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Iraqis Lack Faith in Leaders

Times Staff Writer

There was a time when the sitting room of the storied Alwiya Social Club was perpetually packed and rowdy with voices.

But that was before fear locked many Iraqis into their homes. These days, a flat spring sunlight bathes empty chairs and a worn carpet. A lone musician sits huddled near the old upright piano, poking listlessly at an electronic keyboard.

Club manager Hisham Amin Zekki sends a weary look around the room. Like many Iraqis, he is too preoccupied with his own troubles to pay much attention to Iraq’s new government.

He worries about high gasoline prices, mortar attacks and getting a flat tire in the wrong neighborhood. He daydreams of sending his only child, a 25-year-old son, to America in search of a better life. He is haunted by memories of bingo nights and wedding parties that stretched until dawn.

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“I don’t have much faith that this new government will achieve democracy and security,” said Zekki, a 65-year-old Sunni Muslim Arab with carefully slicked hair. “We should not be desperate. We must have hope. But until now we have no sign of hope, not even a glimpse.”

Across this country, Iraqis of all backgrounds struggle to gin up enthusiasm for their long-awaited government, which was approved by parliament Saturday after five months of political haggling.

As Prime Minister Nouri Maliki took up his new duties Sunday amid continuing violence, the voices of Iraqis were a window into the steep challenges that lie before him -- and a harsh illustration of the divide between the high-flown rhetoric of Iraq’s ruling elite and the depression, anger and vengeance on the streets.

After three years of war and uncertainty, many Iraqis are too busy to lend much emotional energy to the political process. They are exhausted from bloodshed, distrustful of their neighbors, grappling with questions of identity and sectarian violence.

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They are also keenly aware that most of their political leaders spend their days locked in the heavily fortified Green Zone, shielded from the rest of the country by foreign soldiers and strict checkpoints.

“The people we elected gave so many rights away,” said Mohammed Ali Hilfi, a 29-year-old Shiite Muslim in the southern shrine city of Najaf. “The politicians won’t try to stop the violence, because they don’t care about the blood of the Iraqis.”

Hilfi is trying to make a living from his Internet shop, but it isn’t easy. He doesn’t own a home or a car. Still a bachelor, he lives with his parents. He rattles off his list of wishes for the government: electricity, services and especially security.

“My family worries every day about my return back home,” he said.

Those concerns wind through the entire country -- a connective thread in an otherwise divided land.

“It is security, security, security that’s needed,” said Hussein Abdullah Ubaidi, a 45-year-old Sunni who lives in the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk. “We expect Maliki’s government to stop Iraqi bloodshed. It’s spilled on a daily basis, in cold blood.”

Like many Sunnis, Ubaidi griped bitterly about the distribution of Cabinet spots according to sect.

“The manner in which this government was formed is incorrect,” he said. “Sunnis were oppressed and mistreated in this government. Only a few ministries were given to them, and insignificant ones, too.”

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Many Iraqis said they were worried that the new government, with its ministries distributed among sectarian parties, would only reinforce animosities between the factions, infusing this fragile society with even deeper tensions.

“We need reconciliation among all the sides,” said Hussein Ali Baldawi, a 60-year-old Shiite in the Iraqi town of Balad. “An honest government is important, but from my point of view it should not be sectarian.”

Alaa Mahmood, a 25-year-old Shiite college student in Mosul, readily admits that her sect is generously represented in the Cabinet. The majority group in Iraq, Shiites now dominate both the parliament and the Cabinet. It is a historical renaissance for a group that was severely oppressed under Saddam Hussein.

But Mahmood, the mother of three children, is not satisfied with her sect’s political gains. Like many Shiites, her patience with the U.S. soldiers and diplomats has worn thin. She calls Americans “the occupiers” -- a typical epithet from Shiites who have gone from viewing the U.S. soldiers as liberating warriors to resenting them as obstacles to greater Shiite power.

“I don’t trust the new government. I don’t expect anything from them,” Mahmood said. “They should start the real work and expel the occupiers.”

Salam Abdallah Mihmidi, 50, a Sunni who is a retired teacher in the restive western province of Al Anbar, sat in a fabric shop dressed in threadbare clothes. Asked about the government, he fretted about Sunni rights but also about the economic crisis that’s gripped western Iraq since the fighting choked off the flow of tourists and businessmen.

“If the youth don’t find jobs, they will loot, kill and fall in with the gangs of killers,” he said.

Mihmidi’s son recently dropped out of college in Baghdad because he feared that his name, Omar, a common one among Sunnis, would tip off Shiites to his sectarian identity and make him vulnerable to attack.

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Spirits were slightly higher in the Kurdish north, where both security and the economy have been relatively healthy since the U.S.-led invasion.

“As Kurds, I think we did well. We have the positions that satisfied our ambitions,” said Eyad Ahmed Hamad Ameen, a 34-year-old schoolteacher in Irbil. But, Ameen added, “the security situation is a major concern. We want to travel in all of Iraq without fear.”

Summer is coming on strong now. But as the heat gets thicker, electricity is still a weak and intermittent flicker to many Iraqis. Baghdad has power only a few hours each day. With generators too expensive for many families, people are bracing themselves to spend the blazing months ahead in the swampy darkness of their homes.

“We don’t have electricity at home, so we have to get used to the heat,” said Izzadin Khalaf Youssef, a 25-year-old physical education student at Baghdad University. “It’s become very difficult, very hard. There are times you cannot even leave your apartment.”

Hidden behind the headline-grabbing violence, Iraqis are grappling with all manner of small deprivations. Yousef Jaber Mohsin, a 36-year-old Shiite in the southern city of Samawah, just wants to see his sister again. She lives in Baqubah, north of Baghdad, and the roads have been too dangerous to travel.

“I want to see peace in our beloved land,” said Mohsin, a schoolteacher who paused on his way home with an armload of groceries. “The government should take care of the dreams of the people, and feel the disaster the people felt.”

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Times staff writers Suhail Ahmad and Saif Rasheed and special correspondents in Samawah, Mosul, Al Anbar province, Irbil, Kirkuk, Najaf and Baqubah contributed to this report.


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