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Iraqis rue U.S. presence, tally instability, danger, hopelessness

BAGHDAD, Iraq—At least one very good thing has happened to the Saad family since the war changed their country forever last year. Thanks to the American policy of raising government salaries, their household income has increased by tenfold.

For that reason alone, one might think the couple—Alla Saad is an Agriculture Ministry engineer and his wife, Iyman Mohammed, is a high school physics teacher—would be pleased with the way things have turned out. But that's not the case.

"Now I will list the bad things," said Saad as he entertained two visiting Americans in his living room and served them cans of Pepsi. "There is no stability, there is no security, there is no clear future. Along with a feeling of humiliation."

One year after American forces invaded Iraq and overthrew the regime of Saddam Hussein, the Saads' fears and complaints are one way to understand why many Iraqis haven't embraced the American-led occupation.

A recent poll found 70 percent of Iraqis said their lives are better than they were before. But that optimism often is leavened by what many feel is the unsettled nature of their lives.

"I don't think democracy can work here," said Mohammed, 41, a bright-eyed woman wearing a colorful headscarf. "Iraqis think democracy means anarchy, disorganization, everyone doing whatever he likes. This is not democracy."

The Saads and their children—Hameed, 14, Mustafa, 12 and Ula, 7—live in a two-bedroom brick house in Ghazaliah, a suburb northwest of Baghdad. He's a Shiite who bears shrapnel scars from his days as a tank commander in the Iran-Iraq war; she's a Sunni who clearly enjoys the newfound right to speak her mind.

To understand their disillusionment, Mohammed said, consider that in the last month, 20 children have been kidnapped for ransom from the school where she teaches. This isn't a new story: Kidnapping is a growth industry in postwar Iraq. Most victims never report the crime to police—they simply pay anywhere from $3,000 to $50,000, depending on their means.

And then there are the explosions. A few months ago, Hameed was cut in the head by flying glass when a police station near his school was bombed. A few days ago, bombers struck a Shiite mosque near their younger children's school, forcing the school to close for a week while the windows are replaced.

Polls show most Iraqis believe crime has declined since the chaotic months after the war. But they still cite a lack of security as their top concern. Rapes, robberies, carjackings and murders remain epidemic.

So, too, does a widespread feeling of lawlessness that can be almost as corrosive as the quiet terror once sown by Saddam's secret police.

"Even at the school, we can't control the students," Mohammed said. "We fear that the student or one of his family may attack us if we fail him."

Teachers aren't alone—factory bosses say they can't fire workers; hospital directors say they can't control their maintenance staffs; police are sometimes afraid to investigate serious crimes.

Many Iraqis blame the United States for setting anarchy in motion, as they see it, by disbanding the Iraqi military and by failing to stop the widespread looting in the days after Saddam's regime fell.

"It's not only the occupation," Mohammed said. "We lost security, a normal life."

She says this even though, before the war, the family was barely eking out a living. They were among many middle-class Iraqis whose lifestyles were squeezed by Saddam's economic mismanagement and the international sanctions placed on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War.

By the end of Saddam's regime, Saad's salary had fallen to a measly 3,000 dinars per month—a little more than $2 at today's exchange rate. Mohammed's wages were about the same. Saad was forced to work a second job, sometimes as a taxi driver, sometimes selling fish.

Saad had become disillusioned with Saddam even before the financial crunch, though. Having been wounded three times in the bloody Iran-Iraq war, he was stunned when the Iraqi dictator gave back all the territory that Iraq had won.

"He threw away eight years of gains in war," Saad said. "At that time, we realized the war was a fake."

Early last year, as it became clear the United States was poised to invade Iraq, Saad calculated that the Iraqi army wouldn't fight and that the regime would fall quickly.

But nothing prepared the couple for the American tanks patrolling their neighborhood on April 10.

They were glad Saddam was gone, but "we felt angry that our country was invaded and occupied," Mohammed said.

Having sat through nights of earth-shaking bombings, they fled the neighborhood after hearing that the tanks were approaching. When they returned, they found that their house had been severely damaged by cannon fire. Parts of the roof and walls had collapsed.

"Last summer was very hard," Saad said. "We spent many nights outside."

Today, the couple earns about $570 per month because the coalition raised government salaries, which are paid for by a national budget composed of seized assets, oil revenue and U.S. aid. But that extra income hasn't improved their material lives by much.

Much of the extra money goes toward repaying loans from relatives to repair war-related damage to their house. Their car is old and beat-up. In their modest family room is an ancient 13-inch television set, the only one they've ever owned.

Electricity is still sporadic; they and their neighbors have pooled money to rent a huge generator that keeps power on most of the day. Like almost every Iraqi, they are incredulous that the coalition hasn't been able to fix Iraq's electrical system in a year.

The local sewage pumps are broken, so foul water pools in the streets around their home.

In their living room is a computer, a gift from a relative. Sometimes they access the Internet through a prepaid card purchased from a local provider, which puts them among the 3 percent of Iraqis who regularly surf the Web, according to polls.

They are better informed than most Iraqis. Asked about the new temporary constitution and its Western-style bill of rights, Saad said he's most concerned about the language saying that Islam should be just one source for legislation, rather than "the primary source." Saad thinks it should have been the latter.

They are ambivalent about the presence of U.S. troops. Mohammed says she thinks U.S. troops are needed to keep the country from slipping further into anarchy and sectarian violence, but Saad says attacks against U.S. troops are justifiable.

"The invasion will not end without resistance," he said.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040317 USIRAQ chrono

Iraq

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