- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 19, 2006

BAGHDAD — Iraqis interviewed on the streets of Baghdad on the eve of the third anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion said it will take at least a decade, maybe longer, to get their country on its feet.

After three years of war and with no signs of the conflict in Iraq ending soon, many Iraqis said they had lost confidence in their political leadership’s ability to pull the country together.

“Saddam [Hussein] was a dictator, it was one-party rule, but now we have 60 parties running the country,” said 55-year-old Falah Hassan, referring to the multiple political factions that make up the main political alliances in the national assembly. Tomorrow marks the third anniversary of the invasion that toppled Saddam.

“We don’t want to say Saddam is better than this, but the situation is bad,” said Mr. Hassan, fingering his Muslim prayer beads as he stood in the entrance of his small hardware store in Baghdad’s busy shopping district of Karrada.

“It will not be less than 10 years” before Iraq is back to normal, and we will once again feel safe, Mr. Hassan said.

For 30-year-old Ayad Khaz Ali, who works in Baghdad’s leather district selling custom-made leather coats, getting rid of Saddam was like being let out of a cage.

“We felt happy when the dictator fell, but the ones who took that happiness away are the terrorists,” he said, adding that business had dropped off as death and violence has dominated the streets.

“We just blame our government and security systems, because they are not doing anything to get rid of the terror here in Iraq,” Mr. Ali said.

But he denied that there was a civil war.

“Our brothers are getting killed every day, Shi’ites and Sunnis. But [civil war] must start from the bedroom, because there are a lot of mixed marriages here — that will never happen,” he said.

Despite the mistakes Mr. Ali felt the American-led coalition has made in Iraq, such as disbanding the army, he called on them to stay until Iraq had a leader with a “steel fist” capable of stopping the violence.

“If they left now, it would be a victory for the terrorists,” he said.

Others say civil war is already under way, and point out that even repeated curfews have failed to stop sectarian slayings and car bombs that continue to explode daily in the capital.

“Civil war exists right now, but it has not been announced,” said Ali Faris, who works in a cigar shop in the once-upscale business district of Arasat.

“It will take 10 years or more to fix Iraq — if we don’t break out in full-scale civil war,” he said.

Mr. Faris said the Americans are the only ones who have enough power to roll back the violence. “If the U.S. destroyed the Soviet Union, can they not fix Iraq?” he asked.

The United States currently has about 130,000 troops in Iraq, and last week deployed to the Baghdad area an additional battalion task force from its “call-forward force” in Kuwait.

Life is much more peaceful in the Shi’ite dominated south and Kurdish north, with businesses open late and few of the horrific bombs and attacks that prevail in the strongly Sunni and religiously mixed areas of central Iraq.

Najeeb Hanoudi, an Iraqi Catholic in his 70s who grew up side by side with Muslims in the now-troubled city of Mosul, said the solution to Iraq’s lethal triple insurgency of nationalists, former Ba’athists and al Qaeda was not easy, but it was possible.

“They can be bought off,” he said, smoking calmly in a Baghdad hotel coffee shop. “You can buy people here by three methods: money, women and food. Every Iraqi, including myself, is amenable to this sort of treatment.” All except the al Qaeda group, led by the Jordanian-born Islamic extremist Abu Musab Zarqawi, he said.

“They are the most dangerous. They don’t care about human life. They murder, they decapitate, and I don’t know why,” Mr. Hanoudi said.

A supporter of the Americans when they first arrived in Iraq and their removal of Saddam, Mr. Hanoudi is now much more reserved. His son was shot by U.S. troops, and despite U.S. attempts to help, his son now lies in a vegetative state.

“The current situation is chaotic, dangerous and very unpredictable in every aspect. I’m very sad that it has turned out to be like that,” he said, sipping some milky coffee.

After an hour of talking, Mr. Hanoudi concluded: “I might have given a gloomy and pessimistic picture, but still, in the depths of my heart, I am cautiously optimistic for a better future, for freedom, prosperity and democracy for my children and grandchildren.”

In military action yesterday, American and Iraqi troops pushing through a desolate area of Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland rounded up dozens more suspected insurgents, including the purported killers of a television journalist, U.S. and Iraqi officials told the Associated Press yesterday.

In Baghdad, meanwhile, a dozen more bodies were found as a shadowy war of Shi’ite-Sunni reprisals went on, and Shi’ite Muslim pilgrims heading to the holy city of Karbala again came under attack, with a roadside bomb killing one and wounding at least five, the AP reported.

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