Sun, Nov 30, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Iraqis complain about Bush excursion

TALK OF THE TOWN Baghdad's kebab shops are buzzing about the US president's visit, with many people saying he used their country as a stage for a political stunt

AP , BAGHDAD, IRAQ

US President George W. Bush's surprise visit to Iraq was the talk of Baghdad's teahouses, kebab shops and mosques, with many Iraqis asking why he didn't take advantage of his trip to see firsthand how his rule has treated them.

Many complained that Bush met with few Iraqis during his secret, two-hour stay on Thursday evening and never left the grounds of a heavily fortified US base. Several called the trip an electoral stunt, and took offense that he would use their country as his stage.

"He visited Iraq for the sake of the Americans, not the Iraqis. He didn't come to see how we are doing," Muzher Abd Hanush, 54, said Friday in his barbershop. "To come, say hello and leave -- what good does that do?"

US forces in Iraq generally took the trip as a morale boost, and praised their commander-in-chief for what they called a courageous move.

"It's an extremely admirable gesture. It's really a good example as a leader," Captain Craig Childs said at his base in the northern city of Tikrit. "It's a bold statement that he's confident of the job we're doing here to come within the enemy's reach."

But among Iraqis generally disappointed in the US-led occupation, the trip swayed few opinions.

Some people applauded what they called a bold move and expressed vague hopes that it would help bring security, political stability and jobs to their war-shattered country. But they stressed it was results -- not a photo opportunity -- that would boost Bush's popularity here.

"If he takes care of Iraq, he will be welcomed here. If not -- whether he's here or in the White House -- he is of no use to us," said Fadel Hadi, 59, playing dominoes at a teahouse. "If his visit brings us some good, he will be welcome every day."

Ahmed Kheiri, 24, saw the visit as a campaign tactic.

"He came for the sake of the elections," Kheiri said. "He never thought of the Iraqi people. He doesn't care about us. It was a personal visit for his own sake."

Iraqi politicians had mixed reactions to the visit. Mouwafik al-Rubei'e, a member of the US-appointed Governing Council who met Bush on Thursday night, said the president "reaffirmed his country's commitment to building a new, democratic and prosperous Iraq."

Another member of the Governing Council, Mahmoud Othman, said the trip meant little.

"We cannot consider Bush's arrival at Baghdad International Airport yesterday a visit to Iraq," he said. "He did not meet with ordinary Iraqis. Bush was only trying to boost the morale of his troops."

Indeed, many Iraqis questioned how the trip could possibly help improve their dire situation. Eight months after the US invasion, Iraqis complain they still have few jobs, little security and no political representation.

During Friday prayers on the Muslim holy day, imams at Shiite and Sunni mosques alike criticized the visit, saying Bush should expend his energy helping Iraq recover from war instead of flying across the world to pose for the cameras.

"Instead of coming here to celebrate Thanksgiving with his troops, Bush should release the innocent people in his prisons and arrest the real terrorists conducting attacks," Skeikh Abdul Hadi al-Daraji said at the Muhsen Mosque in the poor, Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Sadr City.

"First Bush said he would liberate Iraq. Now he is occupying it. How long will he stay?" asked the imam at Baghdad's largest Sunni mosque, Abu Hanifa.

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