mohammed, 40, who sells electronic goods.

Yet other Iraqis said that no matter how they feel about Bush, they need the Americans at a time when more and more Iraqis are dying from guerrilla attacks.

Hundreds spilled into Firdos Square—where victorious U.S. Marines and Iraqis tore down a bronze statue of Saddam Hussein in April—on Friday to protest the killings of Iraqi policemen and civilians by insurgents. A handful of small political parties, including Turkmen and Shiite groups, organized the rally.

"American forces should stay here now," yelled Aziz Al Yasseri, one of the rally's leaders, into a megaphone. "If they leave, who will take the responsibility for going after the terrorists?"

"At the same time, we ask the Americans to pay attention to Iraq."

Mathil Aziz, a teacher, said Bush missed a chance to energize Iraqis, and gain their trust.

"The Iraqi people need to see that the U.S. government is doing something for them," he said. "He would be welcome then."


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