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Iraqi Impatience Meets American Frustration on the Streets of Mosul

Residents feel cheated and U.S. troops unappreciated as the rebuilding plods on.

August 29, 2003|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

MOSUL, Iraq — Soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division are having more trouble winning Iraqi hearts and minds than they did vanquishing Saddam Hussein's army. On any given day, troops are rebuilding looted schools, helping set up town councils or delivering water and pension payments.

But Mosul resident Mohammed Hassan is unimpressed.

"The Americans are able to do the simple things. But they haven't done anything important like put in new water pipelines, fix the power station and collect the garbage," said Hassan, a 41-year-old engineer. "Up to now, nothing has happened."

The gap between what Iraqi citizens expect from their occupiers and what coalition forces have been able to provide is feeding tension across the country. In this city of 2 million-plus, Iraqis feel cheated, soldiers feel unappreciated and each says the other is increasingly hostile.

"People thought as soon as the war was over, George Bush would come in and build a Wal-Mart, a Sears Roebuck and a nuclear power station in three weeks," said Col. Stephen Bruch, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Brigade, of the Army's 101st Airborne Division. "It can't happen."

Most soldiers never dreamed they would be held responsible by the Mosul citizenry for restoring essential services. But being the only American faces here, they are the prime targets of residents' wrath.

"Sometimes it's hard for them to see the good we are doing here," said Lt. Dan Stuewe of Cleveland. "You feel they don't appreciate it and don't know what freedom is."

For many Iraqis, the issue is not that the Americans have failed to make life better than it was under Saddam Hussein, it is that the quality of life has gotten worse. This northern city is still without reliable power, water and propane supplies nearly four months after major combat was declared over. Prices have risen and crime is up.

"What kind of life is it when you are afraid to leave your home after dark?" asked mechanic Salam Nassri.

Iraqis' mounting impatience with their occupiers is not limited to Mosul. A task force commissioned by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warned last month of Iraqis' "heightened sense of expectation" and said "frustration levels are growing."

Although Mosul is more secure than Baghdad, soldiers are on edge from a recent series of bomb and grenade attacks. A bulletin board at the entrance to battalion headquarters asks soldiers, "What have you done today to win Iraqi hearts and minds?" But they can feel the ire of residents increasing daily.

"It seems like it's gotten a little worse. When we do patrols, we get more kids throwing rocks, yelling profanities at us. They don't understand what we're doing, which is bringing Mosul back to life," said Pfc. Romel Uganiza, 20, of Bremerton, Wash.

"The soldiers can one minute be offering fuel to someone or helping push a stalled car and the next be under fire," said Maj. Mike Shervington, a British officer attached to the 101st Airborne, with its 7,000 soldiers.

Iraqis say troops on the street are acting more tense and short-tempered. U.S. patrols are a growing source of friction, for example, especially soldiers' habit at night of aiming their weapons at passing cars to intimidate possible attackers.

Another irritant is soldiers' sometimes harsh efforts to quell the Iraqi practice of celebrating by firing weapons into the air. Iraqis are legally permitted to own one basic weapon per household.

Gunfire continually punctuates the air in Mosul on Thursdays, a traditional wedding night.

"At the beginning the soldiers were nice, but now they act tough and stubborn with us. When people gather and there is gunfire, they grow mad and crazy," said Khather Yassin, 35, a building guard. "When you pass them in a car, they point their weapons at you for no reason."

Despite such strains, Bruch said his battalion's 700 soldiers would keep up the good works they have been doing since their arrival April 22. One week this month, soldiers delivered school supplies and tank loads of drinking water, met local imams to try to cement relations and repainted civic buildings to cover up pro-Hussein graffiti.

"We are making a difficult shift from our mission of combat -- to wage war -- to one of performing stability and support operations," Bruch said. "That's a major transition in the role of a soldier, the mind-set of a soldier and the daily tasks of a soldier. And I think it's going very well."

Dick Naab, a coordinator in northern Iraq for the U.S.-led coalition, said progress in restoring basic services and instituting new government structures was being made, but "the future won't be easy."

"We are dealing with 40 years of neglect by Saddam, and we are going to get it fixed," he said.

Some Mosul residents are appreciative. "Americans offer us many things, but Iraqis don't want to acknowledge it," said street vendor Matti Bahman, 64.

But it seems that many others are like retired utility worker Hadji Rassul, who expected the soldiers to have things fixed by now, or at least to have made more headway.

"I am retired and I have received one pension payment from them on June 8. Since then, nothing.... No one has any money to afford the normal daily costs," he said. "People are impatient."

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