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Iraqis Find Themselves Waist Deep in New Freedoms

June 17, 2003|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Bakir Ali Jabouri sat with his friend and kinsman Sheik Amar Hadi Jassem on the bank of the Tigris River, talking about freedom, when gunshots rang out over the steely green water.

"People don't know the meaning of freedom," Jabouri said. The shooting came from squatters who have moved into the Ministry of Defense headquarters across the river. Criminals, he said with obvious disgust, adding: "The people who are shooting now, they would say it is because we are free."

Jabouri, a 55-year-old restaurant owner, has more reason than most to savor his freedom.

A year ago he was in prison, he said, sentenced to death for a supposedly treasonous offense after a court proceeding that lasted all of five minutes. He was among those let out in the general amnesty that then-President Saddam Hussein granted in October to bolster support in anticipation of the U.S.-led invasion.

Many Iraqis, including Jabouri, never expected to experience freedom. Now, nine weeks after the fall of Baghdad, many are having trouble understanding or even talking about freedom -- much less enjoying it -- as they emerge from 36 years of oppression to find their society dominated by chaos and crime.

The collapse of Hussein's regime opened roads that previously had been closed to all but a few people whose last name ended in al-Tikriti.

People can go boating again on the Tigris and gather to drink beer and listen to music on its banks. Merchants can open shops or put their products out on the sidewalk, and no one will say not to. And satellite dishes have opened a new window on the world.

But in interviews, people said they do not feel safe or comfortable, and many are doubtful that the U.S.-led occupation will be benevolent or lead Iraq to prosperity and democracy.

This may explain why, even though the U.S. military has removed Hussein, many Iraqis already seem ungrateful. And when they talk about their new freedom, Iraqis almost always add an asterisk.

"This freedom is enjoyable, but it is not systematic freedom," said Jabouri -- a graying man with a black, pencil-thin mustache -- "because American forces allowed wicked men to rob people and steal public property. Even now, they do not control the streets.

"There is no electricity. Water is not regular. We hear about food aid coming to Iraq, but it goes to the bazaars instead of to the people," he added. "Of course we enjoy freedom, but we want security first."

On the opposite bank and about a mile downstream from Jabouri's Tigris Nights restaurant, Salah Maadi Khafaji, 31, a burly unemployed construction worker, stumbled down the steep, litter-strewn embankment, threw off his shirt and plunged headfirst into the muddy water. It was a part of the Tigris that had been off limits to ordinary Iraqis because it overlooked a presidential palace.

"Saddam would not allow us here; he would slay whoever came here," Khafaji said, standing waist deep near the shore. He explained that he swims every day for about half an hour to escape the heat, which has reached 110 degrees on many recent days. "It's freedom now!"

The list of once-forbidden activities is legion.

Newspapers with a range of political opinions are now widely available, as are satellite dishes. The right to political meetings, demonstrations and party organizing is taken for granted. Practicing religious rites and public devotions, launching businesses, drinking alcohol in restaurants, driving past and photographing government buildings, owning satellite telephones, fraternizing with foreigners and criticizing the authorities are now permissible.

The U.S. occupation authority has laid down few strictures, and those are often evaded. They include curfews in many locales, a ban on carrying weapons in public or keeping heavy weaponry at home, inciting hatred, attacks on the coalition, civil unrest and organizing in behalf of the now-dissolved Baath Party.

But overall, compared with life under Hussein's regime, postwar Iraq is largely without rules, regulations and officials to keep order. That absence of authority is the reason for what many people see as an excess of freedom.

Khafaji, the swimmer, grew angry as he thought about it.

"As long as America is here, there is no freedom," he said. "We want them to get out. They helped us get rid of Saddam, OK. But why are they staying now?"

"We want a government. We have no jobs. People want to kill each other for money, for nothing. We have no money," he said, pulling out his two pockets from his dripping trousers to demonstrate the point. "Look, no money!"

Abdul Reza Abbas, 50, a nut vendor in downtown Baghdad, said that freedom has had two sides to it. In Hussein's time, he said, the municipal authorities would not have allowed him to sell from his cart on the sidewalk, and police would harass him for bribes, beating him if he did not pay.

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