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Iraq Journals

Glimpses of life in a war-torn country by GNS national security correspondent John Yaukey and photo director Jeff Franko.


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Sunday, April 13

Iraqis grapple with the future

By John Bebow | The Detroit News

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Allah Abed threw kerosene from a jug again and again until the entire 20-foot-tall portrait of President Saddam Hussein, beaming under sunglasses, burned to ashes last week at an intersection in the city's working-class Rashid district.

"I'm not afraid as long as the U.S. is with us," said Abed, a 25-year-old Shiite. "This is our holiday."

But if some Iraqis and Marines acted as if it was Victory in Baghdad Day, it came with blowing trash instead of ticker-tape, black smoke instead of fireworks and as much angst as relief.

Marine trucks and troop carriers still carry painted names like "Widow Maker" and "Long Sword," but the toughest part of the Iraq campaign, the peaceful work, will take so much more than fighting slogans. American forces may have only one quick chance to hold the hearts and minds of those cheering along Baghdad streets.

"To them, the unexpected success we had here raises their expectations to build a new Iraqi society," Marine Col. John Pomfret said as he led a midday troop support convoy through the city. "The question is, when do you know you are successful?"

Maybe the answer is in how well U.S. troops hold these Iraqi smiles.

Grins were wide Friday in newly liberated neighborhoods like Rashid, in the south-central part of the Iraqi capital. But in the suburbs, and at the bridges into the eastern side of the city, Iraqis on the move had almost chilly glances as they walked by checkpoints manned by Marines.

The procession thickened Friday as families who had escaped Baghdad before the war returned to the city.

"The euphoria is over," Pomfret said. "How long do you think before they start throwing rocks?"

By Friday night, there were still pockets of resistance around the city. Shots, possibly from a sniper, could be heard on an evening brightened by a nearly full moon.

Pondering Iraq's future

The widespread looting of Baghdad slowed Friday, with much of it occurring in isolated locations. Traveling through the streets were a donkey loaded down with nearly a dozen mattresses, four men riding around on a small asphalt roller and a Red Crescent ambulance converted into a hauler for stolen air conditioners.

In the Rashid neighborhood, Iraqis congregated wherever Marines or journalists went.

"When electricity?" they asked. "When fuel for cars?"

They could have added: When will schools open? Where are the jobs? When will there be no more smoking buildings? When will there be reconstruction and clean water and a new government?

There are no answers yet.

"If we can just get them to be patient, I think we can make major changes here," said Pomfret, a native of Pontiac, Mich., who has traveled to 60 countries in his 26 years in the Marine Corps.

One baby step toward democracy is to teach Iraqis what it means. After 30 years of torture, dictatorship and the meager distribution of the country's vast wealth, the people have only a hazy picture of what participatory government is.

"I want a free, secure Iraq with no fear," said a 16-year-old named Mustafa as he gathered with about 30 other men near a Marine outpost near the center of Baghdad. "Freedom of expression, freedom of everything."

Yes, but what does that mean? What do you want to do with your life?

Mustafa thought about the questions and couldn't grasp the kind of life full of choices so many American teenagers take for granted. He finally answered that he wanted to be "whatever my parents would like me to be to help my country."

Standing beside Mustafa, the de facto boss of the crowd heard no calling toward any kind of formal community leadership. He was a middle-aged man named Kareem Abdur-Hussein. He wore a nice gold watch and had a good job as a manager with a cement business.

"The chaos is a problem," Abdur-Hussein said.

He cast off any suggestion that he could help govern his country or even his neighborhood. "I don't want to lead if it is like this," Abdur-Hussein said.

This crowd of Iraqis focused only on who they don't want to lead them.

"Not an exile," Abdur-Hussein, Mustafa and the others shouted in unison, snarling at one strategy that President Bush and international leaders have considered. "They have not suffered as we have suffered."

Maybe a Shiite cleric should rule, someone suggested. Maybe someone who could bring together the majority Shiites and long-ruling Sunni Muslims together, someone else chimed in.

New Iraq will take time

Whatever the answer, it will take years to build a new Iraq, said Marine 1st Sgt. Thomas Brown, 43, who grew up in the urban chaos of Detroit in the 1960s.

Late in the week, Brown helped convert the former headquarters of Saddam Hussein's secret police to a new base for the 1st Marine Division. He shook his head at the porcelain toilets inside the former offices of the Ministry of Security. Many of Baghdad's poor still use open sewers.

"We need to get these people into the 20th century," Brown said.

He was 7 years old during the summer of 1967, when Detroit went up in flames of civil unrest. Thirty-six years later, the scene was similar in Baghdad on Friday, with U.S. troops on patrol, the skyline churning with smoke and every storefront closed.

Brown couldn't quite understand how a place could have both power lines overhead and donkey carts rolling down the streets.

"To see it, you wonder if the people even know any better," Brown said. "They don't seem to be depressed here. It's just all they know."