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The New Enemy: Frustration

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 27, 2003

goal for jersey
[Times photo: Kinfay Moroti]
A U.S. soldier tries to clear the entrance to the Republican Palace in Baghdad, where Iraqis have been gathering the past week to seek jobs. Tension is building between soldiers trying to keep the peace and Iraqis desperate for work.

[Times photo: Kinfay Moroti]
A. U.S. soldier tells one of the hundreds of Iraqi job applicants in Baghdad that he should come back at 8 a.m. the next day.

[Times photo: Kinfay Moroti]
Iraqis ask U.S. soldier Nicholas Mayher, right, about how to apply for jobs last week outside the Republican Palace in Baghdad.

BAGHDAD, Iraq - As it became clear that the United States was about to attack his country, Iraqi army Sgt. Ammar Sahmi had a frank talk with a fellow soldier.

"I told him it's useless. "We have old Russian toys, not weapons, and we will lose this war because of the difference in technology.' Besides, there is no belief in the cause; Saddam Hussein is killing us and stealing from us."

For refusing to fight, Sahmi was imprisoned in Mosul, beaten on the head and shocked with electrical cords. He survived only because American soldiers captured the city, and the jail guards fled, unlocking the doors on their way out and telling everyone, "It's over. Go home."

But now it is the Americans, not Hussein, that 25-year-old Sahmi sees as his oppressor. On a recent morning, he joined hundreds of other Iraqi men and women who came looking for jobs, only to be yelled at and told to back off.

"We had hope for the future, something better for our country, but look at this situation," he said, as dozens pressed around him, echoing his words. "Look at all these people. We are starving. We need food. We need clothes. Our children need to go to hospitals and schools. Everybody is suffering."

For the past week, it has been like this every day outside the Republican Palace, one of Hussein's former residences and now a base for the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division. It also serves as a de facto job fair, where the Americans are interviewing Iraqis to act as translators and to work in hospitals, schools and power plants.

But the pace of hiring has been slow, and perhaps nowhere else in Baghdad is the tension so great between U.S. soldiers trying to secure a jittery peace and Iraqi civilians desperate for work. The underlying emotion is fear: for the soldiers, fear of snipers and suicide bombers; for the Iraqis, fear of a chaotic present and an unknown future. But it is a fear that often erupts as anger.

"I understand what they're going through, but I've got a job to do," said Staff Sgt. Michael Lucas of Warsaw, Ind. Like other soldiers, he has had to fire his weapon into the air when crowds began to get unruly.

"This part of the operation makes me more nervous than the actual combat because we could at least identify who was fighting. Now everyone is in civilian clothes, and if someone wants to do something, it would be easier."

Lucas finds himself looking at men's feet to see whether the men are wearing black combat boots - a sign they might be fedayeen - or scrutinizing their shirts for any suspicious bulges underneath.

Yet even in this volatile atmosphere, there are glimmers of emerging trust. A soldier in Lucas' unit got a box of Starlight mints from home and passed them out to neighborhood kids. In return, they presented the troops with roses.

One woman, a bacteriologist, is trying to organize a way of saying "thank you" to the United States for deposing Hussein. Other Iraqis have cooked meals for the soldiers.

"They love us," Lucas says. "Ninety percent of the families try to invite us to dinner and sit down and talk to us."

But frustration still runs high on both sides, aggravated by what some Americans see as the Iraqis' impatience and by what some Iraqis see as the soldiers' arrogance.

The setting doesn't help.

Since the 3rd Infantry entered Baghdad in early April, Lucas and 15 other soldiers have bivouaced in an elegant home in the Republican Palace complex along the Tigris River. The mansion, which probably belonged to a top Baath Party official, has marble floors, mahogany furniture and a game room with a pool table.

Every day, Iraqis gather at the entrance to a palm-lined avenue that leads to the lavish complex where the Americans stay. By mid morning, the throng is usually big enough that soldiers have to string concertina wire across the road to keep the crowd from blocking the movement of Army vehicles.

