~ Sunday, August 24, 2003
Chaos and Calm Are 2 Realities for U.S. in Iraq
By DEXTER FILKINS
August 24, 2003
DIWANIYA, Iraq, Aug. 19 — As the area around Baghdad endured a week of repeated violence, a happier scene unfolded in this city, a two-hour drive to the south.
American soldiers, without helmets or flak jackets, attended graduation ceremonies of the Diwaniya University Medical School. At ease with the Iraqi students and their parents, the American marines laughed, joked and posed in photographs. One by one, the students walked up to thank them, for Marine doctors had taught classes in surgery and gynecology and helped draw up the final exams.
"We like the Americans very much here," said Zainab Khaledy, 22, who received her medical degree last Sunday. "We feel better than under the old regime. We have problems, like security, but everything is getting better."
Such is the dual reality that is coming to define the American enterprise in Iraq, a country increasingly divided between those willing to put up with the American occupation and those determined to fight it. While the areas stretching west and north from Baghdad roil and burn, much of the rest of the country remains, most of the time, remarkably calm. [On Saturday, three British soldiers were killed in the south, in Basra.]
Rather than fight the Americans, most Iraqis appear to be readily accepting the benefits of a wide-ranging reconstruction.
The two faces of the occupation give American policy makers something to take solace in and something to worry over. Four months into the occupation, the rebellion against American forces, though fierce, is still largely limited to the Arab Sunni Muslim population and its foreign supporters and confined to a relatively limited geographic area.
In much of the rest of the country, in places like Diwaniya and Mosul and Amara, American and British soldiers are finding a population that has, at least for now, made a fragile and tentative peace with the occupation. Violence still breaks out but increasingly in broad regions it no longer seems the norm.
In the north, the Kurds, long the beneficiaries of American protection, count themselves as America's most enthusiastic supporters. In the south, the country's Shiite majority, while restive and suspicious, has largely chosen to go along for now.
"I don't accept the definition of a country in chaos," L. Paul Bremer III, the chief American administrator, said this month. "Most of this country is at peace."
But the violence in and around the capital, and the growing incidence of terrorism, seen in the suicide-bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, pose a grave threat to the American rebuilding plan. Both undercut the establishment of democratic rule, and make the Americans less confident about handing over political power to the Iraqis.
With the capital under threat of attacks, the Iraqi Governing Council, the 25-member body ultimately expected to assume the reins of power, has increasingly conducted its business behind the marble walls of the presidential palace — away from danger, but away from the people.
The atmosphere in Diwaniya is far different. The 2,300 marines based here move freely about the city, tossing candy to the children, waving back to the parents. Not a single marine in Diwaniya has been lost to hostile fire since their arrival in April. There is not even a curfew.
"This is not Baghdad," said Lt. Col. Patrick Malay, who commands a force of about 950 marines in Diwaniya. "The Iraqis love us here."
By any standard, Diwaniya is fraught with problems, many left over from the war. Deprived of electricity and bottled oxygen, the ward for premature babies at the children's and maternity hospital here has all but collapsed, and doctors say that babies are dying at a higher rate than before. The shortage of electricity has led to the closing of the local textile mill and tire factory, which employed hundreds.
Recent outbreaks of rioting here have shown that Diwaniya residents are impatient with the pace of progress and suspicious of the occupiers. Two recent demonstrations, one involving a failure to pay Iraqi laborers working on an American project, and the other a protest against the local governor, turned momentarily violent. The demonstrations, each involving a couple of hundred people, were dispersed.
"Are they going to pay us or not?" asked Asad Joda, who said he had worked for two weeks without being paid. "Every day I come here, and they tell me, come back tomorrow, come back tomorrow."
But for a city emerging from three decades of neglect and dictatorship, Diwaniya in many ways seems remarkably stable. For instance, there is none of the virulent anti-American graffiti that marks walls and alleyways across Baghdad.
