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Iraqis Bitter, But Few Wish for Saddam's Return

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, I'm Debbie Elliott. Three years ago today...

Vice President DICK CHENEY: A few minutes ago the air war in Iraq began.

(Soundbite of aircraft and explosion)

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

Well, I can hear, mainly, the anti-aircraft guns, but there were several blasts.

Unidentified Man #2: We're basically on our plan in moving towards Baghdad, but there are still many unknowns out there.

ELLIOTT: The reporter's voice you just heard was NPR's Anne Garrels, who was in Baghdad at the start of the war and is there today. Hi, Annie.

GARRELS: Hello.

ELLIOTT: Take us back. What was the mood in Baghdad as the war began?

GARRELS: Many Iraqis wanted an end to Saddam's regime, but even among them, there were mixed feelings about another war, and the specter of a U.S. led occupation. And some have inflated ideas of what the U.S. could or should to. And there were those who knew just how complicated their society was and how explosive it was going to be once the lid of Saddam's regime was lifted.

You know, one man said to me as the war started, you will now have to be in complete control and we will resent you every step of the way. Well, as it turned out, the U.S. was not in complete control on the ground and that resentment is even greater now.

ELLIOTT: What are the missteps that Iraqis point to?

GARRELS: Well, first and foremost, security and the continued shortage of basic services, like electricity, garbage collection, even gas here in a country that's basically sitting on a lake of oil. There's never been enough American troops here to secure the country and as the security situation continues to deteriorate, American troops have become understandably jumpy. Their suspicious of any Iraqi approaching them, certainly in a car. They've become more isolated from the population.

ELLIOTT: How would you sum up how people there feel about Americans when they see people patrolling on their streets?

GARRELS: I think two words: bitterness and disappointment. They say life is worse than under Saddam, though, in the same breath, most would not wish a return to the past. Violence under Saddam, though, was predictable in its brutality. The violence now, by Sunni-led insurgents, Shiite militias, criminals and the U.S. military, seems capricious to people here.

It's not uncommon to hear Iraqis say that the U.S. mistakes have been deliberate in order to make sure this country never again stands on its feet, and that raises another issue. Iraqis always blame other people, and that's not uncommon, coming out of a dictatorship. But they tend to blame everyone else, the U.S., surrounding countries. When a bombing happens here in Baghdad, the first comment out of an Iraqi is: it was done by foreigners.

ELLIOTT: You know, we hear time and time again from President Bush and others in the administration that the U.S. will stand down when the Iraqi people stand up. What is the status now of the Iraqi security forces and is that likely to happen?

GARRELS: Well, the Iraqi army is unquestionably better than it was. But it's still totally dependent on the U.S. for logistical support. It cannot operate on its own. And there is still no Air Force to speak of. Acknowledging the military's weaknesses, the U.S. did work hard in the last year and a half pairing U.S. battalions with Iraqi ones, and this has paid off. But large elements of the police, however, are, well, they're an entirely different matter. They weren't vetted, they were thrown onto the streets and many either came from or hooked up with predominately Shiite militias and they're conducting a lot of the sectarian violence. The military is now trying to do what it did with the military, but, you know, it's three years in.

ELLIOTT: How much closer are Iraqis to forging a consensus on what they want for a government for their country?

GARRELS: I think it's still a long way off. You know, elections don't mean democracy. There were no real debates. Politicians were much too scared to appear in public for the most part. There's still a lot of righting of old wrongs. And the Iraqi constitution, it so far means very little.

Yes, people voted for it. But there's still no understanding of key issues. How the country's resources are to be distributed, what federal system will emerge, and what kind of an Islamic country this will ultimately be, and what people here ultimately want.

ELLIOTT: Thanks a lot. NPR's Anne Garrels in Baghdad.

GARRELS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anne Garrels
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