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WAR WITH IRAQ / ON THE GROUND

Anger at the U.S. Simmers in Southern Iraq

Washington may have miscalculated the task of winning over the people and underestimated the power of the regime and the nature of the society.

March 25, 2003|Mark Magnier and Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writers

MUWAILHA, Iraq — Even as people in southern Iraq continued to show support for the U.S.-led forces, shouting approval at the seemingly endless columns of coalition supply trucks, jeeps, Humvees and troop carriers heading north, a scratch below the surface found many angry at the United States.

"This is an imperialist American attack on us," said Rahim Huntifad Alwan, 32, a farmer. "I have two houses burned. I've lost everything."

For months, the Bush administration told the world that Iraqis, particularly those in the Shiite areas of the south, would rise in jubilation at their so-called liberators.

But there are growing signs in this village, as well as in battle areas around Basra and Nasiriyah, that the United States underestimated or miscalculated the battle to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Iraqis.

"The U.S. has a prepared package it figured out in Washington," said Ahmad Lutfi with the Middle East Program of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "Obviously Iraq has a very different take."

Analysts say the Bush administration may be overlooking the closed nature of Iraqi society, its tenuous understanding of democracy and the ability of the ruling Baath Socialist Party to exploit age-old themes: infidels attacking Islam and foreign powers with colonial ambitions.

"I am worried that this will be like Palestine, we will be occupied in exactly the same way," said Basem Mohammed, a 25-year-old unemployed man. He added that Americans would come to regret their invasion of Iraq.

"There are going to be martyrs here now," he said. "There are going to be Iraqis who want to blow up the Americans."

Nearby, as a herd of sheep passed by, a large red cloth sign on an abandoned police station proclaimed: "We will fight and defend Basra with our last drop of blood."

Samil Hantoush, 32, an employee of the Iraqi state oil company, predicted that U.S. and British troops would face a tough task restoring order.

"They are destroying this country," he said.

"Iraqis will resist the Americans and will fight. I know many families around here with people killed, people injured. There's great anger."

Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, ventured that many people in parts of southern Iraq where coalition forces have claimed control were waiting to make sure that Saddam Hussein could truly no longer exert power there.

The fact that the U.S. stopped short of forcing a change of regime at the time of the 1991 Persian Gulf War makes Iraqis wary of committing themselves until they know they no longer might face reprisal, Clawson said.

Others said Hussein has hammered away at two main themes in his propaganda onslaught to some effect: the ideals of pan-Arabism and the fear of foreign meddling.

These arguments often fall on fertile ground because most Iraqis have known nothing but Hussein's rule for most of their lives, Lutfi said.

The mixed emotions Iraqis may feel on this point could be seen Monday when two friends, soldier Mohammed Hashem and student Saad Aziz, both 19, sat talking on a bench on the main road to Baghdad.

Aziz expressed concern that Americans would try to wipe out or undermine Iraq's Islamic culture. "No! No!," Hashem countered. "Saddam Hussein steals."

Times staff writer Tyler Marshall in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this report.

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