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Iraqis think few U.S. troops are fighting for them

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Ask an Iraqi what American troops are fighting for in Iraq, and the answer likely will be: not for me.

No matter the politics of the respondent, recent interviews with 19 Iraqis, both Shiite and Sunni Muslims, found almost no one who thought the Americans were fighting for them. Only ethnic Kurds, who have established a largely autonomous region in Iraq's north, were willing to say that American troops serve their interests.

Public opinion surveys over the years have shown growing Iraqi discontent with the American presence. The most recent, released in September by WorldPublicOpinion.org, a group affiliated with the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy, found that seven of 10 Iraqis want U.S.-led forces to withdraw within a year. In the same survey, 78 percent said the U.S. presence provokes more conflict than it prevents; 84 percent said they had little or no confidence in the U.S military.

But the unwillingness of Iraqis to say that the Americans were fighting specifically for them underscores how confusing U.S. policy has become in Iraq's complicated political environment of competing sects, ethnic groups, tribes, militias, interest groups and leaders.

"The Americans were initially fighting al-Qaeda and terrorism, but then the problem turned into sectarian violence, and they found themselves stuck in the middle," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish parliament member who's sympathetic to the difficulty of the American position.

Most Iraqis interviewed were much harsher.

"America is fighting for America's economic interests," said Ali Salih, 46, a government worker from Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown. "It didn't come to fight terrorism or spread democracy or find weapons of mass destruction. All that was just a cover."

If Tuesday's midterm elections in the United States are in part a referendum on U.S. policy here, Iraqi confusion over whose side America is on is the election's mirror image.

Where American forces were once focused on defeating a stubborn Sunni insurgency with ties to al-Qaeda and the remnants of Saddam's Baath Party, U.S. troops now are also targeting Shiite militias, whose popularity is derived, in part, from their opposition to the Sunni insurgency.

Where Americans once argued that they were fighting for Iraqis' right to elect a government, U.S. officials now argue that the elected Shiite government must protect the rights of the Sunni minority.

While American officials say they're fighting for the Iraqi government, the prime minister of that government, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has publicly denounced U.S. policies, criticizing everything from American military tactics to estimates of when Iraqis can take control of their own security.

On Tuesday, Maliki ordered U.S. troops to take down barricades set up in Baghdad in the search for a kidnapped American soldier. Maliki's primary political backers include fiery cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who rose to prominence because he virulently opposes the American presence. Twice in 2004, Sadr's Mahdi Army militia fought major offensives against the Americans.

American officials say they've tried to stay evenhanded in their Iraq dealings. They say their goal is to encourage the dominant Shiite political parties to open their government to minority parties.

"We keep introducing the idea of a transparent government, of a free and open society," said Col. Nelson McCouch, the spokesman for Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq. "And we have positive instances. They are moving in the right direction, but it's not going to happen overnight."

But the evenhandedness has won the U.S. few friends because each side is demanding more.

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Ali Adeeb, a top member of Maliki's Dawa Party, accused the U.S. of having thrown in with Sunni insurgents.

"There's a substantial change in the way Americans think," he said. "They used to target Baathists and infidels, but now they are targeting the militias. It's as though they forgot about the Baathists. There is cooperation between the American leaders and the terrorists."

Americans deny that, noting that the United States lost more soldiers in the past month to fights with Sunni insurgents in Anbar province than to battles with Shiite militias; 105 American service members died in Iraq in October, one of the war's highest monthly death tolls.

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Sunni politicians criticize the United States for not having stopped the sectarian violence, which has worsened each month since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.

"They're not doing enough to stop the militias," said Alaa Makki, a Sunni parliament member of parliament. "Only authorized government forces should be armed."

American officials acknowledge privately that their policy makes it difficult to say whose side the United States is on. "Something that represents everyone ultimately represents no one," said one State Department official who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of Iraq policy.

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With just days to go before midterm elections in the United States, where surveys show Iraq is the No. 1 issue, no American official was willing to be quoted being critical of Iraq policy. U.S. statements in recent days have been aimed primarily at playing down the public differences that Maliki's pronouncements have highlighted.

On Thursday, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Army Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, dismissed the feud as a natural consequence of trying to stand up the Iraqi government. "We are in a tremendous state of transition," Caldwell said.

But Maliki's spokesman, Ali Dabbaugh, made it clear that U.S. and Iraqi interests aren't always the same.

"When the U.S. started the invasion of Iraq, it had some strategic goals according to its own interests," he said. "Now, we cooperate according to our own interests. And we deal with the differences in a way that serves the best interests of both of our countries."

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Some Iraqis are still willing to defend the American position.

Saad al-Janabi, a member of the secular party led by Ayad Allawi, whom U.S. officials picked to lead the first interim Iraqi government in 2004, said the United States is fighting for a liberal democracy, one where the minority has a voice.

"They don't want to leave without fixing the country," Janabi said. "They want to reach to the point where they can try again to rebuild the country in a liberal, democratic way."

But that runs up against the reality that Iraqis, in their first democratic election in nearly a century, voted heavily for religious Shiite slates. Those slates captured 128 seats in parliament, just 10 shy of a majority.

It's against that panorama that Iraqis judge the U.S. presence.

Only in the town of Sulaimaniyah in the Kurdish north did any Iraqis interviewed say anything positive about the American presence.

"The multinational forces' aim is establishing stability in Iraq," said Zanko Ahmed, a Kurd who called American troops "friendly forces." He contrasted his view with that of Arab Iraqis: "They think the coalition forces are at the core of their problems."

That view was evident in interviews with Arab Iraqis in Baghdad, Sunni-dominated Tikrit, and the Shiite strongholds of Najaf and Basra. No one voiced appreciation for American efforts. Even those who said they expected the Americans to stay until Iraq is calmed expressed suspicion of U.S. motives.

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"The Americans made many mistakes in Iraq, and today they are thinking of leaving, but will not do so until they fix the situation," said Sameer Sami Luay, 37, a day worker in Najaf. "But they are not doing this for the sake of the Iraqis, but for their own political sake and their place in the Middle East. They want to make Iraq an example to justify attacking another country."

Some were unabashed in their cynicism. "I don't think they've crossed seas and sustained all the losses to replace Saddam's regime with Shiite or Sunni parties," said Saleh Ahmed, a 43-year-old Shiite from Karbala. "They came to implement an Israeli scheme in the Arab region, trying to halt the Islamic tide coming from Iran."

Others saw only an America searching for economic gain. "America came to fight for the oil because the American administration officials who pushed for this war have their own oil companies," said Seif Mohammed, 30, an engineer in Tikrit.

Hamed Hassan Jihad, 41, of Najaf, said America's refusal to leave when it's only made things worse proved that the U.S. had other motives. "They are staying for their own benefit," he said. "They want to occupy us."

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If the Iraqis don't believe the United States is fighting for them, there's also confusion among American soldiers. Asked via e-mail by a McClatchy Newspapers reporter for whom he was fighting, one captain with the 172nd Stryker Brigade acknowledged that he didn't know and expressed a thought often heard from U.S. soldiers here.

"I don't know anymore," he wrote. "I just want to go home."

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(McClatchy Newspaper special correspondents in Baghdad, Tikrit, Sulaimaniyah, Najaf and Basra contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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