Mosul: many complaints, few answers

U.S. troops, Iraqis take first small steps toward restoring city services

War In Iraq

April 21, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSUL, Iraq -- The palace has been plundered, the law courts burned, the government center sacked.

So when the residents of Mosul seek justice or mercy, there's only one place left to go: the Duty-Free Shop at Mosul Airport. This small concrete building has -- with the addition of a few plastic chairs -- become the temporary headquarters for 1,500 American troops stationed here and the de facto seat of government for this city of 1.7 million people.

The soldiers have set up here, at the airport, because gunfire is continuing in the center of the city.

Beginning in early morning, the supplicants arrive in rattling orange taxis that barrel down a road lined with eucalyptus trees and warehouses. The cars carry the stranded, destitute and desperate. In the baking sun outside the shop entrance, they are penned in by a corral of barbed wire.

Ghina Hamdoon, her head covered by a black scarf, pleaded with anyone who would listen. Frustrated by her inability to speak to the young Marine guard, the 50-year-old mother of six sat on a discarded tire, tears running down her cheeks.

Hamdoon and her family were persuaded to move into a village north of Mosul, called Domis, by Saddam Hussein's regime eight years ago. Kurds were evicted and their houses were taken by Arabs, such as Hamdoon.

The elementary school teacher fled Domis a month ago, warned by Iraqi officials that the Americans would bomb the village. She left all of her furniture and most of her clothes behind. When she and her friend, Masoon Hamid, 48, tried to return to their houses a few days ago, they were turned back by Kurdish fighters manning a checkpoint outside the village.

They were told that the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which controls the area, had declared the houses vacant, and that Kurdish families had moved in. Hamdoon pleaded that she had no place else to go.

"That is not our problem," they told her.

"Now I'm afraid to go there," she said. She had come to the airport, she said, to beg her nation's new rulers -- the Americans -- to help her return home, or give her some place to stay.

A successful businessman, Basman al Saffar, drove up to the Duty-Free Shop in his 1947 Ford coupe, a car that he said had belonged to a long-ago Iraqi foreign minister. The dapper Saffar and his friend, Khairvuldeen Omari, owner of a construction firm, came to ask that Saddam Hussein's sprawling palace north of the central city be given to the University of Mosul for use as a cultural center.

In the past weeks, the palace has been looted, of course, like almost every other public building here. Omari worries that the lavish complex will be completely destroyed if the Americans don't take steps to protect it.

This war has devastated the town where Omari's family has lived for 600 years and ruined his business. Last week, he gave all his employees a month's salary and sent them home. But Omari welcomed the end of the regime: "You can breathe better, because it was difficult to live in such a climate. The Baath Party had tightened the noose around our necks."

Loitering behind the barbed wire, people trade the latest gossip, and the word was that Baath Party members were creeping back into power, with the apparent blessing of Americans eager to get the city running.

A group of policemen discharged by the Baath Party in recent years showed up at the gate yesterday. They were among the first to report for work after the fall of Mosul. All said they were pushed off the force because they demonstrated insufficient loyalty to the regime.

When hundreds of the city's policemen returned to duty here last week, the fired officers were told to go home.

"The police loyal to the regime look at us as their enemy," said Capt. Ghazi Faisal. "They don't want us to work with them, because we have good relations with the citizens."

Lt. Col. Robert Waltemeyer, the Green Beret who is the closest thing to Mosul's mayor these days, is the man everyone is waiting to meet. But only a handful get to see him.

He spoke on this particular day with about 20 technicians and specialists, including fire and police officials, doctors, lawyers, judges and engineers. His aim was to create an interim governing council, and prepare for eventual elections.

The last thing he wanted to do, he said, was run the city and its suburbs -- and sort out such questions as which police faction should patrol the streets, how to return Hamdoon to her home and what should be done with Hussein's palace. But he has had a hard time coaxing city officials to return to work.

Plumes of oily black smoke still spiral into the sky, caused by exploding ordnance or looters using gasoline to burn the insulation from stolen copper wire. At the end of last week, the city was shaken by a large explosion that the Americans guessed was caused by someone setting fire to an Iraqi arms bunker. "That was probably ammunition cooking off," a Marine Corps spokesman said.

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