Many Iraqis tired of occupation, violence

Both U.S. troop presence, insurrection lack support

April 10, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The Happy Time restaurant sounds like an improbable place for Iraqis to discuss the turmoil and strife of a growing guerrilla war against U.S.-led troops occupying their country.

But one year after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Aseel Suheil and her friends sat in gathering darkness in the restaurant's courtyard and expressed disappointment with life in Iraq, fearing the prospect of more conflict as Shiite and Sunni militias battle foreign forces.

"The only reason we come to this restaurant is because it's close to where we live," Suheil said. "We are afraid of going out these days because of car bombs, and every young man seems to carry a gun now."

The Mahdi Army - the militia of the anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr - is said by U.S. officials to stand at 4,000 to 6,000 members. And while many Iraqis say they support the idea of ridding their country of the military occupation, they are not all al-Sadr followers.

Many say they do not see a clear solution.

"I'm a Shiite, but I do not want the Mahdi Army," said Suheil's friend Nahla Abdel Wahid, a Shiite Muslim, as they sat in Happy Time. "They are too extreme and backward."

Suheil added, "They would never let us go out in the streets or sit here with our hair down." Some Shiite followers of al-Sadr want an Islamic government guided by senior clerics. "But the American forces should get out," she said. "They just attract gunfire now. They should leave it to us."

The Mahdi Army and Sunnis fighting in Fallujah and Ramadi are loosely allied by a common purpose, which they say is to rid the country of foreign forces. Shiite and Sunni Muslims form a majority of Iraq's population.

Few people say they have much trust in the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council, complaining that it is not elected. They are also distrustful of the interim constitution and of the promise that their lives will be improved when the United States returns sovereignty to the Iraqis in a largely ceremonial transfer at the end of June.

But there is little appetite for more fighting in a country that has been embroiled in the Iran-Iraq war, the 1991 war in Kuwait, and then the U.S.-led war last year. In that sense, Iraqis feel pushed into more instability.

"More people will just pour into the streets if they try to arrest Sadr," said Abed Jumaa, a 38-year-old war veteran, as he sat in a cafe in Baghdad's Zayona neighborhood, bustling with shoppers and diners. "But we are tired of conflict."

His friend Sabah Anwar has a deep scar across his head that he said was a wound from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. He said the guerrillas fighting the United States have served as a sort of rallying point for Iraqis, giving them common ground.

"We have decided we should all say we are behind Sadr," he said. "We thank the United States only on one point - for getting rid of Saddam Hussein. After that we have been left on our own with nothing tangible."

An economics teacher, Talal Abdel-Hadi, said he was opposed to the occupation but was not convinced that the Mahdi Army represented the interests of Iraq's 24 million people.

"We are an educated people, and many of his followers are not cultured," he said. "Anyone who is elected by the people and can truly serve us is what we need now. As for the Americans, they have technology, and we have ideas. Maybe one day we can cooperate away from the language of violence."

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