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In Baghdad, Anger, Sorrow Over Bombing

The U.N. 'told the world about our suffering,' an Iraqi says. Some worry the U.S. will leave.

August 21, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson and Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — The distinction is pretty clear to Omar Masoud.

American soldiers are occupiers who deserve to die, and any Iraqi who so obliges is to be honored. But the United Nations is something different.

"If you hit those who do not deserve to die, you should be called a terrorist," said the 26-year-old studio photographer from Adamia, a Baghdad neighborhood known for its staunch support of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Even here, where visitors are greeted by a banner saluting Hussein's "martyred sons," there is sympathy, sorrow even, for the loss of life at the U.N. compound, where at least 20 people were killed Tuesday in a truck bomb attack.

"We had not seen much from the U.N., but they told the world about our suffering," said Masoud, whose shop sits in the shadow of Abu Hanifa, a famous Sunni Muslim mosque, and whose store walls are adorned with snapshots of U.S. tanks passing a minaret damaged by American artillery. "I am sorry about what happened to them."

Several blocks away in a more upscale area, gynecologist Arwa Shawani was horrified at the attack that had turned the U.N. headquarters into a mass of rubble and said she is terrified it will drive the Americans and other foreigners away.

"If they go, I go," she said. "How can we be safe?"

Tuesday's attack by what appeared to be a suicide bomber stoked fears among many Iraqis of a new, more dangerous level of violence that would leave everyone vulnerable. It has raised apprehension about the direction the U.S.-led occupation is taking -- are the Americans losing control? -- and has prompted many Iraqis to condemn insurgents who have in the past won praise in some quarters.

U.N. staffers, including humanitarian workers, diplomats and technicians, "were people working for us," said the distraught Shawani, sitting in her living room, air-conditioned for the two hours when electricity was available. "They came such a long distance to help us."

Her husband, an ear, nose and throat specialist, said the scale of the bombing was what alarmed him. It was clearly a professional job, Nabil Barakat said. Like many Iraqis, he is convinced the perpetrators are Iraqi members of the old regime who had help from outsiders.

Both doctors said they gladly welcomed the U.S.-led invasion to oust Hussein and the freedoms and prosperity they believed the new administration would bring. Their hopes are now dashed, however; it is this discontent, they said, that helps fuel the opposition.

"You can expect the resistance to grow now that they saw the success they had with this action yesterday," said Barakat, 43. "What to expect next week, no one knows."

"If the Americans and British leave," Shawani said, "the Iraqi people, one will kill the other."

Ali Hassen, 34, a perfume merchant from the crowded, impoverished Shiite suburb of the capital known as Sadr City, said he was dismayed for the opposite reasons. Crippling the U.N. mission threatens to prolong the length of time the United States is in Iraq, he said.

"I would prefer the U.N. intensify its presence here in Iraq," Hassen said. "We like them. It would reduce the burden of occupation if their presence increases."

For some Iraqis, the attack symbolized the deterioration of security throughout the country since the fall of Hussein and the American takeover.

In the area known as New Baghdad, a cousin of one of the blast victims focused his anger on the bombers. "We are against any terrorist operation. They are criminals. We just want to live in peace," said Nazir Salim, an electronics shopkeeper whose cousin Sahir was killed Tuesday.

But he didn't hold Americans responsible for failing to maintain law and order since the war. "Every night, we go home afraid that we will come back tomorrow and find we were robbed," he said.

Moments later, gunshots rang out nearby, likely signaling another robbery in the crime-infested area east of downtown.

"See what I mean? What's this shooting?"

Then, as if on cue, the electricity in the neighborhood abruptly failed, a wall of TV monitors turning dark. "And now this," Salim said. "How can I sell TVs when I can't show customers that they even work?"

The attack provoked an unexpected on-air debate on Al Jazeera TV.

"It is a shame that such a man of peace falls in our country," said Qais Azawi, editor of an Iraqi newspaper, referring to U.N. special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was crushed to death in his office. "There's never been such an act of terrorism in the whole history of Iraq, modern or old. Such acts lead to more deaths."

Thafer Atani, an Iraqi resident in Qatar, interrupted.

"Why all the sorrow?" he asked. "Iraqis should feel sorry and sad for themselves. They are killed every day. [U.N. Secretary-General] Kofi Annan lowers the U.N. flag to half-mast. He didn't do that for one minute for a single Iraqi killed."

"I am shocked to hear such ideas from an Iraqi," Azawi retorted. "The U.N. is not the U.S. One comes after our land, the other comes to help us. "

The interviewer broke off the debate and ended the show.

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