Baghdad, April 23 (Reuters): Proud and independent, Iraqis are finding living under US military occupation hard to take.
Nearly all in Baghdad seem grateful to the Americans for ridding them of their reviled former leader, but the long-term presence of US tanks and troops in their country is a price they do not wish to pay.
“We would like to thank the Americans because now there is no Saddam Hussein,” said 29-year-old Mohammed Naim, selling shoes from a stall in a rundown northern district of Baghdad. “But now they should leave. Iraq should be run by Iraqis.”
The US military is keeping a low profile in the capital after two weeks of occupation, patrolling the streets in small groups of three or four, usually on foot or in open-sided Humvee military vehicles.
Most of their tanks and big armoured vehicles have been redeployed inside the US base at Saddam’s city-centre palace, but Baghdadis say the city is still not their own.
“We can’t go where we want, move freely where we want,” said Omar Faisal, a medical student. “I have been searched and questioned as if I were the foreigner here. They are not educated people, they are stupid people. They are treating us badly.”
Resentment of the US presence triggered a large demonstration in Baghdad after last week’s Friday prayers. Every day outside the Palestine Hotel, home to most foreign journalists and guarded by US soldiers, there is some kind of anti-US protest. “Americans go home!” chanted one group calling themselves the National Front of Iraqi Intellectuals, demanding the release of their arrested leader.
Demonstrators said US troops took away Sattam al-Kuaud at gunpoint on Tuesday, his hands bound, and denounced what they called a “brutal, terrorist act”.
Beyond the razor wire which separated them from troops of the US 3rd Infantry Division, a man speaking English with a heavy American accent taunted one of the soldiers.
“So you think you’re tough' We’re tougher than you,” he shouted to no response. “You’ve got a gun but we’re the ones with brains. Go home man, go home and take your gun with you.”
Many Baghdadis are angry with the Americans for failing to prevent the wave of looting which followed their invasion of the city and the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s administration.
Now they say they are better off alone, and support is growing for former Iraqi exile Mohammed Mohsen al-Zubaidi, the self-declared administrator of Baghdad whose authority US officials have rejected.
Some say that, while the Americans are just talking, Zubaidi has taken action to restore power supplies to the city, protect hospitals and restart the city’s public transport system.
“Don’t ask me about the Americans, what have they got to do with us'” said Mumtaz Ayoub, a director of Baghdad’s electricity commission working with Zubaidi to bring back power supplies. “We are working without them and we can manage on our own.”
Washington has lent its support to Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of the Opposition Iraqi National Congress who has lived in exile for decades.
A Jordanian court once convicted Chalabi in his absence of bank fraud, but he has always denied any wrongdoing and is viewed as a potential future leader of Iraq.
In the meantime, retired US general Jay Garner is in charge of overseeing Iraq’s reconstruction.
Garner was visiting the Kurdish-controlled north today, where he has received a rapturous reception from people who recall how, as a serving officer in 1991, he helped protect Kurdish refugees from Saddam’s brutal rule.
But winning hearts and minds on the streets of Baghdad will not be so easy.
“Mr Garner, who is he'” asked 55-year-old Jumaa, leaving a mosque in the north of the city.
“And Chalabi is a criminal. The Americans like him but we don’t. To us he’s not an Iraqi, he’s just a foreigner.”
Three US Marines were killed and seven injured near the Iraqi city of Kut when a rocket-propelled grenade launcher they were using malfunctioned, Central Command said in a statement today.
It said the accident happened last evening, when the Marines were firing the grenade launcher for “familiarisation”.