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Iraq: Battle For Hearts And Minds In Baghdad Far From Won

Although U.S and British soldiers have won the military battle in Iraq, they have a long way to go to convince Iraqis that their "liberation" will lead to a better life than what they had under Saddam Hussein, RFE/RL reports.

Baghdad, 21 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Sami, a 39-year-old Iraqi merchant, left Baghdad a few days before the war in Iraq started. He took his wife and two children to neighboring Jordan and watched the war on television. Many members of Sami's extended family stayed behind in Baghdad.

After the announcement that hostilities had ceased, he decided to return home to see what had happened. After assessing the situation on the Jordanian-Iraqi border, he joined a convoy of foreign journalists heading to Baghdad from the Jordanian capital, Amman.

Sami said he was impatient to see the reality of what he called the "new, liberated Iraq." But his disappointment began just on the Iraqi side of the border -- with the image of young U.S. soldiers using their machine guns to order some 100 Iraqi men around. After several minutes of cursing, exclamations, and sighing, he described his feeling.

"Humiliated! That's how I felt. Iraqis taken out of the buses and searched, that's like they are going to another country," Sami said.

Sami was to repeat these exclamations for much of the 550 kilometer journey to Baghdad -- each time the bus would pass a destroyed bridge, a burnt-out tank or bus, or gaping holes in the highway. All were fresh reminders of the recent U.S. bombings.

The closer the road came to Baghdad, the more Sami's shock and anger grew. The destruction around Baghdad's international airport -- the scene of heavy fighting -- was the first taste of what was to come. Nearer to central Baghdad there were too many images of destruction -- buildings destroyed first by missiles and then by looters -- to absorb. He said he didn't recognize the city he left just a month ago.

"It's not Baghdad," he said. "It's really not Baghdad. It's like Los Angeles in 2040, in those [science fiction] films. Exactly the same thing."

Sami's joy on returning home and reuniting with members of his family did not last long. Sami's mother -- who stayed in Baghdad during the war -- said people are sitting at home 24 hours a day and guarding their houses from looters. She has been without electricity and water for days and blames this on the Americans.

"They [the Americans] don't care if there is a government or not, [if] there is no electricity, no telephone communication, [if] there is nothing. They came only for the oil we have," she said.

In Sami's neighborhood, like in many other parts of Baghdad, people are trying to get their lives back to normal. Some better-off families have gotten generators to produce electricity. Others have tried to open their shops. But no one expects life to improve soon.

Even the most optimistic Iraqis, like Sami's friend Basin, are not expecting to see improvements in the near future -- although Basin is confident change is coming.

He said he expects "[better] life, better freedom, everything will be settled down, I think, in six months, maybe one year... [Iraqi] people must be patient."

Sami and his parents don't share this optimism. They say only a legitimate Iraqi government, respected and accepted by Iraqis, can restore life to normal. And for them, there are few signs yet that that government is coming.