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Iraqis find irony in Bush's stance on Lebanon, Syria

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Many Iraqis found bitter irony in President Bush's insistence last week that Syria must withdraw from Lebanon before it holds elections, for Iraqis have lived with foreign tanks in their streets for two years and voted barely a month ago under the watchful eye of the U.S. Army.

"He must have forgotten that his army is occupying Iraq," said Sa'ad Abdul Aziz, 21, an engineering student at Baghdad University. "What about the Republican Palace that they are using as a U.S. embassy?"

While many here were glad to see Saddam Hussein driven from power by the U.S.-led invasion, almost two years later they bristle at the sight of American soldiers patrolling their streets and are deeply embarrassed that the U.S. embassy occupies Iraq's version of the White House.

As Bush harped all week on the theme that democracy could not be free in Lebanon under the occupation of Syria's troops, jokes made the rounds at Iraqi universities, and some who have demanded the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops found themselves quoting Bush, a man they never thought they'd agree with.

"America should get out of Iraq immediately and without conditions, just like it is asking neighboring Syria to withdraw from the Lebanese Republic," said Sheikh Nasir Al-Saidi, imam of a mosque in the restive Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City, in a front-page article Saturday in the newspaper Azzaman.

Most government officials have said they still need the U.S.-led coalition because local forces aren't ready to contain the insurgents who are trying to topple the American-backed government. But they look forward to the day that isn't true.

"Everyone in Iraq would like to see foreign troops leave," said Walid al Hilli, of the DAWA Party, which is part of a Shiite coalition that won a majority in the January elections. "But we would like to see the foreign troops leave Iraq when there is enough security inside Iraq, which does not exist now. We're working hard to get Iraqi troops and Iraqi policemen ready to keep security inside Iraq. We don't exactly know the situation in Lebanon. Can the police secure Lebanese cities?"

In Iraq's Sunni-dominated Anbar province, only a tiny percentage of the people voted in January's elections, which Bush hails as a triumph of democracy. Some boycotted at the urging of Sunni leaders who said the elections couldn't be fair as long as American troops were here.

When Bush offered the same argument in a different context last week—arguing that Lebanese democracy could not function properly until Syria's forces leave—he sparked anger in some quarters.

"For us it is a joke said by the U.S. president," Ahmed Mushref, 25 an English literature student in Al-Mustansyria University in Baghdad. "I am not defending Syria, but this is the truth."

"What Bush said is an insult and a joke at the same time," said Wissam Hashim, an engineering professor at Al-Anbar University. "He is condemning himself."


(Knight Ridder special correspondent Shatha al Awsy and a special correspondent who cannot be named for security reasons contributed to this report.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.