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Rising resentment in Baghdad

Baghdad,April 16: Protests against US forces here are rising by the day as Iraqis exercise their new right to complain — something that often landed them in prison or worse during Saddam Hussein’s rule.

But no one here is in the mood to note that paradox, as Iraqis confront with greater clarity their complicated reactions to the week-old US military presence here: anger at the looting; frustration at the ongoing lack of everything from electricity to a firm sense of order; fear of long-term US military occupation.

“Down, down USA — don’t stay, go away!” chanted Ahmed Osman, 30, a teacher among the several hundred Iraqis protesting yesterday in front of the Palestine Hotel downtown, which the Marines are guarding, and their headquarters to recruit civil servants to reconstruct Iraq’s central authority.

“Bush is the same as Saddam,” he said.

The protest was small compared with the 20,000 who marched yesterday in Nasiriyah against the US presence in Iraq, but it was the largest such demonstration in Baghdad yet, prompting the Marines to seal off the hotel, and the Sheraton next door, for several hours and to beef up security.

There is no sense that these complaints — in which ordinary Iraqis have begun insistently button-holing any Westerner who wanders by — are degenerating into violence or an unwillingness to cooperate with the Americans.

But individual protest has almost reached a fever pitch, as scores of Iraqis around the city asked reporters if it was true that Saddam was now in the US (the evidence: that Baghdad fell so quickly, a deal must have been struck).

They are also, in greater numbers, beginning to blame US soldiers for the looting that has stripped the nation’s property bare, from desk chairs to ancient Sumerian artifacts.

“The Americans are the ones who have been looting and taking things out of the stores and giving them to families,” said Amer Karim, 30, who was himself selling two industrial ceiling fans and a new telephone in a street market in the Kadhimia section of Baghdad. “So anyone who is selling these things didn’t really loot it.”

Iraq’s impatience for normalcy is testing the US troops here, who are eager to show that they are trying to meet Iraqis’ needs now that the main combat operations are over.

Yesterday, Marines and Iraqi soldiers continued the joint patrols against looting that began on Monday.

“It seems like people are pretty happy to see police on the streets again,” said Sgt. Lee Buttrill, 29. “And they are always happy to see us,” he added, whether in earnestness or a perfect deadpan, it was hard to tell.

The military said yesterday that it was also close to resolving one of the main sources of complaint: the lack of electricity since April 4, which has kept shops and schools closed and delayed a return to normal life. The military said it expected power in parts of the city to be restored in the next 48 to 72 hours.

At the same time yesterday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it expected water service in east Baghdad to be restored today.

In all, order seemed to spread more fully throughout the city yesterday, even amid continuing explosions, gunfire and looting. Traffic jams returned to Baghdad, in some cases worse than before the war because of the military checkpoints and streets still blocked off by local gunmen. Along Jumhuriya Street, one of the main thoroughfares, more shops were open, with people selling gasoline on the streets and changing money.

But even as the chaos receded, the deep damage is also becoming clearer — as are the complications that Iraq will face in stitching this nation, divided among Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, back together under US administration.

Yesterday morning, the ashes were still smouldering at the ministry for religious affairs, where a building housing thousands of Qurans, many of them illuminated and hand written, several a thousand years old, had been burned to a charred shell. It was another severe blow to Iraq’s 10,000 years of cultural history, along with the looting of the National Museum and the burning of the National Library, in which countless priceless artifacts and books were lost.

“When Baghdad fell to the Mongols in 1258, these books survived,” said Abdel Karim Anwar Obeid, 42, the ministry’s general manager for administration. “And now they didn’t survive. You can’t put a price on this loss. If you talk to any intellectual Muslims in the world, they are crying right now over this.”

As Obeid spoke, gunfire rang out a block away, as looters sought to empty a bank. Obeid said he had just passed the looters and saw a US patrol pass by and, in a common complaint here, do nothing.

The right to complain has been accompanied by other rights long suppressed under Saddam, particularly the rights of Shias, who make up 60 per cent of population. Since last week, they have been increasingly active, with some in the Shia slum of Saddam City, now renamed Sadr City, demanding an Islamic state and providing civilian militias to keep order.

Yesterday in the Shia neighbourhood of Kadhimiya, religious officials who had been calling for people to return looted goods said they had retrieved several dump trucks and public buses, and were now administering those public services on their own with the help of volunteers.

“Once there is stability and a government returns, everything will be given back to the government,” said Muhammad Hassan, 36, a chemical engineer who is volunteering at the mosque.

As he was speaking, Shia worshippers held a procession of drums and trumpets and green Shia flags, re-enacting the funeral of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and one of the sect’s principal saints. Such processions were banned by Saddam and his Sunni-dominated government in the early Seventies as part of the wider effort to suppress the power of the majority Shias.

“They would execute you if you did this,” Hassan said. But then he turned his attention toward the American-led presence here. “As an educated man, I see that the future will be worse than the past,” he said.

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