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Little cheer on the ground

Baghdad, Sept. 8 (Reuters): Whatever US President George W. Bush’s speech on Iraq achieved at home, it left Iraqis and the US soldiers occupying their country with little hope they would see the back of each other any time soon.

In the capital US troops seized in April, Iraqis drew no cheer from the pledges of a man they thank for ridding them of Saddam, but accuse of losing the peace by not handing over control of Iraq which is now plagued by violence and crime.

“America took a big step toward straightening things out when it got rid of Saddam,” said optician Amjad Aqrawi as he rolled up the steel grate he keeps in front of his shop in central Baghdad as a barrier against thieves.

“But then they destroyed the country by dissolving the army. The oil, the Arabs coming over the borders, it’s because of this,” he said, referring to sabotage that has crippled the oil industry. Washington wants to fund reconstruction, and an influx of foreigners whom US officials and many Iraqis accuse of destabilising the country.

“Spend the money getting America out and Iraqis in their place to protect this country,” he said. “If it is going to be used for other things, it will not be good for the Iraqis, Bush or the Americans.”

Others echoed the demand to turn the reins over to Iraqis and said the US had already lost any claim to their sympathy or support. “So he’s coming up with $87 billion. How much wealth has been taken from Iraq to serve American interests'” asked Adel Karim. “They said they were coming to help. If they had, Bush could have won us over, and 10 or 20 years from now we would have been teaching schoolchildren that he liberated Iraq.”

At a base in Saddam’s palace in Tikrit, soldiers who have seen at least 67 of their number killed since Bush declared major combat over on May 1, hoped Bush’s appeal for troops from other countries would be their ticket home. “The US military is being asked to do too much. We had enough troops for the war but not for the peacekeeping. Now we need the French and Germans to step up,” said Specialist Jeffrey Barnaby, 25, a 1st Battalion, 22nd Regiment convoy driver.

He feared a lengthy stay in Iraq could spell doom for his marriage, citing the matrimonial woes of soldiers in his battalion who divorced after a six-month deployment in Kosovo.

“The army is supposed to be becoming more family oriented but the longer this goes on the more divorced soldiers you are going to see,” he said.

Some soldiers took heart from the call for troops and moves to seek a UN resolution on Iraq peacekeeping that could speed the dispatch of other forces, but were sceptical that countries with reservations about the war would rush to rescue the peace.

“What I see is that we are helping the Iraqi people, who were definitely suppressed,” said Private Mark Wilkerson, 19, of the 720th Military Police Battalion who works with local police.

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