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Americans, Iraqis Often Don't See Eye to Eye - 2003-04-26

Now that the fighting is over, the U.S. military is shifting its emphasis to establishing a secure and stable environment in Iraq. But, average Iraqis and the American troops on their streets don't always see things the same way.

The sky has a muddy yellow look, as a dust storm blows fine, powder-like sand across the city. Well dressed men, singly and in small groups, make their way to the neighborhood mosque for Friday prayers.

But this mosque is no ordinary mosque, it is Saddam Hussein's Mother of All Battles Mosque. The building opened in 2001, in celebration of what the former Iraqi leader called his great victory in the first Gulf War.

It may be unique in all Islam for the four minarets built to look like Scud missiles rising around the 36-meter-high gold-encrusted dome. Its other singular attraction was the Koran once displayed inside that was said to have been written in the blood of the former Iraqi leader. Since the fall of Baghdad no one seems to know where that has gone.

The mosque is said to be beautiful inside, but this day, foreign visitors are not welcome in what was once considered the official Iraqi government mosque.

Adel Ibrahim lives just across the street from the mosque where he was once one of 80 employees. Now he, like most Iraqis, is without a job and has no sense of what lies ahead. "I'm an ordinary citizen," he said. "So, I'm expecting nothing, until we have a new government. I don't know what they are going to do for us, how life's going to go."

He seems resigned to his fate, and not at all optimistic about the future. His attitude about the American presence in the city shows on his face, as two U.S. soldiers passing by in their Humvee suddenly stop to confront an armed man standing on the sidewalk in front of the mosque.

Adel Ibrahim retreats a few steps away from the American vehicle and the burly American soldier manning the powerful 40 millimeter grenade launcher mounted on its top.

The soldiers speak no Arabic, and no one in the crowd seems to have much English. In the end, hand gestures seem to suffice, and the soldiers disarm the man and radio in for further instructions.

Sergeant Joshua Cardinal says the man may have been given permission from the American military to carry a weapon to guard the mosque, but it is his job to check anyway. He says that's part of his new mission. "Well, it's become a different mission from, you know, we go to war, and then it's to sustaining the security in this area, and it's a whole different mission," said Sergeant Cardinal. "No more killing. It's trying to help these people. The armies are gone. There's no more army. There's very few people, from what I understand, who are trying to hurt Americans in this area. There's less to worry about."

Sergeant Cardinal says he has been well received by people in the neighborhood and that he wants to keep a respectful distance from important shrines like the mosque. "I'm not gonna go anywhere near that place," he said. "If there's somebody from inside firing out, obviously, that's a different story, but I'm not gonna just walk up in there. I'm gonna try to respect these people." In the end Sergeant Cardinal lets the man go, but drives off with the rifle.

Adel Ibrahim watched the small drama play out on his doorstep, and appears relieved that the Americans decided not to enter the mosque, for he was certain that was their intention.

Even assurances from a translator that the Americans said they would respect the sanctity of holy places do not seem to convince him. Neither is he convinced that the Americans came only to liberate Iraq from the oppressive Saddam Hussein regime.

James: Do you trust the Americans when they say they are not going to stay in Iraq any longer than they absolutely have to?
Ibrahim: "No, I don't think so."
James: Why?
Ibrahim: "I don't want to answer that. I'll keep it to myself."

Adel Ibrahim's cautious assessment of his new world, one without Saddam Hussein and with, for now at least, American soldiers occupying his country, seems typical of many here in the Iraqi capital, wait and wonder what lies ahead.