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Iraqis traded anchored lives for political freedom in 2003

BAGHDAD, Baghdad—Inad Ahmed watches the transformation of Iraq through the windshield of his taxi and hears the changes in his countrymen from the browbeaten residents who climb into his cab and spill their stories.

There are hundreds of passengers, Ahmed said, and just as many opinions on how the U.S.-led war and its aftermath have altered the lives of ordinary Iraqis. The view from his dusty taxi is a vibrant testament to the difference a year can make in an American experiment to create a democracy.

After all, Ahmed commented during a drive this week, the events of 2003 turned the downtrodden into power brokers and left those anchored to the former regime with uncertain futures. With Iraq's iconic president in U.S. custody and the prospects for finding a successor murky, the unthinkable became possible while the future is anyone's guess.

"What torments me are the people I pick up who have lost their national pride," said Ahmed, 40. "I tell them that the Irish are still resisting the English, the Palestinians are resisting the Israelis, the Algerians gave thousands of martyrs before they were freed from France, and then there are the Vietnamese. But we, the Iraqis, we're just struggling to survive."

The myriad improvements of the past year are being undone by kinks that have yet to be smoothed by American and Iraqi administrators. As Ahmed pointed out during a three-hour tour of his hometown, Iraqis can drive new cars—if they want to wait in interminable gas lines and standstill traffic. They can watch satellite television and surf the Internet—when there's electricity. Only Iraqis with high-paying jobs can afford the Heinz ketchup, Oreos and microwave popcorn that now fill supermarket shelves. Babies are vaccinated for diseases that once wiped out hundreds, yet there are no such safeguards against car bombs and rocket-propelled grenades.

"During Saddam Hussein's rule, we had every freedom except one—political freedom," Ahmed said, sucking in a long drag from an ever-present cigarette. "Now, that's the only freedom we have."

The thrill of a new era seems palpable in the streets Ahmed navigates with the confidence of a man who knows every alley in Baghdad. He steered past bombed buildings and pedestals that once held statues of Saddam before turning onto a palm-lined road where Iraqi police escort giggly schoolgirls. Ahmed smiled as he drove across a two-story bridge with a spectacular view of the shimmering Tigris River, dodging a pile of empty brown meals-ready-to-eat cases left by U.S. soldiers. Insurgents sometimes use such trash—or diapers, even dead dogs—to hide roadside bombs.

On a typical day, his passengers include former Baath Party members whose luxurious lives ended with Saddam's fall. Their Mercedes sedans stolen or confiscated, the former officials peel off crisp new dinars for Ahmed to shuttle them to the grocery store.

There are Shiite Muslims, oppressed under Saddam and emboldened by newfound power, who give generous tips to the driver for rides to political meetings and religious gatherings they would have been arrested for attending a year ago.

There are Kurdish customers, who excitedly showed Ahmed images of a bedraggled and bearded Saddam just after he was found Dec. 13. Sunni Muslims—Saddam came from Iraq's Sunni minority—showed him the same photos, but complained how the humiliating capture bruised their national identity.

"After nine months, I've heard so many stories," Ahmed said. "Some say they're happy Saddam is gone; others are miserable. Some say they hate to see even a single U.S. soldier in the street; others welcome Americans in civilian clothes, the ones who are really coming to rebuild."

Ahmed's own life looks dramatically different from the days before the war. He was once a contractor who supervised the building of several towers in Baghdad. Trolling for customers, he sometimes drives past one of his favorite projects, a government communications tower that was bombed repeatedly during the war last spring. Ahmed chronicled the building of the tower in a series of photos he keeps in an album at home. Today, the structure is a desiccated shell with dangling wires and crumbling floors.

Frustrated that most reconstruction work was in the hands of foreign contractors, Ahmed tucked away his hard hat and took the wheel of his orange-and-white taxi.

The money he makes is dwarfed by his wife's salary as an engineer at a water-treatment plant in Baghdad. She was able to keep her job after the war, despite the couple's low-level Baath Party membership, which ensured work under the old regime. Still, he worries that his wife, Hana, has become too dependent on the Valium she used to crumble into their children's food to make them sleep through nighttime bombings last spring.

After a quick tea break at home and kisses from his three young sons, Ahmed jumped back in his taxi and returned to the streets. At an intersection, a drunken beggar braced himself against the car as he stumbled across the road.

"Throughout history, we have been leaders, rulers," Ahmed said, thinking about the great civilizations that inhabited Iraqi land in ancient times. Watching the man and smiling sadly, he said: "We are supposed to be educated, open-minded, strong. Look at us now."

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): YEAREND+IRAQ

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