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In Iraq, People Examine Bush's Speech on Aid From Every Angle

September 09, 2003|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — At Sameer Yousif's four-chair barbershop in the center of Baghdad, no one had bothered to get up early to listen to President Bush's speech on Iraq, which aired here in the early-morning hours Monday.

But when Yousif caught up with the news that Bush was asking for an extra $87 billion from U.S. taxpayers, more than $20 billion of which would aid Iraqis and finance this nation's reconstruction, he said he felt pretty impressed by the eye- popping numbers.

"That's very good of President Bush to give us such a large amount," he said, "so the Iraqi people have their electricity and infrastructure restored and can sleep easily in their houses at night.

"If they manage to take care of crime and terrorism, I can stay open until midnight instead of closing at 10 p.m.," he added.

Yousif, 29, whose business was so depressed in the wake of the war that he and his wife could no longer afford his family's $67 a month in rent and had to move in with her parents, said he hoped that American largess would go toward building housing that would allow them to have a home of their own.

"It is more like a loan anyway," he said. "The U.S. will get it all back in oil later."

By late Monday, many Iraqis still had not heard about Bush's speech or had only sketchy ideas of what the president had said, based on international broadcasts or the reports on the U.S.-backed television network in Iraq.

And approval was far from unanimous. Some people interviewed said they doubted that Bush would give the money to Iraq or that ordinary citizens would see any of it because it would be siphoned off by officials of the new Iraqi government.

Others said that they were fed up with the United States and that American troops should just leave the country because they had done such a poor job of imposing law and order and restoring such basic services as electricity, clean water and policing.

U.S. civil administrator L. Paul Bremer III, after a meeting with the new Iraqi minister of public works Monday morning, sought to advertise Bush's initiative and to underscore the unprecedented scale of the proposed U.S. contribution.

"This is one of the largest nonmilitary budget requests in American history," Bremer said. "It amounts to more than 10 times more than the United States has ever spent in a year in any country.

"And it is a clear, dramatic illustration of the fact that the American people are going to finish the job we started when we liberated Iraq here some four months ago."

Hamid Salar, 25, was waiting for a trim of his buzz cut from Yousif, and he agreed that Bush was being highly generous.

"The whole Iraqi people will be pleased and happy because during the former regime we didn't have any reconstruction and never any big numbers like that," said the ethnic Kurd, who works in his family's restaurant.

Bush's statement that Iraq has become the "central front" in the U.S.-declared war against terrorism sat poorly with Najed Magid, 51, a toolmaker from the central Iraqi city of Najaf who was walking along a sidewalk in the Karada section of Baghdad. He suggested that the U.S. already had the power to choke off terrorism in the country.

"How can terrorists come to our county?" he asked. "Only from across the borders. Just let them seal the borders and the problem would be finished."

Moayed Stefu, 29, and his wife, Raja, 23, who are Chaldean Christians, said they hoped that Bush was sincere about staying in the country despite attacks on U.S. soldiers and that he would fight harder against terrorism and crime. "We are standing here talking, but at the same moment we are terrified," Raja said.

A sidewalk vendor of cigarettes and eggs, Sami Hamza Oda, had a less generous view of the American involvement in his neighborhood since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.

"If America left here today it wouldn't be any worse," Oda said. "If they could solve our problems, I'd want them to stay. But if they can't, it is better just to leave.

"We have not seen anything from Bush -- no cash, no stability, no security," Oda added. "On the contrary, now there are thieves and looting."

Ali Jassem, a 28-year-old trained as a television director but not working, wondered why Bush needed to ask for the money from Congress already.

"What happened to the frozen money in the international bank accounts that belonged to Saddam and his regime and also to the huge amounts that they found hidden here inside Iraq?" he asked.

"They will probably say that it is already spent, but that is not reasonable."

*

Researcher Mohammed Arrawi of The Times' Baghdad Bureau contributed to this report.

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