June 5, 2004

In Baghdad, Restrained Optimism About the Interim Government


New York Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq, June 4 - Abdullah Najim stopped tapping on a keyboard at an Internet cafe here and pulled out a cigarette. After taking a drag, he spoke with a visitor, tossing out the questions that seemed to weigh heavily on the minds of many Iraqis this week.

"We can't evaluate the new government yet," he said. "Who is Ajil Yawar? Who is Iyad Allawi? We're waiting for their deeds. From that, we can judge them."

"We thought the United States was the supreme power in the world and that it could rehabilitate Iraq in one year," added Mr. Najim, 47, who was a manager in the Finance Ministry under the rule of Saddam Hussein. "It couldn't do that. So how can we trust the new government?"

In interviews across Baghdad on Friday, many Iraqis expressed cautious optimism about the interim government that was announced just three days earlier. They neither embraced the new officials nor denounced them. It seemed that people here were in a holding pattern, willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt because in this bleak hour it seemed the best hope.

Like Mr. Najim, many said that they did not know much about the records of the new president, Sheik Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar, or the prime minister, Iyad Allawi, and that they would allow the men's actions, rather than their promises, speak for them. Most said the government's top priorities should be to improve the dismal security situation and give a boost to the stagnant economy.

Still, there were some who derided this government, just like the old Governing Council, as a puppet of the American occupation. And all the Iraqis who were interviewed said they wanted the interim government to have full sovereign powers, a demand that is being debated at the United Nations. It is irreconcilable with the Bush administration's position that the new officials be endowed with only very limited powers.

"I'm partially optimistic about the new government when they say they want full sovereignty for the new country," Mr. Najim said. "This delights my soul. This proves they're patriots."

Sitting near him in the cafe in the upscale neighborhood of Mansour, Alia Muhammad al-Samarrai, who described herself as an electrical engineer and acupuncturist, said she hoped for the best, but was more realistic.

The new officials "want to serve Iraqis, but if you've been captured, how can you use your hands?" Ms. Samarrai said. "Even if a man is good, he's working under the American government. We say Iraqis can't place much trust in him."

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq, gave guarded approval to the new government on Thursday, and so Ms. Samarrai, a Shiite, said she would follow his lead.

But she said the officials were overwhelmingly secular, and that it was obvious the Americans did not want religious leaders to take what she saw as their rightful place in the seats of power.

"We hope in the future, if the Americans leave, there will be a real democracy," she said. "They talk about democracy, but there is no democracy under the occupation."

Across town, in the Sunni-dominated neighborhood of Adhamiya, where a car bomb exploded Wednesday and where attacks on American soldiers have been rampant, some people actually expressed tentative backing for the new government.

Such good will seemed to be based less on support for any handover plans conceived by the Americans than on the simple fact that Iraqis now seemed to be taking some control from L. Paul Bremer III, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which is scheduled to be disbanded on June 30.

"I've read good things about the new president," said Yaser Fadhel, 32, a bakery employee. "The most interesting thing is when I saw him talking on the Arabiya channel, he didn't differentiate between Sunni or Shiite. I think he is really moderate.

"Even if he and the other ministers have lived abroad, that doesn't mean they're ignorant about our suffering all these years. The one year in which they've lived here is enough to tell them everything. At least he is Iraqi, which is better than Paul Bremer. And Paul is going to leave anyway."

In general, people who were interviewed seemed to take more to Sheik Yawar than to Mr. Allawi because the president came from the Shammar tribe, one of the largest and most powerful in Iraq. Mr. Yawar's outward appearance, with his pristine white robe and groomed mustache, also held more appeal than the Westernized attire - gray suits and neckties - favored by Mr. Allawi. Many Iraqis were well aware that both men, as well as many members of the new cabinet, had spent part of their lives in the United States and Europe.

This sort of experience was seen by some as a good thing.

"The ministers are experts with high degrees; they are well educated," said Sadiq Hassan, a 55-year-old man who was walking in the direction of Abu Hanifa Mosque, where anti-American imams preach every Friday. "We have suffered a lot for many years, and I don't think after all the hardship we have seen, we will let anyone in power serve his own interest. The citizens have to help the new government and help each other build a strong foundation for the country again."

"We have to make sacrifices to upgrade our country," Mr. Hassan said. "Kuwait and Saudi Arabia aren't any better than us. We have scientists, doctors, politicians, educated people. We have professionals and experts. But look at us now: Our streets are full of beggars, our revenues were used to buy weapons and missiles under the old regime. There should be new laws to serve the people instead of serving special groups. Let the new president work; let us give him a chance, and I hope it all turns out well."

Across a bridge spanning the Tigris River, in the mostly Shiite neighborhood of Kadhimiya, several Iraqis at the bazaar in front of the main shrine echoed some of that optimism.

"We hadn't heard about the new cabinet before, but when I read about them, they seemed to be good and efficient people, especially the president," said Ghazwan Mustafa, a 29-year-old university student. "He's educated and lived abroad, and I hope that whatever he learned outside he can bring to help us. But he also doesn't have a magic lamp to fix things so quickly."

Back in the Mansour neighborhood, a policeman on street patrol, Amar Sabrih, 27, said the interim government must pass "very strict laws" to rule the people, "because they're used to such rule."

"Under the institutions created by Saddam, even children would be taught how to hold a gun, how to fire a gun," Mr. Sabrih said. "It was all a criminal art. So you need strict rules to stop everyone from acting up, whether it's children or adults."

On the next block, the owner of an ice cream shop, Brahim al-Dulaimi, gave a terse assessment of what might transpire over this sweltering and unpredictable summer. "We have to let them take office for one or two months," he said. "If they're no good, then the people will rise up against them. That much I'm sure of."