Wed, Apr 07, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Shiites replace roses with hand grenades in Baghdad

BAGHDAD , IRAQ

An Iraqi flees on his bike as a column of US Humvees is caught under fire in Baghdad's al-Showla neighborhood on Monday. Pitched battles in Baghdad's predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City on Sunday between militia members of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and the US military left 22 Iraqis dead and 85 others wounded, and killed seven US troops.

PHOTO: AFP

Almost a year ago, the Shiites of Sadr City were throwing flowers at the American tanks that rumbled into Baghdad and ended the rule of their longtime oppressor, former president Saddam Hussein.

But on Monday, many Iraqis were filling plain wooden coffins with the corpses of their kin and neighbors, killed in a firefight with American armored forces that now patrol their impoverished neighborhood.

"After American forces ended the regime, we wanted to welcome them," said Mohsin Ghassab, a 42-year-old unemployed Iraqi, who is a resident of the predominantly Shiite district.

"But now there is no stability," Ghassab said.

"They have to withdraw," Ghassab said. "To have them in tanks on our streets is unacceptable."

Eight American soldiers and about two dozen Iraqis died in the firefight that erupted on Sunday in the streets of the teeming district known as Sadr City, which lies on Baghdad's northeastern rim and is home to more than two million Shiites.

For American forces, the death toll amounted to one of the worst single losses in any confrontation since US troops overthrew Hussein on April 9.

For the Iraqis in Sadr City, once among the most repressed of Hussein's victims, it meant a crushing blow to hopes that had initially flowered after they welcomed American troops with handshakes and cries of welcome last year.

"Freedom under the gun is no freedom at all," said Abdel Karim al-Shara.

Along Chuwadir Street, which slices through the center of Sadr City, the disenchantment and fury about the continued military occupation, the lack of jobs and instability indicated that the US may have lost the hearts of a segment of the population it had perhaps initially won over by default.

"The Americans have no more business here," said Juma Majed, 40 years old.

Around him were signs of the peculiar ironies of what happens when war is taken to the doorsteps of a rundown slum teeming with people.

Six American tanks were lined up at a busy intersection, their turrets swinging languidly from side to side as cars and trucks honked and tried to outmaneuver each other to take up what little was left of the intersection. City buses packed with passengers pulled over to the side to make room for passing tanks.

Little girls with schoolbags and old women with vegetable sacks walked past the tanks, guarding a police station that the militiamen had tried to take over.

American soldiers crouched behind concrete blocks, their weapons trained on a huge crowd of Iraqi onlookers, who stood in crowds across the street and stared.

Hand-painted lettering on an abandoned sidewalk juice stand extolled the virtues of apricot nectar. Above the writing, bullet holes shattered the glass. Casings littered the street and greasy coils of rubber, all that was left of burning tires, were plastered in the road.

"What kind of democracy is this?" said Sheik Walid Hassan,

The detritus of battle scattered about the streets called into question the success of the plan for American-backed Iraqi police to take control of the city.

"Mahdi Army men took over the police station," said a young man named Mohammed, speaking of the militiamen.

"The Iraqi police don't like problems. So they stepped aside and said, `Welcome,'" he said.

The human costs were in black and white on a list posted on the gates of Chuwadir Hospital, listing 18 people killed, and nearly 80 wounded.

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