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Many Iraqis View US-Led Liberators as Aggressive Occupiers - 2004-04-10

In the year since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, many Iraqis have come to see their U.S.-led liberators as aggressive occupiers. That view has been embraced as well by some Iraqis living in the United States. Quinn Klinefelter reports on shifting attitudes toward the U.S. presence in Iraq among the 20,000 Iraqis now living in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, Michigan, the largest Iraqi community in the country.

Last April, in the afterglow of the toppling of Saddam's statue in Baghdad, President George W. Bush stood on a platform with 100 cheering Iraqis in a hall near Dearborn. Mr. Bush warned them, their compatriots still in Iraq faced a long hard struggle along the road to freedom.

"But at every step of the way, Iraq will have a steady friend in the American people," he said. "May God continue to bless the United States of America, and long live a free Iraq."

Most Iraqis in Dearborn still applaud the war against Saddam. But many add that in the aftermath of the conflict they have grown wary of Washington's intentions.

The Karballaa Islamic Education Center in Dearborn is a sanctuary for Iraqi refugees, many of whom say they have continued to slip in and out their homeland recently.

Center Director Imam Husham Al-Husainy questions a man who just returned from Iraq... and as always these days, the discussion centers of the actions - and perceived motives - of the U.S.-led coalition.

Imam: "If there is no oil in Iraq, do you think the coalition would be in Iraq?"

Al-Bdouiri: "This thing I'm not sure, but President Bush, he wants to go for liberation of Iraqis, so I don't know... let me say I'm not sure that they go there for oil this time..."

Muhammad Al-Bdouiri taught mathematics in Iraq until 1991, when he joined an uprising which the United States encouraged, but failed to support, which was eventually crushed by Saddam. He calls it a wound that only closed when he saw coalition forces put their own lives on the line to oust Saddam last year.

Yet Mr. Al-Bdouiri says his wound was ripped open when he saw the current condition of his country.

"I feel bad when I see kids drinking [dirty] water? there's not even clean water facilities," he said. "And I see a lot of garbage in the street. I see kids one or two-years-old with no diapers, things to make them healthy, so if I want to go back and I want to help." The challenge of bringing the best of American values back to Iraq particularly inspires men like Basim Al-Numairi, who experienced the worst of the former regime.

Imam: "How many years you been in Saddam prison?"

Al-Numairi: "Seven years"

Imam:: "Only you?"

Al-Numairi: "Me, my father, my mother, our kids... yeah."

Imam: "Are you happy to see Saddam gone?"

Al-Numairi: "Very happy...but... (he switches to Arabic)

Imam: "He wants me to translate... He says it's great to see Saddam removed, one way or another, but the job is not completed and the country is still deteriorated and is getting worse. He went to see his sister in one of the technology institutes and spoke to them and told them about the goodness and greatness of the United States. But they said, what you're saying doesn't match with the American action on the ground."

Actions like shutting down a Shi'ite-run newspaper that U.S. officials said was inciting violence. Iraqis lose trust...he says...when they see actions like that...or have to deal with appointed officials they perceive as powerless American puppets.

The solution, says Shiite Muslim cleric Imam Al-Husainy, is as old as George Washington.

"If you really believe in democracy, let's have it," he said. "Let's have an election. And if people decide they want who they want, that's democracy."

Imam Al-Husainy is well aware Shi'ites like him are the majority in Iraq and likely to win any election... just as he is well aware many U.S. policy analysts fear the Shi'ites could turn Iraq into a fundamentalist Islamic state that could trigger even more violence.

But he counters that the current bloodshed is not coming from religious zealots, or even solely from thugs and criminals, but rather from increasingly frustrated Iraqi civilians who see the guns of Saddam replaced by those in the hands of Americans.

Al-Husainy : "They're just fed up...Imagine any Iraqi waking up in the morning to see American tanks in front of him. Okay, he can handle it for a month or two, but now, this is the second year! A Super power needs to act really super in capturing the hearts and minds and souls, as well as capturing the land."

Kleinfelter: "You think they're not doing that -- capturing the hearts and souls?"

Al-Husainy : "They lost the heart and the mind and the soul of Iraqis. I just came back from Iraq. President Bush said, 'We are in Iraq to protect America.' This is not the language to speak to gain the heart and soul of the nation. It's kind of saying 'Excuse me, Iraqis, I'm going to use your land to protect America.' That's not the way, sir..."

Still there seems to be nearly universal admiration for Mr. Bush among Dearborn Iraqis, none more so than those who stood with him on that platform a year ago... like Muhammad Al-Bdouiri.

"I was there in Dearborn with the President," Mr. Al-Bdouiri said. "He said we are going to improve the facilities of Iraq, we're going to improve the condition of Iraq, and he mentioned a story. He said Iraqis, before the war, when they wanted to speak, they made sure the windows were closed, because they were scared of Saddam's regime. Now, they can talk with windows open."

So Mr. Al-Bdouiri and his fellows say they feel extreme sorrow that coalition forces who freed them from Saddam a year ago are now being killed in the streets of Baghdad and Fallujah. Yet they predict the bloodshed will only grow - either through uprisings or widespread civil war - unless something is done to stop Iraqis from turning against the troops who are at once both their occupiers...and their liberators.