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Iraqis see hope in end of U.S.-led occupation

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Throughout this sprawling city of 6 million people, Monday was much like the day before: Motorists waited in gas lines for hours. Concrete and razor wire barricades blocked streets. Police scoured roadsides for bombs.

But there was one big difference: A little more than 15 months after Saddam Hussein's regime fell, the American-led occupation had officially ended. And as word spread that the transition had occurred—there was no coverage of the ceremony—Iraqis were optimistic that tomorrow would be a better day. By evening, some were even dancing in the street.

"This is a historic day, because on this day the Iraqi people started to depend on themselves," said Jumaa Sarhan, 30, who sells newspapers on the sidewalk near Firdos Square, where the statue of Saddam was toppled last year. "All the people I've met and talked to are happy about it."

The surprisingly early handover became the topic of the day. Television networks broadcast the news. Callers dialed in to a Radio Baghdad talk show to share their views. Conversation turned to it in shops and restaurants and on sidewalks among Iraqis weary of the occupation and insurgency.

"I was very happy when I heard the news," said Hassan Kasim, 32, as he sold melons beside Jadyriah Street. "From now on, maybe we're going to feel more secure."

Kasim said he believed the new government would be more successful than foreign forces in bringing peace to a nation terrorized by car bombings and other attacks because it's composed of Iraqis. Still, he didn't want American troops to leave quickly.

"They should stay, because the situation is not stable," he said.

They will remain for now, so Monday's transfer of power made no difference to Army Sgt. Craig Hanson, 35, as he and two other soldiers patrolled near the main checkpoint to the 14th of July Bridge over the Tigris River. The Vaughn, Wash., native had a quick, simple answer when asked if the handover had changed his job.


Elsewhere in Baghdad, Falah Hassan, a 23-year-old police officer, said he welcomed the gradual withdrawal of American troops after the handover. But even as Iraq regained sovereignty and rebuilds its security forces, American troops should remain long enough to help restore order, said the two-year police veteran.

"We're all happy," said Hassan, whose duties Monday included patrolling traffic, searching for improvised explosive devices and guarding a road leading to the Ministry of the Interior. "This will maybe lessen the attacks against the police and Iraqi people."

That optimistic spirit carried through to Monday evening, when members of Iraq's Communist Party gathered in front of their building near downtown Baghdad.

Beating drums and knocking on tambourines, they danced and laughed and danced some more.

At first, they chanted about politics—"All the people are committed to a united Iraq!"—but that soon turned to singing. Love songs took to the air.

Waving a red flag and wearing a rag bandana of the same color, Ali Manaa grinned as he caught his breath.

"It is a new day for Iraq," he said. "We are, of course, still against the Americans being here, but we hope this new government will be a good one."

Men handed out candy to passing motorists and joked around.

A wedding party drove by, honking its horn and clapping. Little boys ran up, smiling and waving like they've rarely done since last April, when the Americans first came. Freedom seemed like it was on the way.

Adnan al Saffar, a construction worker, watched the scene and shook his head, laughing.

"We have been waiting for this day for so, so long," he said. "We don't need someone to show muscle, we don't need another strong man. We need a democracy."

And with that, he began to dance a little himself.


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