Published on Tuesday, September 30, 2003 by Reuters
Resentful Iraqis Find US Optimism Hard to Share
by Fiona O'Brien
BAGHDAD - The Bush administration says Iraq is a better place to live than before the war. Try telling that to Baghdad citizens, whose frustrations are growing daily.
Makeshift checkpoints are becoming permanent, webs of razor wire and concrete slabs divert traffic, frisking and demands for identity cards humiliate a nation renowned for its pride.
Iraqis feel their destiny has been taken out of their hands. The Governing Council was handpicked by Washington, the police force trained by foreigners. Iraqis are impatient to take back the reins.
"When they first came, people were more or less happy because they were fed up of dictators," Abdallah Suhail, an engineer now working as a security guard, said.
"Then we started to feel occupied. The word occupation is a strong word. And often their behavior is aggressive and people are starting to hate them. We feel like hostages."
Iraq's U.S. administrator, Paul Bremer, acknowledged the shifting mood in a speech to the Senate last week.
"Most Iraqis welcomed us as liberators and we glowed with the pleasure of that welcome," he said. "Now the reality of foreign troops on the street is starting to chafe. Some Iraqis are beginning to regard us as occupiers and not as liberators."
While the north and south are relatively more stable, resistance to the occupation is strongest in the capital and so-called "Sunni Triangle" to the north and west. Daily explosions and firefights have twisted nerves in central Iraq.
Iraqis said the friendly waves and interaction that marked the first weeks after the fall of Baghdad had all but gone.
RUMSFELD SEES PROGRESS
Nevertheless, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrote in the Washington Post last week: "I believe the plan to win the peace in Iraq will succeed -- just as the plan to win the war succeeded.
"We have made solid progress: Within two months, all major Iraqi cities and most towns had municipal councils -- something that took eight months in postwar Germany," he went on, citing the formation of an Iraqi cabinet by the Governing Council and an independent central bank.
But the U.S. army's accidental killing of civilians and the deaths of Iraqis in anti-American guerrilla attacks have heightened hostility toward the occupiers.
U.S. soldiers said the loss of colleagues in a series of roadside bombs targeted at their convoys had in turn made them more nervous of local people.
"Sometimes it feels like getting stabbed in the back," Specialist Clark Aberle said, standing at a checkpoint on a road once known for its riverside fish grills, now a strictly controlled thoroughfare protecting hotels used by Westerners.
"We understand why we are here, we are doing the right thing, trying to make a difference, and then you turn around and something like that (an attack) happens."
Iraqis complain that U.S. soldiers treat Baghdad as their own. A security guard at the zoo complained that when a group of soldiers wanted to come in after hours for a party, they just waved a piece of paper at him and went straight in.
"It was in English, I didn't understand it," he said. "What did you want me to do? Stop them? They are the occupiers."
The lawlessness in Baghdad presents Iraqis with a unanswerable conundrum. Many want the Americans to leave, but are scared too of the chaos that could ensue if they did.
But people are impatient to see change, to start the new lives they were promised when the United States invaded.
"Maybe we Iraqis did expect too much from the American invasion, we did hope there is going to be an easy way," Salam Pax, an Iraqi who became famous for his Baghdad Web diaries before and during the war, wrote last month.
"Get rid of Saddam and have the Americans help us rebuild. I don't think like that any more. I am starting to believe that the chaos we will go through the next five or 10 years is part of the price we will have' to pay to have our freedom."
© 2003 Reuters Ltd