For Iraqis, a Symbol of Unkept Promises

Times Staff Writer

Past the charred remains of a U.S. military truck, down a pitted road lined with rubble sits Shura Primary School.

Outside, the squat schoolhouse glistens with fresh lime-green paint, courtesy of the renovation spree launched by the U.S.-led coalition. Inside, the floors are buckled, the blackboards are scarred, and the bathrooms are little more than open-air sewage pits. There is one working water fountain for 1,125 students, who must pick their way through a parking lot strewn with mounds of trash to get to the school's front doors.

"They promised to make it a paradise," said Hana Abbood, a teacher of Arabic language at Shura. "But all they've changed is the paint."

To many Iraqis in the area, the sorry state of the school is a symbol of how the coalition has failed them.

As much as civilian casualties or detainee abuse, the erratic reconstruction of their country has turned Iraqis against the occupation. Many people welcomed last year's invasion, hoping that the world's only superpower could elevate their wretched standard of living.

But a year later, the promised $18 billion in U.S. reconstruction money is only now hitting the streets. Projects have been delayed by insurgent attacks and rampant corruption, committed by Iraqis but blamed on the Americans. Baghdad's boulevards are lined with trash. Geysers of sewage erupt in even the wealthiest neighborhoods of the capital. Unemployment is epidemic nationwide.

Misgivings are particularly sharp in neighborhoods such as the one in northwest Baghdad that surrounds the Shura school -- predominantly Shiite Muslim areas that were neglected under the Sunni Muslim-led government of President Saddam Hussein, which have turned against the occupiers.

In an acknowledgment of the problem, the military has begun to step up basic services in northwest Baghdad, from sewer service to garbage pickup.

The complaints of inadequate rebuilding frustrate occupation officials and the dwindling ranks of Iraqis who support them, because progress is not nonexistent. Although schools such as Shura sit in disrepair, numerous others have been renovated. The coalition has dramatically boosted the salaries of teachers and other government workers and sparked a consumer mini-boom.

"Everybody in Iraq wants to eat and have a new salary and a new address as soon as possible. They do not want to say thanks to the Americans for getting rid of that bloody tyrant, Saddam Hussein, which will not be repaid for 10 generations," said Hasanein F. Muallah, who is in charge of school construction for the Education Ministry. "The Iraqis are impatient. They need to have everything right now."

Dan Senor, the main spokesman for the coalition, said citizens overestimated the power of the United States.

"It's perfectly understandable, but sometimes the Iraqi people have unrealistic expectations of what the Americans can do," he said. "They don't understand how a country that could defeat the Iraqi army cannot get the power back on. But the fact is that the nation's infrastructure was in a lot worse shape than we thought."

Another issue is that the occupation has decreased Iraqis' sense of personal security. Many say the roving bands of kidnappers and bandits -- not to mention the heavily armed U.S. soldiers -- are more terrifying than Hussein's secret police.

To the teachers and students at Shura, a new paint job and higher pay seem like a poor trade.

"The lives of Iraqis are getting worse," teacher Abbood said as her classroom of 11- and 12-year-old girls nodded in agreement. "Now these pupils are frightened that someone will throw a bomb at them, or kidnap them.

"The walls, the paint, yes, they have improved, but the general situation at the school -- the curriculum, the books, the food -- has not changed for the better."

Shura Primary has long stood out as an eyesore in a neighborhood full of eyesores.

It lies at the edge of Baghdad, in the heart of the Ghazaliya district, a warren of fraying apartment buildings, modest houses and potholed byways.

The school is not hooked up to Baghdad's sewer system, so the septic tanks from the restrooms drain into a reservoir beneath the front courtyard. The sewage seeps up through the ground and into the path of students. The classrooms have no window screens to keep out the swarms of flies and mosquitoes, and no air conditioning.

When Hussein's government fell in April 2003, U.S. military officers and civilians began appearing at Shura. They handed out new book bags and pens for some of the students and promised to improve conditions.

Nearly a year later, in March, contractors showed up and began painting the building and shoring up the walls. They tore out the student restrooms in the rear courtyard and began to lay the foundation for a new bathroom. Several weeks later, the work abruptly stopped.

The floor of the students' bathroom is now littered with construction debris; the children must relieve themselves on the rubble. The door to the teachers' bathroom was removed and has yet to be replaced. Cracks run up through the walls where new wiring is supposed to go.

"The Americans promised to improve our conditions," student Nura Ahmed said, "but we think they were all lying."

The problem with the Shura project is one that bedevils much of the country: corruption.

The culprit, according to Iraqi education officials, is a former teacher who persuaded the U.S. military to give her an office and let her choose which schools should be refurbished, and by which contractors. The woman, identified as Ezra Abdul Razak, allegedly demanded bribes from the contractors. She has since vanished, and an Iraqi judge is investigating the case.

Meanwhile, the contractors have not been paid and have halted work on Shura and nearly 100 other schools.

The Al Kake company is one of the contractors owed money -- more than $500,000. It suspended work on 13 schools, including Shura. Dakhil Muhsin Mohammed, Al Kake's president, said that even though the fraud appeared to have been committed by Iraqis, the Americans bore responsibility.

"You occupy this country, you should do your utmost to make sure things work," said Mohammed, who has a certificate of appreciation from the U.S. military prominently displayed in his office. "I don't blame people when they criticize the Americans for not doing things that are tangible."

Abbas Musawi is one of those critics. Last year, the member of the Ghazaliya neighborhood council praised the U.S. occupiers so vocally that he was the target of an unsuccessful assassination attempt by insurgents.

"I was so enthusiastic," he recalled. "I was always telling the people that all you have to do is be patient, because these people are going to rebuild this country."

A year later, Musawi says he's seen almost no changes. He has resigned in disgust from his post in a central organization of neighborhood councils. He displays a photograph of radical anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr outside his shop and proudly pointed to the other pictures lining the streets of the neighborhood. When U.S. troops tore the photos down after Sadr's armed supporters fought them in the area last month, Musawi helped replace the pictures with hundreds of new ones.

"Nothing has changed in this neighborhood," said Musawi, driving past acres of smoldering roadside trash. "They've moved tanks and weapons thousands of miles and they can't bring trucks to take this away?"

Later, Musawi sat in the office of Shura's headmaster and his colleague on the Ghazaliya council, Ibrahim Mohammed Abdullah, and inspected its empty door frames and crumbling tiles.

The men complained that the occupation authority did not seek enough input from Iraqis, who could guide them through the corruption-riddled world of local contracting. They rattled off stories of the graft that has infected the reconstruction process, including a local project in which the contractor did not repair sewer lines yet pocketed $25,000 from the Americans.

"We're talking about schools and sewage," Musawi said. "Wait until we reach the phase of rebuilding the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. There will be weapons contracts. Imagine the corruption."

In her classroom, Abbood said Iraqis would focus on results.

"Our traditions and religion teach us to be a peace-loving society," she said. "We will be grateful to those who help us. But those who only bring terror and killing, beware."

Times staff writers Charles Duhigg and Patrick J. McDonnell and Suhail Ahmed of The Times' Baghdad Bureau contributed to this report.

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