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Iraqis savor new taste of freedom
BAGHDAD — Lost in the obsessive hunt for Saddam Hussein and the daily count of American soldiers killed and wounded is a complex picture of a country and culture re-emerging with U.S. help from the rubble of war, dictatorship, sanctions and the burst of postwar chaos.
“The new Iraq means having satellite channels, saying anything you want to say,” said Akila Hashimi, a former Iraqi diplomat now seated on the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council.
“You feel like you’re in a free country. People are expressing their happiness, expressing their anger. They’re saying anything they want to say.”
The new freedom was evident in the gleeful faces of a handful of Iraqi policemen who recently danced in their seats as they drove to their station with a suspected member of a nationwide kidnapping ring.
“Under Saddam Hussein, we could not touch this kind of mafia,” Qata Abdul Zaher said of his skinny prisoner, who had been arrested at a seedy hotel, blindfolded and tossed unceremoniously into the trunk of an Oldsmobile.
“The police were never allowed to do honest work,” the feisty officer continued. “We were always watched over by other security forces. Now we’re doing real police work.”
For the police department and the nation’s American overseers, the arrest was a moment of triumph — and relief — showing Iraqi institutions are beginning to function. It was lauded the next day by Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner assigned to rebuild the Iraqi police and security forces, as “one of the most successful missions” in Iraq thus far.
Yet lawlessness and insecurity remain the biggest obstacle to a return to normalcy. The dozens of newly opened newspapers regularly report carjackings, kidnappings, rapes and racketeering. Secular, politically moderate, middle-class Iraqis complain about crime and disorder disrupting their lives.
Because of safety fears, businessman Abdul Muhsin Shanshal said, his ambitious daughter had to keep her radiology clinic closed for four months before reopening it last week.
“The most important thing is security,” he said. “The Americans promised a lot of things they didn’t deliver. The people are disappointed. I’m sure they wanted to do it. But they didn’t know how. And they don’t listen to us.”
Still, the United States already has invested heavily in public works and reconstruction. The U.S. Agency for International Development, has approved $87 million in water and electrical-infrastructure improvements. Bechtel, a U.S. government contractor, has already approved $355 million in reconstruction projects. In Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, the 101st Airborne Division says it has spent at least $7 million shaping up local infrastructure.
L. Paul Bremer, the American administrator, said during a recent press briefing that all of Iraq’s 240 hospitals and 22 universities are operating. Ninety-five percent of clinics and 90 percent of schools are functioning. Partial electric power has been restored to much of the country, and Baghdad residents get power for about 12 hours a day.
Though many state-owned factories have been idled because of looting or war damage — contributing to an unemployment rate of around 60 percent — salaries for those who have jobs have gone up. University administrative assistants who used to get paid about $3 a month now get $125. Professors once paid the equivalent of $5 now get $300.
Most Iraqis agree that the newly formed interim Governing Council — though handpicked by the Americans — represents a broad cross-section of Iraqis, from secular to Islamist to communist, from Shi’ite to Sunni to Kurd.
By Tammy Bruce
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