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Progress by U.S. forces undermined by frequent attacks on Iraqis

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Adnan Abbas was headed to his aunt's funeral in south Baghdad last week when his minivan hit a roadside bomb. Abbas, a 30-year-old construction worker, sat in the back, luckily. He survived.

A friend did not. Abbas saw his head blown off. And he watched his brother-in-law crumple, dead, as shrapnel tore into his chest.

All the talk about democracy in Iraq, he said, means nothing.

"Everything has gone crazy here," he said.

Lying on a soiled hospital bed, Abbas stopped the interview. Blood was seeping from his ear.

While American officials promise a future with freedom of religion, speech and assembly in Iraq, many residents, especially in Baghdad, say they are far more concerned with making it home alive. Iraqi shopkeepers, taxi drivers, lawyers and street peddlers share a similar view: Saddam Hussein may be gone, but the chaos and violence of postwar Iraq are terrible substitutes. And they blame American bungling.

Fences, concertina wire and large concrete barriers have gone up all around Baghdad. The loud pop of a soda can opening sometimes makes restaurant patrons jump in their seats.

Several Iraqi politicians and other officials say the continuing unrest and bloodshed are largely due to a lack of postwar plans by the United States. Americans, they say, left the nation's borders open to foreign fighters and allowed the chaos and looting to continue for far too long after the fall of Baghdad.

"Totally and exclusively, the Americans can be blamed for that," said Iraqi Governing Council member Mowaffak al Rubaie. "They left the country without any security, and in the immediate period after the ninth of April, they had no idea what to do."

Abdul al Amir Muhsin, the assistant director of one of the largest hospitals in Baghdad, said that before the war he saw patients suffering mostly from heart attacks, car wrecks and other accidents of day-to-day life. "But our main job in the past few months has been bullet and blast injuries," he said.

Dan Senor, a top U.S. spokesman in Iraq, has said repeatedly that the violence is the work of Saddam Hussein loyalists and foreign fighters seeking to destabilize Iraq.

They are succeeding, said Jamal Omar, a street vendor in the northern city of Irbil.

"This violence will destroy all of Iraq, from Basra to Irbil," he said.

There's no definitive count of civilian wounded and dead for Iraq, and U.S. military officials have refused to reveal their numbers.

Since late December, at least 803 Iraqis have been killed or wounded in bombings, according to a tally of news reports and military releases. That's more than 20 Iraqis killed or wounded a day on average by the explosions, including explosive devices, car bombs and suicide bombers.

As a result, most Iraqis have given up on the Americans, said Hassan Mohammad al Ani, a political science professor at Baghdad University.

"I am afraid that we are walking to the point of disintegration," al Ani said. "We cannot live on the freedom of expression."

For months after the war ended, unrest was concentrated in the predominantly Sunni Muslim sections of central Iraq, where many loyalists to Saddam were bitter about losing political power. Bloodshed has since spread throughout the nation, killing Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north.

In late December, a spate of suicide car bombings killed at least 12 Iraqis and wounded more than 100 in the southern town of Karbala. Last week, a suicide car bomber in the far northern city of Mosul killed nine and wounded at least 45 Iraqis. Last Sunday, to the east of Mosul, a pair of men with explosives strapped to their bodies killed more than 100 and wounded more than 240 Iraqis in the town of Irbil.

The numbers alone fail to capture the shock.

Hakim Ismail was in one of the offices bombed in Irbil. At the time, he was standing behind a group of men on a stage, all of whom were shaking hands and extending greetings for the Muslim holiday of the feast. When the blast went off, the group in front of Ismail absorbed much of the force. He was knocked to the ground and covered with the blood and limbs of his friends.

"We've seen the explosions in the street, and we live in fear," said Alaa Hussein, a factory worker who was shopping recently for a jacket in downtown Baghdad. "When the Americans came here, they should have secured our safety. They said they would rebuild Iraq and give us security."

There've been some advances since the fall of Baghdad, when looters ran wild and the sky was dark with smoke. Mostly the lights stay on. The banks are working, and the Iraqi dinar is gaining strength. Couples walk the streets after dark, window-shopping, some grabbing an ice cream. Saddam and his torture chambers are things of the past.

In their place is constant fear that an explosion or burst of gunfire will shatter everything.

"There are good days in Iraq," said Senor, the U.S. spokesman, "and there are some really bad days, like Sunday" in Irbil.

Riad Hassan recently held his daughter's hand in front of a small Ferris wheel as families gathered on a playground to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Eid al Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice. "I try not to go anywhere but my job and my home, but it's Eid and we had to do something," he said. "But if I'm not hurt in an explosion, maybe the man next to me will be."

Hassan paused for a moment, looking at the ground. "Or maybe it will be my children."

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(Lasseter reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader)

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

Iraq

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