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Iraqis Welcome Post-Saddam Changes - 2004-01-21

Iraq figured prominently in President Bush's annual State of the Union address Tuesday. The president defended the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq, and he said the world is a safer place without Saddam Hussein. VOA's Sonja Pace in Baghdad looks at those issues from inside Iraq - including some of the positive changes that have taken place and the serious worries Iraqis continue to express about their lives, and their future.

Iraqis are very much aware of the issues President Bush talked about. Many, like university student Miran Howreh, agree that getting rid of Saddam Hussein was a good thing.

"We are talking about someone who destroyed the Iraqi people. We are living in a destroyed place," he said.

Iraqis have welcomed some of the positive changes of the post-Saddam era and are reveling in their newfound freedom of speech.

They are taking to the streets to voice their opinions and complaints. At a peaceful rally in Baghdad on Monday, tens of thousands of Iraqi Shi'ite Muslims demonstrated in support of demands by their top cleric for early direct elections.

One young student at the rally, Hoda Ahmed, summed up her feelings.

"We think that we will take our freedom and say what we want to say. So, we ask for elections. It is our right," she said.

No one had that right under Saddam.

But the current protests also highlight a political crisis. Shi'ites make up the majority of Iraq's overall population, and they were harshly repressed under Saddam. Many of them now fear the current plan for transition from U.S. occupation to Iraqi sovereignty will again deprive them of any sort of power, and they are intent on making their voices heard.

Despite newfound freedoms and a much greater availability of consumer goods, Iraqis complain about continuing problems they face every day, among these, the lack of security and some basic necessities.

A university professor who wanted to be identified simply as an Iraqi citizen had some harsh words for the coalition.

"Security is still lacking. No electricity, no fuel for people to heat themselves in this cold weather, no order," he said. "Wherever you go streets are closed and barriers with cement. There is a saying in Arabic that sickness is better than death. That does not mean sickness is something good."

The professor says he does not feel the coalition has good intentions. Such distrust runs deep here. The United States and Britain had cited Saddam's weapons of mass destruction as the main reason for going to war. Thus far, no such weapons have been found. But such weapons are not what Iraqis worry about.

They fear the car bombings and roadside explosions that kill and maim.

On Sunday, a suicide car bombing outside the U.S. coalition headquarters here in Baghdad killed at least 25 people and injured scores more. Almost all of the casualties were Iraqi.

Accountant Mohammed Abdulla, 52, says he does not feel safer now than under Saddam.

He says that under Saddam, we at least had security, but with an iron grip. The country was stable, he says, there was less crime. The security situation was better than now.

And as for the future, Mr. Abdulla says it is a big unknown.

In talking to Iraqis about the future, there are mixed reactions. There are some, a minority, who like merchant Abbas Rumaiyed yearn for a return of Saddam.

Frankly, he says, I will be optimistic about the future when Saddam Hussein comes back.

But most Iraqis do not feel that way. On Tuesday, thousands of Iraqi Shi'ites demonstrated in the streets of Baghdad calling for Saddam Hussein to be executed as a war criminal.

How do others feel about the future? Student Miran Howreh and his mother, Vian Zering, have their own views.

HOWREH: Saddam Hussein was the president of Iraq for 35 years, OK. Thirty-five years of destruction. So, when we want to reconstruct, it needs time.

ZERING: We can't wait anymore.

HOWREH: There are many mistakes still.

ZERING: Because we are tired. We can not do it anymore.

That sums up the views of many Iraqis here - on the one hand realization that years of oppression and destruction cannot be washed away overnight, but on the other hand the impatience for change and for a better life - now.