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Three years after Saddam, new fears haunt Iraqis

Written by: Staff

BAGHDAD, Mar 17: Three years after US forces invaded to overthrow Saddam Hussein, Iraqis have one preoccupation -- staying alive.

''Every day I feel like I am waiting in a queue for death,'' said one Baghdad lawyer, too frightened to be named in print.

Ahead of the March 20 invasion anniversary, Reuters asked dozens of Iraqis if life was now better or worse. Most were gloomy, at best ambivalent, with new fears replacing old ones.

The parliament that first met yesterday has a huge task.

''In terms of security, life before was much better,'' said businessman Adel Hussein, 45, in Basra, the heart of southern Iraq's oil industry. ''But economically, now it's much better.'' In the violent northern oil city of Kirkuk, labourer Ali Salman, said: ''Before the war ... torture and killing took place in secret. Now it's all in public. The meaning of freedom is different: nowadays you're free to live, and free to kill.'' A cautious optimism engendered by December's bloodless election has largely dissipated as politicians haggle over forming a government of national unity and a wave of sectarian violence has pitched Iraq to the brink of civil war.

A sectarian dirty war has claimed more than 100 victims in Baghdad in the past three days alone.

From the relatively calm the Kurdish north, through the rebellious Sunni west and the fearful streets of religiously mixed Baghdad to southern Shi'ite heartlands once oppressed by Saddam, everyone is weary of the daily bloodletting.


Most spoke of the violence that has killed tens of thousands and left few families untouched. Many were pessimistic, like the Baghdad lawyer, who spoke after gunmen killed a loved one in a sectarian attack after the February 22 bombing of a Shi'ite shrine.

''Where is the new democracy? Why is this happening to us?'' asked Hamad Farhan Abdulla, 57, a farmer from south of Baghdad who came to the city morgue looking for the body of his nephew, who he feared had fallen victim to death squad killers.

''The ghost of death chases us everywhere,'' said Thanaa Ismail, a 45-year-old teacher from the mainly Shi'ite southern city of Diwaniya. ''I have cancer and need treatment in Baghdad but security has got worse and I've had to skip some sessions.'' The pessimism, amid a new climate of sectarian tension, was at variance with a survey by Oxford Research International in October and November that found Iraqis were generally optimistic about their lives and hopeful for the future.

But answering the question: ''Is your life better or worse today than under Saddam?'' is not simple.

For example, there are many more cars on the road since the end of UN sanctions released a pool of savings, but there are chronic fuel shortages and fuel prices have soared in a country that sits on a sea of oil but must import most of its petrol.

Under Saddam, people lived in fear of the knock on the door at night. In the new US-sponsored democracy, people still fear the knock, but now the visitor could be from any one of a host of sectarian death squads, some of them in the security forces. ''Life has no meaning at the moment and our fate is unknown,'' said Na'im Kadum, a 33-year-old unemployed man from Diwaniya. ''I don't see any improvement and I am pessimistic about it.''


Iraqis agree that wage increases since the invasion and the end to a decade of devastating economic sanctions has made some people better off and flooded the market with consumer goods, but constant power cuts can make these items hard to use.

''I can't imagine why the great America can't fix the electricity,'' said Allawi al-Zubaidi, a clothing salesman in Najaf, a holy city for Iraq's majority Shi'ites.

US officials say the country's 18 provinces receive 13 hours of electricity a day on average, a huge increase over pre-war levels, but once-favoured Baghdad has seen a drop.

Washington has invested over 20 billion dollars in sanctions-hit infrastructure, but statistics released by the US special inspector general for Iraq's reconstruction in February suggest water, sewerage and electricity are below prewar levels.

''If the percentage of the good life was one per cent before, it is zero per cent now,'' Alim Mahmood, 46, said morosely as he sold tea and coffee near a Baghdad restaurant.

''Our country is in a big mess now. We've lost our security,'' complained Baghdad housewife Kareema Hussein, 46.

Many interviewed said they had felt more secure in Saddam's Iraq. Surprisingly, they included people from Shi'ite areas that suffered brutal oppression during his three decades in power.

''Security, and life in general, was better under Saddam's regime,'' said housewife Hameeda Hussein as she went shopping in Najaf, a southern city where Saddam's military used tanks and helicopters to crush a poorly armed Shi'ite uprising in 1991.

''The situation in Iraq is miserable. No one can guarantee their security when they go out. This didn't happen when Saddam was there,'' said Najat Hameed, a 32-year-old woman in Kerbala, another Shi'ite shrine city where Saddam is generally reviled.

Only in Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdistan region, which has been largely untouched by the violence in the rest of the country, was the outlook clearly more positive.

''Life after Saddam is better,'' said Imad Ahmed, 45, a technician from the Kurdish capital Arbil. ''Job opportunities have increased for me and for many others.'' But television anchorwoman Sara Abdul Wahid, 36, from the Kurdish city of Dohuk said she was baffled by the sheer variety of threats in the new Iraq and the resulting uncertainty.

''Before the war, life was better because all Iraqis, including Kurds, shared the same enemy,'' she said of Saddam.

''Now there is more than one and we can't tell friend from foe.''


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