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For Iraqis, Image of America Is Based on US Military Effort

Most Iraqis say the United States was right to wage war to oust the country's dictator, Saddam Hussein. But they say Americans have been naïve in their efforts to rebuild Iraq and have done lasting damage to America's image as a champion of human rights.

A Kurdish member of the Iraqi National Assembly, Mahmud Othman, says most Iraqis viewed the U.S.-led ousting of Saddam Hussein in April, 2003 as an answer to their prayers. "When Saddam Hussein was toppled, everybody was really happy about it because he was really a nightmare. You can hardly find any other regime similar and Americans did a good job," he said.

Mr. Othman says, prior to the war, the United States' image among the Iraqis was overwhelmingly positive, with most believing that America had the power to not only win wars, but to bring peace and prosperity to the world.

A random VOA survey of dozens of Iraqis indicates that many people here remain deeply grateful to Washington for getting rid of Saddam. But some of the goodwill they once felt toward the United States appears to have evaporated.

A Sunni Arab school teacher, Salim Mohammed, says he blames the unrelenting chaos and bloodshed in Iraq, which followed the dramatic military victory, on U.S. over-confidence and lack of post-war planning. "I would say that they did not do their job in the proper way. Sometimes, I'm wondering why because they have such sophisticated intelligence services, etc. But they were just paying attention to ousting Saddam in one way or another. Focusing on this target made them commit mistakes and have made them, unfortunately, create more and more enemies among the Iraqis," he said.

Iraqis say America's inability to quickly establish security and provide essential services gave an early push to the deadly insurgency.

As U.S. casualties mounted, ordinary Iraqis began complaining that many Americans treated them with disrespect and hostility.

Mr. Othman, the Kurdish assembly member, notes the insurgency created a ripe environment for overreaction on both sides. "Of course, we understand American sacrifices and victims. We are sorry for that and I understand exactly what the soldier thinks. Of course he has to be nervous. He will not have faith in Iraqis. But there are some things done which has created a lot of problems for the Americans; the way they search the houses, the way they capture people, the way they deal with people," he said.

Iraqis say their opinion of Americans remained mixed until early last year, when graphic photos and details of U.S. military prison guards abusing some Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison emerged.

Despite U.S. assurances that only a handful of guards were involved in the abuse, carpenter, Abbas Hussein Hassoun, 33, says negative opinion about the United States hardened across religious and ethnic lines.

He says after that incident, many Iraqis became convinced that Americans were arrogant and hypocritical about their stated commitment to democracy and human rights. "I don't know if the damage to America's image can ever be repaired here," Mr. Hassoun says.

Major General William Webster is the commanding general of the U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division, which leads coalition forces in the greater Baghdad area.

He acknowledges that serious mistakes have overshadowed much of the positive work U.S. troops have performed in rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure and the training of Iraqi forces.

General Webster says commanders are working hard to find ways to improve the U.S. military's relationship with the Iraqi people. "We've always talked about 'make no new enemies.' That is a clear point our commander's intend. We have to continue to remind our soldiers, who are at the pointy end of a spear, about proper behavior and give them rules and techniques that allow them to accomplish the mission, maintain their own protection, and make no new enemies," he said.

Last September, a non-governmental agency report, commissioned by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, urged American leaders to do more to convince the people of Iraq and elsewhere that the United States is at war against terrorists, not ordinary Muslims.

The report says that the only effective way of dealing with terrorism is eliminating the conditions that produce terrorists.