Many Iraqis are skeptical of Bush's visit to Baghdad

Some see trip as a stunt for U.S. audience

others see a wasted opportunity

November 29, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Many Iraqis angrily dismissed President Bush's brief cloak-and-dagger Thanksgiving Day visit yesterday as a political stunt to boost his ratings at home, and others said he had squandered an opportunity to meet with Iraqis and see first hand the problems they face.

"He came for only two hours. He didn't see how the Iraqis are living and suffering," said Fatima Star, 38, a housewife. "He doesn't care about the Iraqi people. He only cares about his troops."

"He wants to gain political favor from people in the United States before the elections," said Mathil Aziz, 26, a teacher. "He cares more about his own personal interest than the Iraqi people."

Other Iraqis, however, welcomed Bush's visit as a sign that he and the United States remain committed to reconstructing Iraq, even as suicide bombers and guerrillas kill American soldiers on a near-daily basis.

"You have an opportunity to seize the moment and rebuild your great country, based on human dignity and freedom," Bush told Iraqis in his speech before some 600 U.S. soldiers. "We will stay until the job is done."

Bush was back at his ranch yesterday in Crawford, Texas, where he recorded his weekly radio address and relaxed by visiting with his parents and doing a few chores.

"Maybe the security situation will get better now," said Haider Khadim, 29, a tailor, in Baghdad. But Khadim and other Iraqis said they wished Bush had addressed the Iraqi people separately.

Electricity blackouts, poor water and sanitation, loss of jobs and an uncertain political future have beset much of Iraq in the eight months since U.S. forces took over Baghdad.

"The U.S. Army has many leaders," Khadim said. "But we don't have any leaders. We don't have anyone to follow. He should have given a speech to the Iraqi people, not just the American soldiers."

Underscoring the danger - the reason why Bush's visit was top secret and confined to a heavily guarded compound at Baghdad's main airport - a U.S. soldier was killed yesterday. He died when four mortar shells, apparently fired by insurgents, pounded a 101st Airborne Division base in the northern city of Mosul.

Another American soldier was shot to death on Thanksgiving inside a military base in Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad, according to a military statement.

More than 60 U.S. soldiers died in November attacks, more than in any month since Bush declared major fighting over on May 1. A total of 185 U.S. soldiers have died in combat since then.

Bush's visit overshadowed yesterday's arrival of two Democratic senators, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Jack Reed of Rhode Island. The two, who have criticized the Bush administration's handling of postwar Iraq, met with soldiers, coalition officials, and female Iraqi politicians.

When he heard the news, Khatam Sadun, 35, was reminded of all his problems since U.S. forces occupied Baghdad. The former Iraqi army sergeant lost his job when the U.S.-led coalition disbanded Iraq's army. Today he is unemployed. He hasn't had electricity in his home for two days.

"Bush's visit to Iraq was a big illusion," he said, sitting at an outdoor cafe. "No Iraqi should welcome him because there's no improvement in our society. Whether he came or not, we're still in a bad situation."

"He came to encourage his army. Not us," said Ali Mohammed, 40, who sells electronic goods.

Yet other Iraqis said that no matter how they feel about Bush, they need the Americans at a time when more and more Iraqis are dying from guerrilla attacks.

Hundreds spilled into Firdos Square - where victorious U.S. Marines and Iraqis tore down a bronze statue of Saddam Hussein in April - yesterday to protest the killings of Iraqi policemen and civilians by insurgents. A handful of small political parties, including Turkmen and Shiite groups, organized the rally.

Mathil Aziz, a teacher, said Bush missed a chance to energize Iraqis, and gain their trust.

"The Iraqi people need to see that the U.S. government is doing something for them," he said. "He would be welcome then."

Killed in Iraq

The Defense Department's latest identifications of American military personnel killed in Iraq include a soldier who reportedly died of non-combat-related injuries Thursday in Junction City, Iraq.

Army Spc. Thomas J. Sweet II, 23, of Bismarck, N.D.

- Associated Press

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