Forbidden to enter now, just as they were forbidden to enter during Hussein's era, the Iraqis stare sullenly toward the palace. A symbol of the regime's excesses is now a symbol of Western imperialism.

"TV should come here and show how America and Israel are getting the benefit of Iraq," said Khalil Ibrahim, 42, an electrician. "Not a drop of water are we receiving. Where's the help? If we don't get our freedom, we will look for Saddam and fight with him to get rid of them. All they gave us is looting and suffering."

As Ibrahim spoke, a restive crowd swelled around him, blocking the road and creating a tense scene.

"I've got to get these people to back up NOW!" a young soldier shouted, waving his M-16.

"See how arrogant he is?" Ibrahim said to a reporter. "This is our land."

"Back up!" the soldier yelled again.

"If they treat us like this, we will kill them," another Iraqi shouted.

The soldier, his face red and twisted with anger, fired into the air - once, then again. The crowd retreated, but the agitation grew.

"Is this soldier working with Saddam?" Ibrahim demanded. "Is he a bodyguard for Saddam?"

Sgt. Lucas was not on duty then. But, he said later, he understood the soldier's reaction.

"When a larger crowd shows up, it gets kind of nerve-racking. These people don't have the same customs we do in the United States, space-wise. They get real close to you, and they're very persistent. We tell them to move three or four times, and they come right back."

The Iraqis' anger is fueled not just by desperation to make money but by confusion over the Americans' hiring procedures. After two wars and 12 years of sanctions, Iraq's economy already was in such bad shape that even professionals earned as little as 3,000 dinars - about $1.50 - a month. Since the latest war began five weeks ago, few people have been paid, and many have nowhere to go because their workplaces were damaged or destroyed.

Last Monday and Tuesday, the 3rd Infantry began taking applications from doctors, electricians, teachers and others needed to get the country up and running again. But so many promising candidates came that the process was called to a temporary halt as of Wednesday.

"We had 900 applications and only 13 people doing interviews," said Capt. Stacey Simms, a public affairs officer.

Simms said the public was informed of the delay through radio and "word-of-mouth advertising." But many Iraqis can't listen to the radio because they have no power, and the only word that seemed to spread was for everyone to go to the Republican Palace on Wednesday. By 10 a.m., hundreds had gathered, including doctors, writers, a soccer star and a famous Iraqi radio personality. Some carpenters even arrived with their toolboxes, ready to start work.

"There is no information. We don't know where to go or how long to stay," complained Nassren Haqader, a bacteriologist who makes $1.50 a month in a Baghdad clinic and wants a better-paying job.

Haqader said she hated Saddam Hussein - "he destroyed us" - and was so happy to see Americans enter Baghdad that she gave a soldier a flower.

"I know you are intelligent people," she said. "You have to organize this situation. America is very good for us, and I know you're helping us, but you have to find jobs for people. This is the most important thing. Many people have no food. People have spent all their money."

Since the 3rd Infantry began taking applications, it has made some changes to improve communication with the job-seekers and reduce hostility. Several translators have been hired - at $5 a day - to talk to the crowds. Soldiers will do more preliminary screening instead of handing application forms to all who show up.

"They think that because they have an application in hand, they are entitled to come through and be interviewed," Simms said.

On Saturday, a large sign finally went up; "We are not interviewing today. We will be taking applications and coordinating interviews on Monday at 08:00."

And so the Americans and the Iraqis continue to build their relationship, one wary step at a time.

Ammar Sahmi, the Iraqi sergeant who defected, wonders whether he will ever be able to put his business degree to use and afford to marry.

Sgt. Lucas, who hasn't seen his wife and two kids in months, wonders whether someone in the crowd will pull a grenade or a gun. But he has a sense, too, that things might finally turn out okay.

"We were talking about this last night - that we might be like the World War II vets that go back to Omaha Beach. It would be kind of cool to come back in 20 years."

- Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at susan@sptimes.com

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