No guarantees

"No guarantees" Continued...

Issue: "Lord of the Rings," Dec. 20, 2003

Even now, signs of foot-dragging continue. Defense contractors arrived in Jordan only this month to set up a training camp outside Amman for new Iraqi security forces. They expect to house and train up to 20,000. But with six months to go before the coalition hands state sovereignty-including local security-to a new government, the training facility isn't yet built.

In northern Iraq support for the U.S. invasion could hardly be higher. The newest restaurant in Irbil is called Washington Restaurant and welcomes patrons with side-by-side U.S. and Iraqi flags. Children in Kirkuk greet an American with "hi, buddy" and thumbs-up-gestures they borrowed from paratroopers. But local officials are frustrated with U.S. civil authority. At offices for the Coalition Provisional Authority, the most common answer to the latest problem, say local officials, is "I don't know." They are frustrated by staff turnovers among the civilian administration and frequent policy changes.

At the same time, those officials don't want to publicly criticize the Bush administration, one of them told WORLD, because they are more afraid of what might happen if President Bush is not reelected next year. "A lot of people are angry in northern Iraq," said Douglas Layton, director of field operations for Health Care Partnerships, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization working in the region. "That's unfortunate because this is a passionately pro-American region."

Mr. Layton, who has done humanitarian work in Iraq for a decade, believes the civil administration of Mr. Bremer misunderstands both the ethnic and religious diversity of Iraq. "Mr. Bremer does not want a factional government, even the kind of provincial federalism Kurdish leaders have argued for. He wants a powerful central government," something only the predominant Shia favor. Iraq's Sunni and Kurdish Muslim leaders, along with ethnic Turkmen, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and others fear a Shiite-dominated central authority, however many democratic guarantees eventually make it into a new constitution.

"Americans made a mistake because of their misunderstanding of Islam. Shia and Sunni will never like us. They will always hate us and our view of government. They don't recognize inalienable rights," Mr. Layton said.

None of that seems to be stopping Iraqis from approving today's limbo with their feet. Remember when humanitarian groups worried about teeming refugee camps at the borders? Just the opposite has happened. Exiles from Saddam's regime, most of whom sat out the last decade in neighboring countries, cross the border hourly. Ironically, their sudden influx is intensifying the fuel crisis. Roads in major cities are sporting cars from Jordan, the Gulf States, and as far away as Denmark. Many who were chased out by Saddam-like Mr. Yacoub-are coming back to stay and bringing automobiles with them.

And like those who lived through the Saddam era, few would trade today's hardships for yesterday's dictator. They can point to a surprising plenty that is new about Iraq: new license plates, new currency, new computers and supplies for every school (courtesy of the U.S. Army). Policemen are wearing new uniforms and driving new Suzukis. There is new flight service to cities like Basra in the south and Irbil in the north-cities once cut off from Baghdad by no-fly zones imposed after the Gulf War.

Satellite dishes-nonexistent in Saddam's Iraq-are abundant. Where television viewers once had two government-controlled channels to choose from, they now have dozens-including 13 channels of Christian programming. Few cities had internet access. Now the Coalition Provisional Authority has seen to it that every major city is wired.

While prices are on the rise, so too are salaries for many who can find or keep jobs. Akram Almashmos, a cosmetics wholesaler, said he used to make the equivalent of $3 a month when Saddam set prices and salaries. Now he is making over $150 a month.

For a city where street demonstrations were outlawed for three decades, street marches against terrorism in early December were a breakthrough. Newspaper publishers also are taking advantage of their newfound freedom of expression. Independent newspapers proliferate, and hawkers walk the traffic jams selling the latest editions. One, an Islamic daily, gave full-length treatment to the photo of President Bush serving U.S. soldiers turkey on Thanksgiving Day-only the turkey had been cropped into the shape of Iraq and the platter was held out to a smug Saddam.

"There is fear inside every Iraqi that has built up for 30 years. It's not easy to get away from it," said Insaf Safou, another recent returnee. But clearly most believe their future is up to the U.S. president.

Lawlessness and insecurity do weigh on many. Asked if he is afraid of being robbed, Mr. Almashmos replied, "I expect it." Greater fear arises from bombings and roadside attacks. While November was the deadliest month for U.S. forces, it was also a high-casualty month for Iraqis. Seven Iraqis-including a father of four-were killed in the Dec. 5 Baghdad bombing that killed one U.S. soldier. Twenty Iraqis were seriously injured. "We are afraid of explosions more than thieves," says Mr. Yacoub's wife, Ghada.


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