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The attitude of ordinary Iraqi civilians has changed completely since the fall of Saddam
ALMOST as shocking as yesterday?s shooting down of the American Chinook helicopter was the gleeful response of the Iraqi villagers who witnessed the scene of carnage in the fields of crops and date palms close to the tranquil Euphrates. Iyad Issawi, the local blacksmith, told how their initial alarm turned to delight as they realised that dozens of Americans had been killed or injured.
?We were happy. The people were clapping with joy and praising those who carried out this attack,? he said.
Hadi Shehan, a local farmer, said that the Americans would lose many more soldiers if they stayed in Iraq. ?I hope that they do. The Americans are the enemy for all nations. They want to kill innocents and occupy our land.?
What is striking to a newcomer to Baghdad is the depth of hostility to the Americans, not just among the tiny minority who attack US troops, but also among the millions of ordinary Iraqis who do not. It is astonishing how, in the space of six months, the image of the US military has changed from that of welcome liberator to hated occupier.
Driving down to Najaf at the weekend, five policemen at a checkpoint had pulled over our jeep simply so they could tell a journalist their grievances ? poor pay, few guns, no flak jackets or vehicles. A banner on a nearby wall commemorated a colleague killed in a recent shoot-out. The Americans should equip them properly and then get out, they said, leaving Iraqis to tackle the lawlessness that has beset their country since Saddam fell.
?They are a foreign army from a foreign country occupying our land,? said Ammar Abdul Aziz Hakim, head of the Islamic Information Centre in Najaf and nephew of the moderate ayatollah assassinated in the holy city in August.
?They are trying to run it according to their standards and in a way that?s very far from the people?s interests. They have a completely different language and society and standards from ours.?
On the way back from Najaf we came across an American tank transporter that had just been attacked. Two humvees picked up the survivors and sped off, leaving black smoke billowing skywards from the blazing driver?s cabin.
Within minutes a crowd of Iraqis was pouring petrol on the trailer, spreading the fire to ensure the vehicle could never be used again. Passing cars honked in celebration.
?They are nothing but occupiers. They should leave immediately,? said an onlooker.
Many Iraqis have a tale to tell of trigger-happy American soldiers, their cultural insensitivities, or their violations of property or persons. Our driver said that he was locked up in a tiny cell with 50 others for 24 hours after being stopped on a Baghdad street just before the night curfew. Our interpreter told of a man shot dead while carrying dates home to his family in his rolled-up shirt. An American soldier evidently thought he was carrying explosives.
Iraqis? relief at Saddam?s demise has long worn off. Some even express a faint nostalgia for a regime that at least kept order and provided the basic necessities. ?It?s like a choice between cancer and death,? said Ali, a medical graduate.
There is a massive culture clash between the US troops and the Iraqis with whom they deal. It is hardly surprising that nervous soldiers who are barely out of their teens, may never have been abroad before, and are trained to fight wars not keep the peace should sometimes err. The US-led coalition is belatedly making a huge effort to restore services, respect Iraqi sensitivities and accelerate the transfer of power, but it is caught in a Catch-22 situation.
The more it is attacked, the more it retreats into the fortresses it has constructed from Saddam?s old palaces. Its installations in central Baghdad are now cordoned off by miles of concrete walls, razor wire and blockaded streets.
Its civilian administrators are cocooned inside, and simply to attend a press conference at the coalition?s headquarters yesterday required five identity checks and three body searches. An inordinate amount of the coalition?s stretched resources are devoted simply to self-preservation.
American soldiers venture out only in humvees or Bradley fighting vehicles, and their only contact with Iraqi citizens is from behind the barrels of their guns. The gap between ruler and ruled is as wide as it was in Saddam?s day. As one Iraqi put it: ?Only the faces and names have changed.?
Ali, the medical graduate, likened the American military intervention to an operation to remove a tumour. The trouble, he said, was that it had been performed with an unsterilised instrument and now a severe infection had set in.
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