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Iraqis fear power vacuum once U.S. turns over authority

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Campuses in Iraq's capital city were vacant Wednesday. Businesses barely opened. The chaotic traffic jams that were considered a sign of exuberance vanished overnight.

While Baghdadis hunkered down at home, warily watching news reports of mounting battles between U.S. and resistance fighters, posters and banners appeared around the capital praising Muqtada al-Sadr, the young militant Shiite cleric who's battling the American-led coalition with his black-clad Mahdi Army, an upstart militia.

"We will never give up Muqtada!" said one that was unfurled—unchallenged—by three young men at a traffic circle near the Tigris River and the Babylon Hotel.

Almost a year after Baghdad fell, many Iraqis are losing confidence in the U.S.-led coalition. While American troops and their allies battle Sunni and Shiite Muslim rebels, many Iraqis watch on the sidelines and reel off a long list of complaints:

_The coalition and its proxy Iraqi forces haven't stopped the car bombings and other random attacks, which were unheard-of in Saddam Hussein's time.

_Electricity is still spotty, three hours on and three hours off.

_Roads are a maze of checkpoints, and buildings are still bomb- and bullet-scarred.

_Saddam and his Baath Party cronies haven't been put on trial.

American officials say they're setting the building blocks of democracy and establishing new Iraqi security forces to take over for the 130,000 mostly U.S. troops in Iraq. Trials and greater security will come once Iraqis choose their own leaders, over 18 months, in an election system being devised by a team of United Nations experts.

In the meantime, however, no strong Iraqi leadership has emerged, the Iraqi police look weaker than the militias and many Iraqis fear a power vacuum.

Iraqis today are "embarrassed and frightened and troubled" by a year of neither peace nor war, Baghdad University sociologist Ihsan al Hassan said. "Now there is supposed to be no war. It stopped officially, yet you see explosions everywhere. We have been disappointed."

"Until this moment, people don't know what is going on, whether it's going to be good or bad. Most of the Iraqi people are frightened; they are keeping their kids at home," said Abbas Ali, 39.

A Shiite married to a Kurdish woman and living in a comfortable neighborhood called Qadissiyah, he was at home Wednesday because there was no business at his electronics firm.

Pro-American to the core, he's taught his three children, aged 3 to 13, to say, "Long Live USA!"

But Ali sleeps with an AK-47 rifle beside his bed, and he's changed homes twice since liberation because he waved a pistol at carjackers outside his first home and is afraid his family will be killed or kidnapped for ransom.

He refuses to join any of the 150 so political parties that have emerged, and he thinks democracy will only bring trouble between different factions as they vie for power.

His solution? He wants Washington to pour more U.S. forces into the country, and estimates 750,000 would do the trick.

It's not clear who'll take charge when the coalition returns sovereignty to "the Iraqi people" June 30. On that date, senior coalition officials said, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer plans to board a plane and leave behind: The biggest CIA station in the world; a 3,000-person U.S. Embassy, also the world's largest, led by an as-yet-unnamed ambassador; and some 100,000 American troops.

Iraq's leadership is to be decided by Bremer in consultation with the Governing Council's 25 members, all but three of them former Iraqi exiles whose names were unknown to most Iraqis. Bremer chose them in a bid to find a balance among Sunnis and Shiites, Kurds and Christians.

To many Iraqis, they seem a distant bunch meeting behind the concrete barriers and barbed wire of the protected Green Zone, as do the 25 ministers who run Iraqi bureaucracies, likewise named by Bremer for their professional expertise, most of it acquired in exile at Western universities.

So Iraqis look at the distant Governing Council and yearn for a single strong leader, minus the brutal excesses of Saddam's Baath Party regime.

"Iraqis are hypocrites," said sociologist Ihsan al Hassan. " . . . When Saddam was in charge, they were with him. Now the Americans are in charge and we are with them."

Iraqis, psychiatrist Taha Yassin al Na'ama said, have been conditioned by two decades of war, first in the 1980s against Iran, twice later with the United States and in the past year with the resistance fighters who've staged hit-and-run attacks.

"It's a learned helplessness," said Na'ama, 59, recalling how startled he was the first time he came close to artillery fire, when he surveyed the front lines for victims of traumatic stress as an army officer early in Iraq's bloody eight-year war with Iran.

"Now, not only me but my own grandchildren don't flinch when they hear an explosion," he said. "We have been inoculated."

But now, after four days of renewed warfare, Iraqis have begun to wonder whether the United States and its Iraqi allies have the will and the ability to curb the violence.

"I am very happy that they've gotten rid of the dictator. Because I hated him," Ali said. "But America did not use its own democracy to get rid of Saddam. They destroyed all the infrastructure to get rid of one man. Can't they appoint a leader—even if he is American—to run the Iraqi people?"


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