Amid Power Vacuum, Iraqis Grow Desperate
Hamid Kadhim does not know where to turn for help. The 54-year-old farmer is running out of food, has no running water and can barely irrigate the crops that are his livelihood.
“We don’t know who is in charge,” said Kadhim, a father of three in this small town about 50 miles northeast of Baghdad. “Believe me, we are frightened. We don’t know if things are getting better or worse. We don’t understand what is happening here.”
With thousands of U.S. and British troops on the ground and a commitment from the White House to restore law and order and rebuild this nation, Iraqis expected to see their situation improve after 12 years of sanctions and the stress of war.
Instead, they are uncertain about the present and worried about the future. The U.S. military commander has been invisible to ordinary Iraqis, and the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance has yet to set up a place where people can get help or information.
U.S. forces swept into the center of Baghdad and took control of the capital April 9. But since that show of force there has been a vacuum of leadership, particularly confusing to Iraqis who have lived under Saddam Hussein’s iron fist for decades.
Their initial hopes that the Americans would quickly create democracy and a better life have faded, as essential services remain sporadic and such fundamentals as schedules for returning to work or school are left hanging. People have basic concerns, such as how they will feed their families now that the former government’s food rations are beginning to dwindle and there is nothing to replace them.
Adding to the confusion is the proliferation of would-be power brokers promising jobs and security. Thousands of Baghdad residents clamored to support Mohammed Mohsen Zubaidi, a political operative who claimed that he was mayor of Baghdad, because he handed out job applications. Many who do not know that American forces detained Zubaidi for his power grab are still waiting for jobs.
“We were expecting we would have a job. I would get a salary. We’d have a transitional government,” said Ali Zayar Jabar, 71, who submitted an application to Zubaidi a week ago. “Now we have nothing, it is anarchy.”
Jabar was one of several hundred people who stormed the Palestine Hotel on Saturday morning in an episode that reflected the widespread frustration and confusion among Iraqis.
Like hundreds, if not thousands, of Iraqis since the regime’s fall, he showed up at the hotel looking for a job and answers. The hotel, where many foreign journalists stayed during the war, was the headquarters for the U.S. Marines when they were in Baghdad. Government workers also were initially told to report there to sign up to return to their former positions. After a few days, the employees were told to go directly to the ministries where they had worked.
The Army got the idea that if it eased up on security, and lifted the barbed wire fencing it had set up to keep the crowds out, people would understand that there were no government or military officials at the hotel anymore and would go away, said Lt. James Temple of the 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment.
Instead, the crowds rushed the hotel. A group made it into the lobby and was fended off by the hotel staff until soldiers could come to evict them. The group, a few hundred strong, seethed with anger.
Some chanted “Ali Baba, George Bush!” identifying the president with a legendary Arab thief.
Many in the crowd said they had filled out job applications a week ago and handed them to soldiers. They were never told what happened to the applications, and a rumor spread that the papers had been shredded.
Temple said the applications were given to the civil affairs division, but he had no idea what happened to them after that. Soldiers were continuing to accept applications Saturday, raising hopes and expectations that seemed unlikely to produce a job.
The sense of desperation was palpable. “Even we will accept an American ruler,” said Abdullah Mohammed, 45, a metalworker who said he rushed the hotel doors only to ask about a job. “We just want to live. We just want a good life.”
In a nod to the widespread problems, U.S. officials said last week that the Bush administration plans to appoint a new coordinator to oversee all political and reconstruction issues in Iraq. The job is expected to go to L. Paul Bremer III, a former ambassador and top State Department counter-terrorism official, placing him over current administrator Jay Garner, a retired Army lieutenant general.
In the vacuum, would-be political leaders as well as religious figures are playing ever-larger roles. In the Shiite Muslim ghetto formerly known as Saddam City, the imams at Friday prayers issue instructions that range from how citizens can help electrical and telephone workers get the utilities running again to where to look for water trucks if there is no running water in their districts.
In one Baghdad neighborhood, a local Shiite cleric said he has begun collecting donations to pay salaries.
Across the Kurdish-held areas of northern Iraq, political leaders are filling the roles both of mayors and city administrators directing municipal operations.
Other people are turning to the only accessible U.S. presence: troops on the street.
Lt. Col. Charles Preysler, 42, who commands the 2nd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, directed his soldiers to reopen schools in the two square miles of Baghdad under his control. Teachers returned to classes Saturday, and soldiers handed out paper and pens to children.
“Maybe it’s because I’m an impatient man, maybe it’s because I’m a man of action, but this is a period of a vacuum in which people need to see positive action take place,” he said.
But many in Iraq have not had the fortune of a local military commander who is dedicated to putting them back to work, and their children back to school.
In Baqubah, a gritty city 30 miles northeast of Baghdad, the Army has occupied a building that local residents said had served as a distribution center for oil products. Some Iraqis said the Army’s choice of the location fed the perception that the Americans care only about Iraqi oil. A repeated complaint has been that U.S. forces protected the oil fields but did nothing to stop looters in cities and towns.
Frustrated with a lack of information and fed by antagonism toward the U.S. presence, a crowd of men surged toward the swirls of barbed wire set up to create a perimeter. Some were screaming; others were near tears with frustration and anger.
“We don’t know who to ask -- there is no government,” said Hosam Zaid, 18, a student who had showed up to find out when his school would reopen.
“I went back to work a month ago,” said Risal Mohammed Wihaib, 35, an employee in a government real estate office. “We haven’t been paid. I need my salary. I want to live.”
Times staff writer Mark Fineman in Baghdad contributed to this report.