- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 10, 2003

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.

Based in the luxurious rest house of a former Saddam crony, the council meets almost daily and has already chosen a nine-member leadership with a rotating chairmanship.

“We’ve had one leader for 35 years, and it wasn’t a very happy experience,” said Adnan Pachachi, 80, Iraq’s foreign minister just before the Ba’athists took power in 1968 and now a member of the leadership committee. “One leader would be taking too much responsibility.”

There has also been a renaissance of civic life and artistic expression. For every new newspaper opened, there has emerged a club or organization advocating rights for women, Turkomans, Assyrians or one of Iraq’s many other minorities. An interfaith center has popped up to promote ties between Iraq’s religious groups and an organization has formed to help former prisoners of Saddam’s regime.

Alharith Hassan, dean of the Psychological Research Center at Baghdad University, said Iraqis are just beginning to emerge from the ravages of dictatorship.

“It was very difficult for us to live in a society where we felt threatened every day,” he said. “We behaved without creativity. You’ve got to be free in your life and free in your heart to be creative.”

A case in point is Muhammad Nataq, a 36-year-old painter whose father was executed by the Ba’athists. In 1994, he was asked to paint a portrait of Saddam. After a few days of work, he decided he couldn’t go on and refused to finish the giant canvas of a smiling Saddam.

He was arrested and imprisoned for several weeks, tortured and told by authorities that he had damaged the nation’s morale. When he emerged battered and terrified, he was barred from continuing his art studies at the university.

Now Mr. Nataq spends his days in a “hosseiniyeh” — a small, quiet place of worship — painting large oil portraits of Muhammad Baqr al Sadr, the beloved Shi’ite cleric executed by Saddam in 1980.

“To be an artist, you need to be motivated and inspired,” he said. “With Saddam Hussein, I was not motivated.”

Because of the almost-daily ambushes against U.S. troops, however, Americans rarely interact with people such as Mr. Nataq orexperience the lively sounds and distinctive scents of a Baghdad market.

The army has imposed stringent “force-protection” measures that prevent soldiers from removing their helmets or flak jackets when they leave base, or traveling in anything less than a three-vehicle convoy. Some have even been ordered to surround themselves with barbed wire when they stop to buy ice or drinks.

“The attackers are trying to separate us from the people,” said Col. Vincent Foulk, an Army civil-affairs official. “They don’t dare let us get the message out. This is literally a battle of ideas in which blood is being spilled.”

On the rare occasions when soldiers and Iraqis battle through the maze of official and cultural rules to interact, results are remarkable.

Pfc. Jeannette Williamson once let a curious Iraqi teen and her mother approach her on the street and ended up becoming pen pals with the daughter.

“They wanted to know about beauty products,” she said. “They thought we had these miracle products that made us beautiful. She later wrote me a letter. She said that I was a special friend of hers now and she would never forget me. I ended up writing her a letter back saying the same about her.”

After four months of trying, Spc. John Merguerian, an Armenian-American, managed to get permission to visit an Armenian church in Baghdad.

When he and some fellow soldiers walked into St. Qarabat Church in full uniform and flak jacket, the congregation was in the middle of Sunday Mass. Parishioners turned to stare at him.

“I was confused and concerned,” said the Rev. Ararat Ophispian. “I thought they might be here on some security-related matter.”

But Spc. Merguerian just walked gently to a nearby pew, knelt humbly and began to pray. Father Ophispian and his parishioners were quickly put at ease.

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