The children came out to cheer, and the adults waved from their doorways, as Staff Sgt. Jason Pond of the 101st Airborne Division led a patrol of infantry through the northern Baghdad district of Kasra. “They [the Iraqis] are friendly to us, and we’re friendly back. They come to us with their problems, and we try to fix them,” Sergeant Pond said about his work. Teenagers approached his patrol to report looting at a nearby government office, parents asked him where they might treat a son suffering from an accidental gunshot wound, residents of a middle-class neighborhood complained of squatters who had moved into an abandoned youth center. In some cases, there was little that Sergeant Pond’s patrol could do, but the residents appeared happy that at least one outside authority had taken an interest in their well-being.
Revisiting the same streets the next day, I listened to an outpouring of grievances–not about the US troops, whom residents consistently described as “very polite,” but about life in postwar Baghdad, where there’s one hour of power all night, where salaries are unpaid, where gangs hijack cars at night on the roads and where gas is in such short supply that frustrated drivers pull pistols on each other at service stations. “It is very difficult without a government, very difficult,” said schoolteacher Hamid Jassem. Another resident, who identified himself only as an oil-sector employee, was more militant: “America came here saying they wanted to help the Iraqi people, and we helped them defeat Saddam Hussein…. Well, we’re going to organize popular resistance against the Americans, like the Palestinian intifada, if they don’t give us some help.”
Nearly a month after Saddam Hussein’s statue came down in Firdous Square, an event that has come to mark the collapse of the old order, Iraqis offer very mixed reviews of the US invasion. The swift melting away of Baathist resistance in Iraq’s capital has made it unnecessary for the United States to maintain the kind of tight security measures that make life under other military occupations so onerous. Moreover, US soldiers and Marines appear to honestly believe themselves liberators. I have yet to see any of the humiliations inflicted on the occupied that are part of life in the Palestinian territories.
For some, the fall of Saddam fully justifies the uncertainties of the present. One old Communist whom I met in the Shiite holy city of Karbala wished to deliver a personal message of thanks to George W. Bush for “ridding us of that tyrant Saddam.” He was missing two fingers from his right hand, cut off during Saddam’s crackdown on the party in the 1970s. More common than gratitude is ambivalence. Tha’er Abdel Kader, a computer specialist, turned to me with delight when, driving through one of Baghdad’s commercial districts, he first laid eyes on an item that a month ago would have earned its owner a stretch in prison: “A satellite dish! That’s freedom.” Yet for Abdel Kader, as for many of his compatriots, it’s an article of faith that the United States invaded Iraq for the oil. He respects the work of the military but worries about what will happen when fast-living contractors begin to replace the hard-living soldiers as the most visible US presence on the ground: “When we see the Americans going around in big cars and eating in the expensive restaurants while we are going hungry, our feelings will change.”
There are parts of Iraq where the United States is simply not welcome. In a brief visit to the town of Falluja, just west of Baghdad, I saw banners hanging across the main street warning US forces to withdraw or be killed. An Apache helicopter hovered overhead, as the US garrison watched from behind a double row of concertina wire. Several days before, protesters had marched on a US-occupied school; the soldiers, claiming they’d heard shots from the crowd, opened fire, and sixteen were killed. Today, a colleague of mine who stopped to pray in the local mosque was told by worshipers that they are preparing a jihad to drive the occupants from their midst.