San Diego Union-Tribune

March 16, 2004


Freedoms, doubts in Baghdad


BAGHDAD, Iraq Since President Bush declared the end of major combat in Iraq last May, news from here has been dominated by the carnage of bomb blasts and the political roadblocks to democracy.

But Baghdad, Iraq's capital, has come a long way in the 11 months since Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled April 9 before a worldwide television audience.

After the collapse of the statue and the Baath Party regime it signified, looting was rampant, buildings belched black smoke for days and gunfire could be heard throughout the night. Commerce ceased and residents remained in hiding.

When they emerged there was no government. Foreign tanks rumbled through the streets, and the life they had known for three decades had disappeared.

Now, as the one-year anniversary of the war approaches, Iraqis appear to have embraced their new freedom. Many are better off economically, even if they still bristle at the continuing military occupation, the slow pace of reconstruction and the emergence of crime.

An entrepreneurial spirit has broken out as Baghdad's consumers are rabidly buying up previously banned cellular phones, Internet services and satellite dishes. Others are saving for their first phones, computers and air conditioners.

Pent-up consumer demand might be unparalleled, as Baghdad residents scoop up previously unavailable brands of TVs and electronics. Makeshift used-car dealerships have sprouted along city streets as hundreds of thousands of cars have poured into the country, a flow that continues unabated.

Candy stores and ice cream parlors have reopened. They had been banned during the years of international economic sanctions against the old regime.

Last spring, good Samaritans stood in busy intersections trying to keep them from becoming gridlocked. By October, men doing the job were wearing sashes. Today, they wear official uniforms with caps and whistles.

Despite the guerrilla war and dark political clouds, Iraq appears to be knitting a new post-Hussein social, political and economic order as it prepares to take greater control over its own affairs June 30.

In the upscale district of Mansour, Ahdaf Jassam, a young woman wearing a traditional head covering, readied the dresses, necklaces and even lingerie in the glitzy wedding store where she works, called Abdushabaka.

"The climate for business is better now," Jassam said. "Salaries are better. So more people can afford to get married. But they don't have big weddings like they used to because they are afraid of robberies and attacks."

Concerns about crime, new to Baghdad, have led people to shift the timing of their outdoor weddings and celebrations. They used to run from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. Now, they go from 3 to 8 p.m.

Shops that used to remain open late into the night now close by 8 p.m.

Outside in the street, young men lounged on parked cars and leaned against poles. They held Thuraya satellite phones. People came up periodically and handed them a number to dial. The customers paid $1 per three minutes to use the phones.

One of the men, Omar, 21, explained that cellular phones didn't exist and satellite phones were illegal under the old regime.

"This was illegal before," Omar said. "I would go to prison if I got caught with a phone."

Weaam Shakar brushed back the hair on a mannequin as she arranged a display in the storefront of Abdushabaka in Baghdad's upscale district of Mansour.
Omar said he works 13 hours a day, seven days a week and already has saved enough money to buy a car. That would not have happened under the old regime, he acknowledged, adding that the freedom he now enjoys brings many benefits. But he wants the old regime back because of the crime problem.

"I was unemployed before, but I had security," he said. "Now, I have a job and money but no security."

Others echoed his sentiments.

"We hope Saddam comes back so we can go out at night again," said a man who identified himself as Ali, 21.

The new Iraqi police and judicial system are ineffective, they concurred.

"If we get the right to execute people again, we will have our security back," said a man who identified himself as Firas, 26.

Added Omar: "We need 10 men like Saddam."

None of the young men from this upscale Sunni neighborhood, once a favorite dining spot for Hussein, actually has been a victim of crime, they said.

Across Baghdad from Mansour lies the sprawling Shiite slum of Sadr City. In the days after the collapse of the Baath Party in April, garbage was piled high on the sidewalks. There was no electricity. Unexploded Iraqi shells littered a soccer field where children played. Clean water was unavailable.

Today, electricity is still limited, clean water is in short supply and garbage still lies on the sidewalks, although in much smaller piles.

But the Shiites here now can worship openly. Under the old regime, there were limits on how many could pray together at one time in a mosque, as well as other religious restrictions.

One day recently, as goats grazed on garbage on one sidewalk, a woman threw down a cooking oil container stuffed with garbage on another.

Standing nearby, Jassem Hassan, 22, said things hadn't improved much in Sadr City since Hussein was driven from power. While they have more religious freedom, insurgents have targeted their mosques.

Electricity, water and jobs remain big problems, Hassan said.

"Saddam was very bad to us, but now we are afraid to go to the mosque because of explosions," he said, adding that three mosques have been attacked in recent weeks.

His neighbors recently captured two men they believed were preparing suicide car bomb attacks and turned them over to the Iraqi police. They believe the men were released.

"There's no safety here," Hassan said.

When asked if he wanted Hussein back, he said emphatically: "No. No. No. Saddam's a non-believer. We need business. We need democracy. We need jobs."

Tarek Chaloob was a Shiite officer in Hussein's army. Now Chaloob is a taxi driver. He says it with a sigh that makes clear how far he feels he has fallen.

"It's very difficult to get a job through the governing council," Chaloob said of the current provisional Iraqi government.

"Saddam's time was very bad, but now it's worse," he said, sitting in his walled garden in the heart of Sadr City.

"When I take someone in my cab I worry for my life."

Asked about efforts by international organizations to improve sewage, schools and garbage collection, Chaloob replied, "What projects? We have no telephones. No electricity. No functioning local government. They occupied Iraq and took out Saddam but otherwise everything is worse, worse, worse."

Jabar Muhsen Kadm chided Chaloob for being so negative.

"We have freedom," Kadm reminded him. "We can go and complain to anyone, including the Americans. That is good."