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A Square, Sans Saddam, Security

Times Staff Writer

It was a year ago Friday that jubilant Iraqis, with the help of U.S. troops, celebrated the fall of their government by pulling down a massive statue of Saddam Hussein in a downtown Baghdad plaza.

On the anniversary morning, Firdos Square was sealed off by U.S. troops with armored vehicles broadcasting a warning in Arabic that anyone who approached would be shot. There was little public celebration. Iraqis stayed in their homes, worrying about the chaos gripping their country.

Manhan Said, who owns a clothing store on Baghdad’s ritziest shopping boulevard, felt safer a year ago, even when American bombs were falling.

“Now you don’t know who might attack you -- American soldiers, some Iraqis,” he said. “Now I don’t know where the danger might come from.”

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Said bemoaned the Americans’ slow rebuilding of his country. “In 1991, everything in Iraq was destroyed” after the Persian Gulf War, he said. “Within two months, it was all back.”

Up the street, the dry cleaning shop that employs 39-year-old Musam Mohammed was preparing to close because the owners feared that more violence might break out.

“When Saddam left, we thought that everything would be OK and the Americans would do everything better,” he said. “But now it’s the opposite.”

Mohammed has been unable to regain his old government job in an arms factory and has had to hang shirts at the cleaners’ instead. He said he would have to pay a bribe to secure a better-paying government job.

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In the sprawling Sadr City slum that a year ago was known as Saddam City, followers of firebrand Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr voiced their anger at the U.S.-led occupation. The slum has been a den of discontent. Poor Shiites who were oppressed by Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime have felt left out of the rebuilding process.

“It has been a year since they invaded this country, and we haven’t seen anything of what they promised. No reconstruction, no democracy and no freedom,” said Majid Khadim, 38. “Besides, we do not want the kind of democracy they are preaching. We are different, we need a democracy that is consistent with our traditions and religious beliefs.”

In the nearby Hurriya neighborhood, Abbas Jaburi sat with friends in the barbershop where he works and recalled watching the statue of Hussein collapse on television. “It was the happiest day of our lives,” he said.

Jaburi cited freedom to worship, the disbanding of Hussein’s secret police and increased business opportunities as benefits of the occupation.

But there were no customers in the shop Friday. Jaburi and his friends blamed the recent violence on Sadr’s supporters. Also casting a pall over the day was word that a friend had been crushed to death in his new BMW by a U.S. tank during fighting in Sadr City this week.

American officials rarely hold news conferences on Friday evenings because the day is holy to Muslims. This week, however, the coalition made an exception and invited reporters to its heavily fortified headquarters in central Baghdad -- which comes under regular mortar fire by insurgents -- to emphasize that occupation authorities remained in full control of Iraq.

One reporter reminded coalition spokesman Dan Senor about the celebrations in Firdos Square last April. She asked whether officials were surprised that a year later, the square was off limits for security reasons.

“We are pleasantly surprised at the progress on the political front,” Senor said, citing Iraq’s new interim constitution. After detailing what he said was political progress in the country, he acknowledged that “there is no doubt the security situation is a problem.”

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As Senor spoke, a mortar round landed near the former Sheraton hotel, which houses many Westerners, at the edge of Firdos Square. Explosions continued in central Baghdad through the early morning.

Special correspondent Said Rifai of The Times’ Baghdad Bureau contributed to this report.


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