Wed, May 14, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Euphoria at Saddam's fall waning

Reconstruction efforts are foundering, lawlessness is rampant and the US is struggling to fulfil its promises

By Ewen Macaskill  /  THE GUARDIAN , BAGHDAD

ILLUSTATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

afid Hamid, who makes his living selling tea on the pavements of Baghdad, helped topple former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein last month. Seeing his neighbors struggle to climb on to Saddam's statue in Paradise Square, he fetched a ladder from his lock-up, allowing his friends to clamber up.

The destruction of the statue, relayed around the world by crews encamped in the Palestine Hotel opposite, provided the most symbolically important moment of the war and sent a signal to the Iraqi people that Saddam had lost power.

Hamid, 24, remains euphoric. He hauls the ladder out together with a T-shirt he was wearing that day. It bears the letters USA, his own private welcome to the US tanks.

"I hated Saddam. Two of my uncles were imprisoned by him in 1979 and I have not seen them since," he said.

But the euphoria has long been lost on others in the crowd that day and throughout Iraq. The US-led reconstruction of Iraq is foundering. Washington prepared thoroughly for war but not for its aftermath. US President George W. Bush's appointment of former Lieutenant-General Jay Garner to run Iraq has proved disastrous and he has been replaced.

The rigid police state of Saddam has given way to lawlessness on a grand scale, stretching the length of the country.

Looting persists and criminal gangs make travel risky. In Paradise Square, street traders sell Kalashnikovs for US$75 within feet of one of the few police cars on duty in the capital.

While US soldiers tally the number of illegal weapons they manage to confiscate each night on patrol, hundreds more are being sold to Baghdad residents desperate for weapons to protect their homes.

Crime tops the list of Iraqi complaints, but they also grumble about a severe electricity shortage that leaves most of Baghdad in total darkness night after night. Beginning to run out of money, they worry too about when -- or if -- they will get their old jobs back.

The pedestal on which the Saddam statue stood now has a message to the US in red letters: "All Done, Go Home." Many Iraqis are happy for America to stay on while lawlessness is rampant, but not for too long. The danger for the US is that the various Iraqi grievances will congeal into resentment directed at the American forces.

There are frequent warning signs for the Americans of what might lie ahead. Almost every day, US forces trade fire with Iraqis throughout the country. In Baghdad last week, a US soldier was killed in a bold daylight attack on one of the bridges over the Tigris. An Iraqi walked up to him with a pistol and opened fire.

The previous day, two Iraqis fired at a reconnaissance patrol of the 3rd Infantry Division with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades north of Baghdad. An Iraqi was killed. On the same day, near the northern town of Baiji, a convoy from the 4th Infantry Division came under fire from Iraqis with rifles and machine guns.

It is very different from the welcome the US soldiers received in Paradise Square a month ago.

Adnam Mohammed Sayeed, a former Iraqi Airlines pilot, whose schoolboy son was the first into Paradise Square that day to hammer at the base of the statue, said "We can't wait two months, or one month, or even next week for the US to sort things out. The weather is getting hotter. We can't go on living like this."

Sayeed translated for the crowd that day, asking the US for a rope and the horsepower to drag the statue down. He now regrets his and his son's participation and described the event as "unpleasant."

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