- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2003

NAJAF, Iraq — Thousands of old folks greet their first postwar pension checks with trembling anger because they have had to stand in line for hours. Iraqi soldiers clamor for cash in front of a U.S. compound. Why? They surrendered so swiftly they feel they deserve a fighting wage from the winning side.

In Iraq, you can pick your paradoxes. People moan about looters but flock to markets loaded with loot. They harp about disorderly traffic, yet blow past newly repaired stoplights.

Complaining, which could get you killed in the old Iraq, is the one constant in a country cast into a riptide of sporadically regulated democracy. This strange new freedom-of-speech thing is often a license to gripe about food, water and electricity, even in homes that have all three.

A tour of six cities and a large slice of countryside in the southern Shi’ite heartland, along with the Shi’ite district that makes up more than half of Baghdad, reveals a people at war with the past, weary of the present and wary of the future.

These proud people become downright venomous when shouted at, treated like inferiors or pushed around by what they perceive as a tense, trigger-happy and often-arrogant U.S. occupation.

At a smoke-spewing brick factory a half-hour’s drive from the holy city of Najaf, friendly chat turns toxic when the topic moves to war and politics.

“Bush wanted to attack to find weapons of mass destruction,” shouts Ali Hussein Mohammed, 54, a villager at the site of ancient Babylon.

“There are no weapons of mass destruction,” he says, eyes bulging. “Where are the promises for freedom? I don’t care who governs, but you promised us a government. We are a clever and educated people. How long must we wait?”

A crowd forms, and a group of heretofore friendly people shout at a Western reporter in a cacophony of complaints. A boy brandishes a broken bottle, a man shakes his scythe. Opinions and questions are fired like artillery rounds. A young man slithers through the circle and whispers: “Do you have any whiskey?”

Mohammed Shalan Asi, 24, later confides that local boys sneak off at night to get drunk, play video games and listen to pop music. He’s found a girl he wants to marry, but needs money and has no job.

He thinks women in this strict society should be allowed to wear clothing that doesn’t look like a camping tent, but only until they marry. A man might covet another’s wife if he got a good look at her, he says. Asked what he wants in the next 10 years, he doesn’t hesitate: “A house and a Mercedes.”

Amid the political debate, a subdued Mohan Hanza Karkoush, age 60 but looking 15 years older, strokes his snow-white beard and speaks softly, and the crowd grows quiet for a few seconds.

“My heart wants an Islamic government,” he says, pauses, then adds: “But everyone should have their party represented.”

Though the Bush administration fears an extremist Islamic state could fill the vacuum left by the secular socialist tyrant Saddam Hussein, the Shi’ites who make up Iraq’s majority are divided among four ayatollahs and a clutch of other clerics from revered Shi’ite families in Najaf.

Yet when the U.S. military raided and shut down a newspaper that quoted an ayatollah exhorting Iraqis to drive out U.S. forces, fewer than 500 people showed up for a protest march. The demonstrators drew bemused stares from the thousands shopping along the town’s central boulevard.

Each major mullah has, to varying degrees, expressed support for a transitional representative government. Yet their true intentions may be revealed by their most ardent supporters, who have killed two liquor merchants in the eastern city of Basra and have pressured women to cover their heads and bodies.

Dr. Mowafak Gorea, director of the newly named Thawra Hospital (it used to be Saddam Hospital), believes radical Shi’ites may get the attention, but everyone from communists to Christians to unemployed engineers is doing the same thing: venting after decades of tyranny so suffocating that parents couldn’t speak freely at home for fear their children might repeat something damning in school.

“They just want their voices heard,” says Dr. Gorea. They “were so long suppressed that they just want to get things off their chest.”

The perception that Shi’ites have taken over the 3 million-strong Baghdad district once known as Saddam City isn’t necessarily correct. The U.S. troop presence is prominent, though Dr. Gorea says the military refused his request to guard his hospital. Guards appointed by Shi’ite clerics took the job.

Young civilians expertly direct traffic at large intersections conspicuously lacking working traffic lights. Are they working for an ayatollah?

“No, it’s just people in the neighborhood,” says Sabar Hassan Habib, 32, nervously watching traffic clog up while he takes time to talk. “I was directing traffic and stopped one line of cars, and it had an American vehicle. He drove through and pointed a gun at me. How can we keep order if they do that?”

While Shi’ites have been considered the wild card, a rash of attacks on U.S. military personnel is blamed on supporters of Saddam. The Ba’ath Party underground is a bit reminiscent of the “Werewolves” — hard-core Nazi guerrillas that harassed the invading Allies in World War II.

The Shi’ite areas, an east-to-west arc from Basra to Nasiriyah to Samawah to Najaf, are relatively calm, their civil order steadily improving and their night life positively booming. Markets are crammed with people and commercial goods, much from the West, and water seems plentiful.

Despite dire warnings from military personnel and relief groups about the dangers of the road ahead and the next town, the rare Western visitor is unmolested in the bustling, catacomblike markets or the fabulous, neon-lit mosques.

At a hotel in Najaf, three giggling women in head-to-toe black garb sit on stairs and make suggestive hand gestures to a Western visitor. One appears in a hotel room doorway, pulls down her cloak and makes a “you and me” motion.

Demonstrations are usually small. In Samawah, about 120 former Iraqi soldiers gathered to shout and demand pay because, they say, they stayed home and let the U.S. military machine roll through.

In Najaf recently, 5,000 elderly people waited on the hot asphalt of the town square for up to eight hours for their pension checks. The few frail bodies that pushed toward the front gate were slammed away by troops using plastic riot shields to create a moving wall.

One of the few servicemen who wasn’t too wired to talk was Felipe Torres of the Puerto Rican National Guard. He had arrived the day before, and he seemed comfortable with the hostile-yet- harmless crowd of geriatrics.

“Kosovo was much worse,” says Guardsman Torres, an Arecibo police officer, referring to his 2000 peacekeeping stint in the Balkans. “They threw rocks, everything.”

Some of the relief groups that predicted a humanitarian catastrophe are starting to leave Iraq. The emphasis has moved to war and drought in Africa.

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