- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2004

BAGHDAD — Thaer M. Jabur sleeps with an AK-47 rifle on his bed near the front door and has taught his teenage daughter how to shoot. The 42-year-old father of two girls is not taking any risks after his own security guard tried to kill his wife and daughters three months ago.

Baghdad, he says, is a lot less violent than it was last May, when looters rampaged through the city. But it has a long way to go before it becomes the safe, vibrant city it once was years ago.

“We don’t go out to dinner or lunch somewhere. We are afraid that the places will be attacked by terrorists,” says Mr. Jabur, a tall, handsome Sunni Muslim.

“I go to restaurants with my colleagues, but with kids, it is different. I can’t imagine if anything were to happen to my kids.”

But, he quickly adds: “We are free. I can go where I want, do what I want and not get thrown into jail,” as he had been under Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Mr. Jabur is an engineer with a master’s degree from Belgrade University. A former military officer imprisoned twice under Saddam, he is now the sales manager for a trading company working with a large Turkish firm.

With a salary of $700 a month, Mr. Jabur is doing pretty well.

His daughters attend a private school and he owns a car. But Mr. Jabur is as vulnerable as the rest of the population to the culture of bribes and violence engendered under Saddam and aggravated by postwar unemployment and poverty.

He worries about his daughters being kidnapped, about his house being attacked, about being caught in the cross fire of a terrorist attack, like the Iraqi civilians killed in a number of recent suicide bombings.

When it comes to things like medicine for his 13-year-old daughter, Noor, who has breathing problems, he has to ask contacts in Turkey to send some. Doctors, nurses, government school teachers, police they all work on bribes, he says.

The corruption is worse than under Saddam, says Mr. Jabur. “Before, you could report them to the intelligence or the ministries. Now who am I supposed to complain to? The Iraqi Governing Council, who have never been on the streets?”

The U.S.-appointed 25-member Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) reflects the ethnic and religious makeup of the country’s Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds. Members of the council live under death threats from those angry at the American presence in Iraq.

Hotels housing expatriates or those cooperating with the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority like the IGC and a variety of contractors are mini-fortresses.

Army tanks, private security services, barbed wire and body searches are all part of the hotel experience. Five-star hotels like the Sheraton soar above the Baghdad skyline, making them choice targets for rocket fire and mortar fire.

Others, like the Baghdad Hotel, also have been attacked with lethal car bombs. Few expatriates go out after dark unaccompanied, and nobody walks through the city at night.

“Every three days or so, we hear that someone is killed, for political or personal reasons. This is becoming the norm in Baghdad,” says Mr. Jabur, who has taught both his wife and his eldest daughter how to shoot the Kalashnikov.

“Highway robberies, killings, stealing” are part of daily life, he says. But the number of incidents has dropped since the mayhem that beset the city after the war ended. “Before, we would hear 1,000 stories a day. Now, we hear 10 or 20 stories,” he says.

During the day, Baghdad is bustling. Although run-down, shops are open and people are buying. Women, dressed in a range of clothes, from full black abayas to jeans and long-sleeved shirts, are out shopping at open-air fruit and vegetable markets, bakeries, supermarkets and cosmetics stores.

Blue- and turquoise-domed mosques and a number of yellow-brick Christian churches dot the city that wraps itself around the beige-colored waters of the Tigris.

Most of Baghdad looks worn, crumbling after years of economically crippling sanctions, a dusty backdrop for some beautiful buildings with ornate frieze work, or delicately arched windows painted sky blue that date back to the early 1900s.

Wealthier neighborhoods typically have large two-story yellow-stone houses behind high walls and orange trees. Closer downtown, laundry and satellite dishes hang from the balconies of sand-colored apartment buildings.

There are traffic jams everywhere, as cars mostly beat-up European models with the occasional Oldsmobile spewing exhaust from low-grade leaded gasoline jostle to get around traffic circles and busy streets without traffic lights. The only new vehicles are the large SUVs and minivans that belong to international concerns operating in Baghdad.

At night, the streets are abandoned. Most shops and restaurants are shut tight. There are police checkpoints on the road, and anyone driving has a gun.

“It’s a war zone,” says one American contracted by the State Department, as he walked by the concrete barriers laid zigzag across the street behind one hotel.

There is a clear division between the life lived by the average Iraqi out and about in Baghdad, and the heavily guarded areas where the U.S. and coalition military and civilians live and work.

But divisions between U.S. and Iraqi lifestyles are getting blurred by the suicide car bombings and brutal attacks, which indiscriminately kill civilians.

For those less educated than Mr. Jabur, or for those tainted by their association with Saddam, or for those without guns to protect themselves, life is hard.

Abandoned by her husband, Leila Torsan lives in a tiny one-bedroom apartment with her 15-year-old daughter, 19-year-old son and 60-year-old sister. Two of them sleep in the bedroom, one sleeps on the living room couch, and one on the floor.

Meals are served on a tiny table squeezed into the living room next to the refrigerator, which serves more as a pantry, as there is rarely electricity here.

She also can’t afford to pay her landlord for 24-hour access to water, so she makes do by filling containers during the two times a day he pumps water into her first-floor apartment.

“It’s better, safer than three or four months ago,” she says over a cold flashlight-lit dinner of yogurt, olives, bread, pickles, stewed meat and cucumbers.

Many Iraqis are lost in the transition from Saddam’s brutal leadership to something new and different.

“When the United States entered, all the soldiers were scared and people respected the U.S. forces. Their big mistake was to open all the ministries and let the Iraqi people steal everything,” says Vianne Mehmud El Rehmi. “And now people are fighting against the U.S. They are not afraid. They do not respect them.”

“There is no government. There is no law,” adds her husband, Mohammed Sharir, a former pilot who trained in Belarus but, like his wife, is now unemployed.

Mr. Sharir, his wife and four daughters, the youngest of whom has a crooked spine and cannot walk, live in a comfortable house with a small yard that they moved into in 1986.

The furnishings are spare; the bedrooms have no closets, chairs or desks. Finally, Mrs. El Rehmi admits she has been selling off their furniture to survive.

Last to go will be the TV, she says, because Jinan, 7, likes to sit in her wheelchair and watch her idol, Justin Timberlake, on music videos.

Her sisters, Duha, 17, Joanne, 16, and Hanna, 13, all attend a school 20 minutes away by bus. Like Mr. Jabur, the girls are frightened of being kidnapped or getting caught in terrorist cross fire.

“Many thieves stop the bus with guns and take girls,” Duha says.

“We are afraid if there are Americans beside us, because if anyone shoots them, we will get hit,” adds Joanna.

Although critical of America’s inability to quickly fix the country’s infrastructure, create jobs and set up an efficient new police force, the family dreams of having their youngest daughter treated in the United States, and their other daughters to study there.

They do not want the American forces to leave.

But many Iraqis fear that members of the Iraqi Governing Council are interested in lining their own pockets and shoring up their political power in advance of any elections.

They mistrust council members like Ahmed Chalabi and Adnan Pachachi, who spent most of their lives abroad.

“These people have no relation with the reality of Iraq,” Mr. Jabur says. Many locals also accuse the IGC members of beefing up their security forces into militias to intimidate people into joining their respective political parties.

Mr. Jabur believes Iraqis are not yet ready to take control of the country and dreads the June 30 deadline set by Washington to hand over to civilian rule.

“Let the United States wait one year more. We waited 35 years; we can wait one more year. And for sure Bremer is one thousand times better than Saddam,” he says.

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