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Image Problems Continue to Hamper US Forces in Iraq - 2004-05-31

In Iraq, widespread anger toward U.S. troops in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal has prompted fears that the already-strained relationship between the Iraqi people and American forces could worsen. The U.S. military is now fighting a public image problem that is threatening to overshadow its positive achievements in Iraq.

Pointing to a large primary school across the street from her house in one of Baghdad's poorest neighborhoods, Samira Gazy describes what happened early one morning on April 20, 2003.

The 56-year-old Iraqi widow says her pregnant daughter, Ban, had gone into a very difficult labor. But the family had no car to take her to the nearest hospital, which was several dozen kilometers away.

Panic-stricken, the widow says she half-carried her daughter over to the primary school, which was then occupied by American troops, and sought their help.

Ms. Gazy says three soldiers rushed Ban to a hospital in their military Humvee vehicle and saved the lives of her daughter and her now one-year-old granddaughter.

Ban, who says she does not want to give her full name, says she and her mother grew even closer to their American neighbors after the three soldiers paid them a visit a few days later. Ban says the soldiers brought boxes of food for her family, food for the baby, and a flower for her. She says she never expected such kindness.

Samira Gazy says that is why she was so shocked when, one year after her positive experience with U.S. troops, she saw photos of some of them horribly abusing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison.

Ms. Gazy says the images have greatly disturbed her. She asks, What happened to the Americans I thought were good and decent -- Americans whom I thought were here to spread freedom and to help us?

The U.S. military insists that only a few soldiers were guilty of mistreating detainees at Abu Ghraib and that the vast majority of its soldiers here are still committed to creating a better society for the Iraqi people.

But for U.S. Army Captain Tommy Fauvell, convincing Iraqis of that message has clearly been made more difficult because of the abuse scandal.

For months, Captain Fauvell has been overseeing some of the most urgent sewerage reconstruction projects in areas around Baghdad under the control of the Army's First Calvary Division.

On this day, he and some of the men in his unit are in northwest Baghdad, in Khazaliya City, supervising the start of a $50,000 project to renovate a sewerage pumping station that has not functioned for years.

Captain Fauvell and his men hope that in 10 days, a new pump will begin cleaning up some of the large, steaming pools of raw sewerage that ring the trash-strewn neighborhood of 5,000 people.

But a local resident, Ali Sahadi, says he feels no gratitude for what the Americans are trying to do. He angrily dismisses the project as being nothing more than a gesture to keep the Iraqis here from hating U.S. troops.

Mr. Sahadi says many people in Khazaliya City are suffering from illness and disease because occupation forces have yet to provide enough clean water and electricity. He says he believes making people suffer like that is no different than what the soldiers did to Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Army Sergeant John Bormann laments that such sentiment shows that many Iraqis do not know about the good things the U.S. military has accomplished over the past year in many places throughout the country.

"We've built schools. We've built community centers. We've built health clinics," he says. "It's just not here where these people say, oh, you haven't done anything for us. You really want to tell these people there are three bureaucracies you have to negotiate every single time you want to do a project. There's the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority], the Army, and the Iraqi ministries, so that just takes time."

But with Iraqi patience wearing thin, Captain Fauvell acknowledges that the military may have to work faster on more civil works projects if it hopes to stem the growing Iraqi resentment toward U.S. troops.

"I think, more than anything else, activity in the right direction will outweigh the bad publicity we've had," says Captain Fauvell. "So, we're just doing the best we can right now to show people that we're sincere about doing projects that will impact their area and help them in the long run."

That effort is already under way in various parts of Iraq. In recent days, the U.S. military has announced a string of high-priority development projects worth tens of millions of dollars.

One Army project, worth $31 million, involves building brand new sewerage systems in two Baghdad suburbs that have never had such systems before.

On Sunday, U.S. Marines, patrolling the strongly anti-coalition Sunni triangle area west of Baghdad, said they are looking to fund a two-million dollar water treatment project to provide more clean drinking water for the residents of Fallujah.