Iraqis Expressed Ambivalence About Direction of Country


New York Times

June 29, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq, June 28 - Haydar Farman strode from a back room in the office where he had been eating grilled chicken with other engineers. Sipping from a can of Diet Pepsi, he began trying to sort through feelings about his country that were as intricately wound as the concertina wire running through these streets.

It had been exactly a year since the Americans had handed over sovereignty to the Iraqis. A year of bombs and ballots, of hopes realized and dashed.

"Sure, there are differences since the handover of sovereignty; there are negative and positive changes," said Mr. Farman, 34, a clean-shaven mechanical engineer. "The most important thing is the success in holding elections despite the difficult situation."

"As for the security situation, it is less than our expectations," he added.

But were the Iraqis really running the show now? Were they masters of their own house?

"The major decisions, especially military ones, are still in the hands of the Americans," Mr. Farman said.

In dozens of interviews across the sweltering capital today, Iraqis expressed ambivalence about the direction the country was heading, the American presence here and the two governments that have taken power since the handover of sovereignty. Their feelings were often murky, their words contradictory - an indication, in other words, of the ever-shifting nature of the war and the fog over the political landscape.

In this unscientific survey, one thing was clear, though: The sense of triumphalism that some Iraqis had seized on during the handover itself, and later in the parliamentary elections of January, had given way to an acceptance of hard reality.

"I don't feel there is an Iraqi government, and the changes are so small and slow," said Thamir Muhammad, 41, a computer operator sitting by a keyboard in a building near Mr. Farman's office. "I believe the power is still in the hands of the Americans because there have been no significant changes.

"The Americans should give the Iraqis the authority to make major decisions, and in return they can receive guarantees to ensure their interests."

A year ago, Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite Arab close to the Central Intelligence Agency, took the office of prime minister. He was followed by Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a religious Shiite whose party, with the backing of powerful clerics, had won big in the elections. No matter which of those administrations the Iraqis talked about, they generally had the same complaints - no electricity, no water, and, worse of all, no security.

That fact was underscored today by another surge of violence. A suicide car bomber killed the oldest member of the National Assembly, Dhari al-Fayadh, who was in his late 80's. Mr. Fayadh's son and three bodyguards also died in the explosion, which hit their convoy, an Interior Ministry official said.

Mr. Fayadh, the second parliamentarian to be killed, had served as a temporary head of the National Assembly when the body first convened in March.

The American military said two soldiers were killed in two separate suicide car bombings in northern Iraq. Nearly 1,750 American troops have died in the war.

Another suicide car bomb killed five people and injured nine others near the headquarters of Iraqi security forces in Baquba, 35 miles northeast of the capital, The Associated Press reported. In Kirkuk, a suicide car bomb aimed at a police chief killed one of the policeman's bodyguards and a civilian.

In the capital, a city council member and two policemen were killed in two separate shooting attacks, the Interior Ministry official said. South of Baghdad, in Musayyib, a suicide bomber detonated his belt of explosives in front of the main hospital, killing one policeman and injuring 17 others.

In Anbar Province, an insurgent stronghold in western Iraq, American and Iraqi troops began Operation Sword, their fourth sweep in the region in recent weeks. The forces entered the Euphrates River valley between the towns of Haditha and Hit, a well-traveled corridor for foreign fighters. The numbers of such fighters have been on the rise lately, and the previous three operations have had spotty success in shutting down insurgent routes and hideouts in Anbar.

Across the capital, Iraqis lamented the ceaseless violence.

"We haven't seen anything change," said Muhammad al-Nuaimi, a 34-year-old barber standing in his empty shop in Adhamiya, a mostly Sunni Arab neighborhood in northern Baghdad that has been the site of frequent fighting. "For the time being, if the American forces withdraw, this will not be good for the country because political and religious parties will work against each other, and the government is still unstable. It is indecisive on issues and can't come to agreements."

"The explosions serve the interests of the Americans," he added, "because the more explosions that occur, the longer they stay."

Abdullah Muhammad, the 65-year-old owner of a spare parts shop in the same neighborhood, had a different take on the American troops.

"By setting a timetable, there would be a very slight hope at the end of them leaving the country," he said.

He thought for a second. "That would actually never happen," he added, "because even if they leave the country through the door, they would just come back in through the window." In other words, Mr. Muhammad said, the Americans figure out a way to stay in Iraq out of self-interest.

Not all the assessments were so downbeat. There were some people, even in the same neighborhood, who said they held out hope. Waseem Haitham Najeeb, a 19-year-old employee in an appliance store, was one.

"The general situation after the handover of sovereignty is better than before, and there is slight, gradual progress," he said. "What the Iraqi citizen needs is an improvement in the security situation, whether it is done by American or Iraqi forces. If the security situation is stabilized, we won't see a single American in the street."

"We don't accept the presence of the occupier in our country, but we have to remember that our prophet shook hands with the Jews for the general welfare," Mr. Najeeb said. "Besides, our religion is tolerant of everybody."

Many Shiite Arabs said they had appreciated the January elections, even if they had done little to dampen the insurgency, because the voting had put in power a government backed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Shiite cleric in Iraq.

"This government is better than the one under Allawi," said Abdul Hussein al-Jasim, 37, a painter sitting beside the portrait of a diapered baby in his shop. "Jaafari has tried to unite the people, but he can't do it because of the violence."

Still, "the situation now is better than before," he added, "and the future will be good, especially after the writing of the constitution."

Mr. Jasim was working away in the commercial neighborhood of Karada, a Shiite-dominated area in downtown Baghdad. In another shop, a carpenter in a green shirt bent over a large wooden picture frame.

"There's no difference between now and before," the artisan, Ali Hashem Naji, 39, said. "Having a withdrawal date is better, if that will ensure safety in Iraq. The situation is bad now, because of the large number of terrorist operations. I think there are some policemen and Iraqi soldiers who have contact with the terrorists."

Farther west, in the neighborhood of Ghazaliya, a home to many former Baath Party officials, a man in a butcher shop tossed out words as sharp as meat cleavers at a visitor who had asked the man's opinion on Iraqi sovereignty.

"What sovereignty are you talking about?" the butcher, Shaker Assal, 44, exclaimed. "How can you call it sovereignty? You have thousands of occupiers in your country and you call it sovereignty? Iraq has become an American base."

Ali Adeeb, Khalid al-Ansary, Thaier Aldaami and Fouad al-Sheikhly contributed reporting for this article.