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A year after the capture of Baghdad, many in city still live in fear

BAGHDAD, Iraq—At 2 p.m. on April 9, 2003, Razak Abdu Zahra limped from his small apartment to the curb and wept with joy as U.S. tanks clattered into Firdos Square, soon famously to topple a statue of Saddam Hussein.

"My tears were not because I believed that now the United States is here, we will all be rich," Zahra said. "I am poor and will be. But I dreamed that we would be free."

On Friday, as he spoke, Zahra stood in a trash-filled vacant lot half a block from where Saddam's statue was toppled a year ago. It was as close as he could get. Coils of razor wire and concrete triangles, in place to protect reconstruction workers, journalists and businessmen staying at the Palestine and Sheraton hotel complex, block his way.

"I kept believing that we would be freed from the fear," Zahra said. "I kept believing in the Americans. I kept believing.

"I don't know when that died, but it was recently, the last month, maybe, the last week, when everything started looking just as bad as it ever had."

Zahra, 38 and a father of four, is just one Iraqi out of 24 million, and some will argue his opinion isn't typical. Recent polls, officials of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority note, find most Iraqis surveyed still want the Americans here.

But Zahra is typical—a poor Shiite Muslim dressed in a long-sleeved plaid shirt and thick green sweatpants, in spite of Friday's warmth, because those are the only clothes he owns. Against the backdrop of one of the bloodiest weeks in Iraq's yearlong war and so near the empty plaza where there would be a celebration if times were happier, Zahra's opinion matters.

Saddam was a horrible man, and Zahra doesn't want him back. "But at least under Saddam, we knew the rules," he said. "We knew the source of our troubles."

What kind of freedom did he dream of? The freedom to travel? The freedom to push through class barriers? The freedom of religion?

"These are fine things, these freedoms," Zahra said. "But what I wept for that day was the freedom from fear. That was my dream, that my family would be safe now, that we would not have to live with such fear."

Fear was a large part of life under Saddam. When Saddam's regime fetched him for military service, Zahra was told he could serve, or, perhaps, have an ear chopped off, or, more likely, be executed.

He couldn't complain about the government because that was forbidden. He couldn't anger friends or neighbors because they could tell the government he'd been criticizing the government. For that he could be beaten and jailed, but more likely, he would have been killed.

"In my dreams, I knew that America did not have such fear," he said.

In the days after his city fell to the Americans, such freedom wasn't readily apparent. Zahra understood this. A war had just ended.

Then the summer ended. More streets had been closed. Getting in and out of his section of downtown was difficult, especially for a man with shrapnel in his legs and whose left forearm was torn off by a bullet during the Iran-Iraq war.

"Because of my handicap, there are not many jobs I can do well," he said. "I found one, but I could not get to it on many days, so I lost it."

He noticed that many things were improving in the city. The shops had a wider variety of goods, more people talked on cell phones, television programs were available from other countries.

But he was poor, and what was for sale didn't matter much to him.

And he still lived in fear.

"We cannot trust anyone. We cannot trust any place," he said. "I wake in the morning and wonder if this will be the day that I am in the wrong spot. I go to sleep each night and wonder if this will be the spot where the bomb lands. It is horrible, this fear."

He paused, before adding, "I do not dream of freedom from fear now. Maybe such a thing does not exist. I do not dream at all.

"Now, I count myself lucky if I sleep well. The time for dreams has passed."

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(Schofield was embedded with Marines during the war last March and arrived in Baghdad shortly after Saddam's statue was toppled.)

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

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

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