Iraqis Want the U.S. to Leave -- but Not Just Yet

They say the Americans should first 'fix what they broke here' by restoring security.

By Patrick J. McDonnell

Los Angeles Times

September 19, 2004

BAGHDAD — Retired police officer Abaas Ramah is scornful of the U.S. presence in Iraq.

"Where is the freedom they promised?" he asks. "All the bloodshed, the sabotage, the killings. Who is paying the price? We, the Iraqi civilians."

But asked whether U.S. forces should pull out immediately, he responds: Absolutely not.

"There will be genocide here if they leave right now," Ramah answers. "They destroyed this country, and it is their responsibility to make it stand again…. Iraq is like a sick old woman who needs America to treat her right now."

Iraq is struggling with a guerrilla war, a stagnant economy and widespread despair. Many of its people are ambivalent about the continuing U.S. presence. Among the great majority of Iraqis who applauded the downfall of Saddam Hussein, there is deep resentment of what they view as Washington's myriad missteps. Chief among them is disbanding the military and police forces, a step they blame for today's rampant lack of security. Iraqis consistently identify lawlessness and violence as their country's gravest problems.

Polls show increasing anti-U.S. sentiment and a growing sense that American forces should get out and leave things to the Iraqis.

Despite such complaints, many Iraqis hesitate to endorse an immediate U.S. pullout, before some semblance of an effective Iraqi national security apparatus is in place. Some of those angriest about perceived U.S. missteps are the ones most adamant that U.S. forces stick around and try and patch things up, or at least assist in elections scheduled for early next year.

"We hope for the occupation forces to leave Iraq … but they must first fix what they broke here," said Sabah Wissam, 29, a Baghdad barber. "If they leave now, the strong will eat the weak…. I don't know how the Americans wanted to bring democracy to us overnight. It's just another one of their mistakes."

The contradictory desire for U.S. forces to leave as soon as possible — but also to remain at the ready as a guarantor of some stability — has caused considerable soul-searching among Iraqis.

"Emotionally, so many of us feel we want the Americans out of Iraq," said Hassan Bazzaz, a U.S.-educated political scientist who runs an independent institute analyzing opinion and culture. "But when it comes down to it, we feel that we could get into more trouble without having the Americans here…. There's a lot of mixed feelings out there. I don't quite know how we keep both ideas working together."

Rasha Amin Saleh, a college student in the northern city of Mosul, articulated this ambivalence.

"The Americans liberated us when we were unable to liberate ourselves," Saleh said. "But now they are occupiers, it is true. Yet their departure could lead to civil war. It could make things worse."

Some Iraqis, however, have no mixed feelings.

Those directly involved in the armed insurgency clearly want an immediate U.S. withdrawal. At the other end of the spectrum are many Kurds and other pro-Western Iraqis. They say they wouldn't mind if a U.S. military contingent remained indefinitely as a safeguard against a return to tyranny or incursions by neighboring states.

"I've never considered the American troops as occupiers," said Isaa Ahmed Abbasi, 31, a physician in the northern city of Irbil in the north. "The people who want them out are seeking to benefit, like Saddam. They will start to kill people for the sake of the president's chair."

But the Kurds' enthusiasm for the U.S. presence does not reflect sentiment elsewhere in the country, where disillusionment appears to be on the rise.

Iraqis also struggle with a wounded sense of pride. Many bitterly resent having foreign troops on their soil. This is true even for the Shiite Muslims who suffered under Hussein and largely welcomed his downfall.

"A patriotic viewpoint is that the Americans should leave today — before tomorrow," said Haider Abdul-Jabbar, a police lieutenant in the Shiite holy city of Najaf. "But realistically, we must surrender to the status quo…. Otherwise we will lose more blood and there will only be more foreign presence in Iraq."

Shiite Muslims seem somewhat more upbeat about the U.S. role than Sunni Muslims, many of whom express a sense of broad disenfranchisement since the ouster of Hussein, a fellow Sunni.

"We don't want the Americans to stay in Iraq even for another moment," said Luay Raheem Badrani, a lawyer in the largely Sunni city of Fallouja, a stronghold of the insurgency and a frequent target of U.S. bombs. "We feel they are choking us. The predicament of occupied people is always difficult. Especially for we Iraqis — we have a 9,000-year history!"

Although Iraqi dissatisfaction — even among those who work for the U.S.-backed coalition and support Washington's broader goals — might seem ungrateful to Americans, considering the expense and loss of life the U.S. has incurred, U.S. officials here are trying to reduce their visibility as much as possible. Iraqis are replacing them as the most prominent representatives of the new regime.

U.S. military commanders have moved bases to the outskirts of town and are attempting to transfer tasks to Iraqi police and soldiers. The military has sought to keep to the background, especially since the June hand-over of power to Iraqis.

"Our presence is in some ways onerous," acknowledged Col. John C. Coleman, chief of staff for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which patrols Fallouja and other hot spots in western Iraq.

"We'd like to be Zorro-like: You don't know where we live, you don't know where we come from," he said. "We're only there when there's a problem. We're quick to put Z on the chest of the problem and disappear again, much to the applause of the people…. We can't be like that, though."

The continued attacks by insurgents bent on driving American troops out of the country have served to prolong the U.S. presence. Both U.S. officials and many of their critics on the ground say that Washington has a responsibility to restore law and order.

"Even if we wanted the Americans to depart, which we do, there will be more bloodshed if they leave before there is a legitimate government," said Fatiya Abdullah Saleh, a homemaker in the southern city of Basra. "Our great hope is that Iraq will be ruled by Iraqis and we can achieve democracy and freedom whichever way we want."

Times special correspondents in Baghdad, Basra, Irbil, Fallouja and Mosul contributed to this report.