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Report from Baghdad: Iraqis Concerned About Outsiders Role in Country's Future - 2003-04-17


The U.S. administration is helping to set up an interim government and restore law and order in Iraq. An exiled Iraqi businessman who heads the umbrella opposition grouping known as the Iraqi National Congress, the INC, has returned to Iraq to try to lead that effort. But Iraqis say they do not want outsiders running their lives.

Only days after the battle for Baghdad has ended, Iraqis are expressing concern about the confusion that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein. And they worry about who will fill the power vacuum.

INC leader Ahmad Chalabi has arrived in Baghdad with the hopes of playing a key role in any interim administration that is established.

An American team led by retired army officer Jay Garner has been consulting with a wide range of Iraqi leaders about the same thing. Washington says the U.S. team will help set up the Iraqi Interim Administration and have a hand in humanitarian relief and reconstruction efforts.

But many Iraqis are saying 'no' to the idea they might be ruled by outsiders, and consider a prolonged U.S. presence here as something akin to occupation. Washington says U.S. forces will not stay any longer than necessary.

INC leader Chalabi has distanced himself from the American effort, insisting that any interim administration must be run by Iraqis.

"It's not our intention to be anointed by anyone. The decision about Iraq's future is up to Iraqis," explained INC spokesman Zaab Sethna.

Many Iraqis, like Suha, are skeptical about the sudden return of Ahmad Chalabi and other exiles who have not lived in Iraq for decades.

"The people outside, I don't think they will be okay here if they come," he said. "They mention [say], 'we live outside, and we know everything about what's happening inside Iraq.' Okay, then why you leave? Why you don't start from here, from inside? If you are strong, start from Iraq and make the freedom, not you are outside and having a car and having a house and having pocket money and having everything for your children and having a good school for yourself and for a family, they are living okay. And now, they are coming and want to be a leader? For what?"

INC spokesman Sethna says Mr. Chalabi and other members of the exiled opposition group returning now to the country hope to dispel those suspicions.

"Just to get out and meet and listen to people and speak and lay out his vision, and [he] wants the people to make their own decisions. It's not a phenomenon unique to Iraq, that a dictatorship forces people to flee their country," he said. "And, it has happened in other cases, where political leaders have been forced to live outside their country."

Tawfik, a resident of Baghdad, says he doesn't mind exiles coming home. But he says he and many others who never left Iraq worry that outsiders, as exiled Iraqi politicians are seen here, will rush to fill the leadership vacuum, and leave little choice for those who remained.

"If they want to come back in Iraq, we shall welcome them. But if they want to install a government, no. It is a matter of the Iraqi people," he said.

But for now, many residents of Iraq's capital say they are less concerned about politics than they are about restoring law and order and the basic services like water and electricity they need to begin rebuilding their lives.