So far, most of the anger shown here has not been directed at Americans. With hundreds of thousands of dollars pouring into the area, the city and its surrounding areas are rapidly being restored and in some cases improved.
Since April, groups of marines have been fanning out across Qadisiya Province to oversee an array of projects intended to revive the local economy, its government and education systems, while putting Iraqis back to work.
In interviews, Marine commanders rattled off a list of local projects: 86 schools renovated; the police station, courthouse and jail reopened. Some 2,500 police officers, many of them graduates of a one-week human rights course, patrol the streets. Hundreds of local men earn $15 a week clearing weeds from local irrigation canals.
The marines are even able to go beyond immediate postwar needs and move toward strengthening the civil society. They are supervising construction of a women's shelter here, and they make regular deliveries to a local nursing home. They have even set up a Rotary Club.
"We are in lock-sync with the Iraqis," Colonel Malay said. "We want what they want."
It is difficult to judge the lasting impact of the reconstruction projects. The new coat of paint on the Dar Al Salam primary school makes the place look brand new. While the electricity flows erratically, some residents said they were getting more now than before the war.
Anecdotally, the efforts of the marines sometimes appear to be succeeding exactly as the policy makers in Washington intended.
"Every morning, I come to work with a passion to serve my country," said Aladeen Muhammad Abdul Hamza, who took a job in the new Iraqi police force. Mr. Hamza, a former officer in the Iraqi Army, is being paid $60 a month.
One day last week, Mr. Hamza scurried about the grounds outside the old textile mill, where hundreds of Iraqis employed in the weed-clearing had come to get paid. He did his best to keep order. "I know all about human rights," he said.
Even when things do not go especially well in Diwaniya, there seems to be a reservoir of good will. Much of it apparently stems from the historical predations suffered by the Shiite people at the hands of Saddam Hussein. Many in Diwaniya lost relatives and friends to agents of Mr. Hussein, and they have not forgotten.
Hassan Naji, a records clerk at the Diwaniya children's hospital, is critical of recent changes but only up to a point. Like many at the hospital, he is convinced that newborns are dying needlessly because the hospital lacks the electricity to run its sterile ward for premature babies. Before the war, an emergency line kept the electricity flowing.
Mr. Naji could produce few records on the recent infant deaths, attributing the inability to the new freedom brought by the Americans.
"Democracy has ruined this hospital," he said, sifting through uncollated notes and jottings. "In the past, people really worked at their jobs, if only because they were terrified of their supervisors. We kept the most accurate records. We had weekly meetings on the worst cases.
"Now, with all this freedom, no one cares anymore," he said. "We don't keep records anymore."
For all of that, Mr. Naji said, he would not pine for the days of Saddam Hussein. "Never," he said. "The Americans did a great thing when they got rid of that tyrant. Things could even get worse here and I would still feel that way."
"Believe me," Mr. Naji added, "most of the people in Diwaniya would feel that way."
The Americans could only wish that their welcome in Diwaniya was reproduced in towns like Tikrit, Ramadi and Falluja, part of the central and western core of Iraq, an area from which Mr. Hussein drew his ruling class. The destruction of his government brought an abrupt end to the privileges many enjoyed.
When American troops arrived in Ramadi in April, Sheik Fauzi Ftekhan Aburisha was the man they had to work with. Chosen by Ramadi's tribal leaders as their representative, Sheik Fauzi struck a deal that allowed American forces to enter the city. He assured other tribal leaders that the Americans would leave them alone. He assured the Americans that they would not be attacked.
"I really put myself out for the Americans," he said in an interview. "I guaranteed them — gave them my word — no one would take up arms against them."
That did not last. American soldiers were killed, and Americans began hunting some of the people to whom the sheik had promised safety.
These days, he said, many of the town's residents are so enraged that they have sworn to battle the Americans forever. The sheik, who counts himself a supporter of the Americans, is caught in the middle.
Whatever restraint the people had, they have lost, he said. "They will keep fighting."