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Days before Iraq handover, improvements overshadowed by chaos

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Families in the Ziwia neighborhood of Baghdad are now allowed to have funerals for their dead. Saddam Hussein's henchmen aren't banging on doors and hauling people off to interrogation rooms. Men no longer return home with scars and broken bones after weeks of torture for their religious beliefs.

For that, the men and women of Ziwia are grateful to the Americans.

But beyond that, it's difficult to find many people in this nook of a neighborhood, in the shadow of the U.S.-controlled Green Zone, who speak kindly of the Americans. Electricity is still intermittent. Promised public works programs are still promises, but the fear of violence is a daily reality.

"We had many beautiful dreams after 35 years of suffering, but the Americans didn't make our dreams come true," said Khudair Rashid, an electrical engineer who lives in Ziwia. A dapper dresser with a neatly trimmed beard and a calm, measured voice, Rashid said he's lost faith in the U.S. experiment.

"The majority of the people believed the Americans were a great force that could do anything," he said. "But they discovered that the Americans are here only to protect themselves."

It would be easy to dismiss such musings as the ungrateful complaints of people unwilling to take responsibility for their lives. But with the June 30 handover of sovereignty now days away, even American officials are dismayed that the legacy of nearly 15 months of American military occupation seems to be mayhem.

"Clearly the security situation trumps everything," said James "Spike" Stephenson, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development in Iraq. Stephenson's agency has taken the lead in renovating schools, building sewer systems and making other improvements that American officials had hoped would form the foundation of a new, democratic Iraq.

But Stephenson acknowledged that there's a gulf between American dollars spent on renovations and Iraqi perceptions that the Americans have brought only chaos and death.

"Having a school that is renovated does you no good if you are afraid to send your kids because you are afraid they are going to die on the way," he said.

The violence has gotten so bad, Stephenson said, that his agency can no longer advertise its successes.

For instance, there was a news release announcing that the Baghdad phone system could handle international calls. Two days later, an explosion took the system down for several days.

A group of reporters recently toured a Baghdad sewage treatment plant that had been refurbished.

The next day, it was hit by mortars.

U.S. officials would like history to remember that Americans came here and made things better. The statistics that U.S. officials cite are compelling: 2,358 schools rehabilitated, 52 health clinics rebuilt, more than $120 million spent on community action projects in impoverished areas and more than $2 billion spent on infrastructure such as airports and roads. To date, USAID has spent about $3.6 billion.

But several other statistics are just as compelling, including two from a U.S.-sponsored poll of Iraqis that was released in May: Almost 75 percent of those interviewed said they didn't feel safe in their neighborhoods, and 88.6 percent said the conditions for peace had either worsened or not improved in the last three months.

Another poll released this month and sponsored by the U.S. administration in Iraq found that only 1 percent of Iraqis feel that U.S.-led coalition forces contribute most to their security. In June, there's been an average of one car bombing a day, killing and wounding hundreds.

Even in northern and southern Iraq, parts of the country that were long peaceful after the fall of Baghdad, the violence has spread to the extent that it's hard to point to many sizable cities that haven't been hit by bombings, gunfights or assassinations.

Stephenson admitted that Americans had no idea how decrepit the infrastructure was when they invaded Iraq last year.

"It was far worse than anyone could have reasonably expected," he said.

As one measure, a top American official said, Iraq's electrical plants should have had the capacity to generate about 9,000 megawatts of power. But the lack of maintenance and investment during the final years of Saddam's rule ground the equipment down to a point where it could generate only 3,500 megawatts.

The system is currently generating about 4,500 megawatts, a significant improvement, but still short of the 6,000 megawatts Americans had hoped for by now.

Stephenson also said that the failure to resolve basic problems such as electricity helped fuel the insurgency. And U.S. civilian and military officials in Iraq were slow to consult with Iraqi community leaders—and with one another—about what was needed.

It wasn't until the past few months that USAID teamed up with the Army's 1st Calvary Division, which oversees Baghdad, to target problem areas with major infrastructure projects. There will be $500 million in projects started across the capital during the next 90 days.

"It's really the sort of thing that should have been done from the very beginning," Stephenson said. "I don't think there's any question that it was time lost. ... You could ask the question if there would have been an insurgency if we'd been doing this all along. I can't answer that."

Maj. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, who commands the 1st Calvary, left no doubt that he sees a connection.

"The northern part of Sadr City, that's where we get attacked every night," Chiarelli said, referring to a sprawling Shiite Muslim section of Baghdad. "Guess what? That's the place that's got the worst sewers, that's the place that doesn't have potable water, that's the place that doesn't have electrical infrastructure, that's the place where there's raw sewage on the ground. There's solid waste every place.

"And, oh by the way, that's the place where 50 to 60 percent of the people are out of work. It doesn't take a nuclear scientist to say that these people want something other than fighting. They want some of those basic things fixed in that city."

Chiarelli continued: "They thought the coalition would do it, and for the first year we really haven't attacked that portion of the problem."

In Ziwia, American-led improvements have been plodding, at best, even though American officials pass through the neighborhood daily on their way to and from their headquarters at the Republican Palace.

"There has been no new construction yet," said Usama Ahmed, a mechanical engineer and a member of the advisory council that oversees the area. "We need to build a new infirmary, a new police station, a primary school."

Asked what projects have taken place in Ziwia during the past 15 months, Ahmed named two: a school and a medical clinic that have been repainted and refurbished. The clinic, he said, is adding a second floor.

The deputy director of the Al Ziwia Public Clinic was sitting in darkness on Thursday afternoon, however. The electricity was out. On some days, he said, the power is on for three hours, then off for three hours. On other days, he said, there's no electricity at all.

Workers on the roof were starting to put up the second floor. The deputy clinic director, who said he wasn't allowed to give his name, said the construction has been slow because of bickering with the Iraqi Ministry of Health.

Stephenson said that in setting priorities for reconstruction, it was impossible to "reach every single village in Iraq."

"If we haven't reached that neighborhood" of Ziwia, he said, "I'm sorry."

So is Fadel Talib.

"When the Americans first came, we were happy and everyone clapped for them," said Talib, a Ziwia resident whose two brothers were rounded up and killed by Saddam's men for being members of the Shiite political party al Dawa.

After Talib collected his dead brothers corpses from the Abu Ghraib prison, he was told that he'd be arrested immediately if the authorities heard there was a funeral. So he loaded them in plain wooden coffins, put them on top of a taxi and took them an hour and a half south to a cemetery in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

Those were dark days, he said.

"But now," he said, "I worry all the time about my children in this violence, but what can I do? There is no one who is not afraid."

He is not alone in his assessment. Sitting in his automobile supply shop in Ziwia this week, sweat pouring down his face in sheets because the electricity was off, Hussein Talib, no relation to Fadel, was trying to be polite to a Western visitor. He pointed out the pictures of two cousins also killed by Saddam Hussein and said he was happy the dictator is gone.

But he's tired of the Americans, Talib said.

"They didn't do a good job, they didn't do a bad job," he said. "They've done nothing."

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(Knight Ridder Special Correspondent Omar Jassim contributed to this report.)

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

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

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