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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

In Weary Baghdad, Hope Rises Unsteadily to Its Feet

June 29, 2004|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The news caught everyone by surprise. But for once in Iraq, it was pleasant news.

Across the capital, almost anyone who stopped to speak Monday said the end of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority and the hand-over of power to the new interim Iraqi government two days ahead of schedule was a step forward for this spent, bloodied and exhausted country.

And although few were waxing lyrical about their new prime minister, Iyad Allawi, or his colleagues -- or were expecting things to improve overnight -- many were willing to give the new team the benefit of the doubt. Some said the insurgents should take a hiatus to allow the government to work.

Some people tooted horns, and scattered bursts of celebratory gunfire could be heard, but mostly the news of the secretive handoff cascaded slowly through the population -- reported on satellite television and then passed on by word of mouth.

"We Iraqis love to listen to whispers," said political scientist Hassan Bazzaz, younger brother of one of the last pre-Baathist prime ministers, predating the rise of Saddam Hussein. "That's why there can't be any secrets here."

Bazzaz said that reason and intellect cautioned him to feel pessimistic but that he thought most of his compatriots would feel optimistic.

"Everybody will consider it a little bit of a show, but a nice show," he said. "Even though it is only a step toward sovereignty, it is a beginning, and they are hoping it will lead to real sovereignty. Saddam's regime was terrible, and the last 14 months have also been terrible for all Iraqis."

The earlier-than-expected transfer of power gave a sense of relief to a population taut with worry that insurgents planned a wave of terrorist bombings to coincide with the handoff. Some Baghdadis had already closed businesses and fled the capital.

Speaking with an optimism that had become exceedingly rare here in recent months, many of the Iraqis interviewed expressed satisfaction that they again had a government with a degree of authority.

Iraqis know that much power will still reside in the vast diplomatic mission led by U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte, who flew in hours after former U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III left the country, and with the 160,000 coalition troops under American command.

But even with those caveats, "it is a good step forward," retired military engineer Abed Jabbar Latif said as he walked along a dirt footpath with his grandson in the shank of the day. "It is the first step, God willing, toward rebuilding a new Iraqi democracy as an independent state, and I feel good now because I can see a light at the end of the dark road."

There were similar comments elsewhere around Baghdad. Former military officer Qasim Mohammed, 43, said he wished to thank the U.S., and especially Bremer, for ousting Hussein.

"This day shows the true good intentions of the U.S.," he said. "It seems we are moving forward to democracy."

Talk radio station Radio Tigris, one of the plethora of new radio outlets that have emerged since Hussein's ouster in April 2003, was fielding overwhelmingly optimistic callers. "Our happiness is endless," gushed Thabet Habib.

Mohammed Ali, 30, a merchant in the gold souk near the Kadhimiya Mosque, said store owners had passed out cakes and sharbat, a syrupy drink served at celebrations.

"It feels good to have an Iraqi government," he exulted, adding that he was confident Allawi would know how to get tough.

At the Iraqi Communist Party headquarters off Andalus Square in central Baghdad, about 30 people made a festive racket with snare drums and trumpets, as passing cars honked and drivers waved. It felt as though the national soccer team had won a match.

Lifelong Communist Party member Mudhar Ghanim, 46, said the new government's first priority should be security. Democracy can come later, he said: "We've lived 35 years under a dictatorship. You can't create democracy overnight."

At Candles restaurant, on downtown Baghdad's Sadoun Street, a young Shiite imam, Hassan Ibrahim, was watching the afternoon swearing-in ceremony for the new ministers live on a huge TV screen usually tuned to music videos.

"Now there's a prime minister and president that really represent the Iraqi people," he said. "They would hold elections before and call it democracy, and Saddam would get elected with 100% of the vote. But it was all just words on paper."

He predicted that Iraqis would do better at improving security than U.S. troops had done. "The Americans don't know enough about this society," he explained. "They don't know who the terrorists are. Our police are the sons of this country and they understand."

But some people took a more jaundiced view, such as Ahmed Ali, a 28-year-old biologist who sells nuts in the upscale Mansour neighborhood. He said it was wrong for the U.S. to attack Iraq unilaterally, and he remained irritated by the sight of American troops still patrolling in his area.

As though on cue, a group of GIs in full combat gear walked past, along with a uniformed Iraqi ally wearing a black ski mask to hide his face.

After they were gone, Ali said he would take the new government seriously only "if it is separated totally from the Americans and if it produces security and hope for our people, because they have suffered so much already." But even he was willing to some extent to wait and see.

"I'll give them three or four months to show their true intentions," he said.

Special correspondent Ashraf Khalil contributed to this report.

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