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Iraq: Three Weeks After Fall Of Baghdad, Capital's 'Arab Kitchens' Serving Up Anger, Frustration

The U.S. invaded Iraq with a promise to liberate the people from Saddam Hussein's cruel rule and provide them with the opportunity to build a better life for themselves in a democratic state. Three weeks have passed since the capital, Baghdad, fell to U.S. troops amid cheering throngs of Iraqis. Saddam is gone, but today only about half of the city has electricity or water, and large-scale aid shipments have yet to arrive. The expectations of ordinary Iraqis have had to be dramatically reduced. RFE/RL's correspondent visited two Iraqi families to gauge the current mood in the so-called "Arab kitchen."

Baghdad, 2 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Anvar is a 35-year-old Iraqi bus driver. Anvar's wife and three young children share a two-bedroom apartment in the Al-Jadhiriya area of Baghdad with Anvar's brother-in-law, three sisters-in-law, and his ailing 67-year-old mother-in-law.

Before the war, Anvar drove a bus on the Baghdad-Mosul route and made about $50 a month. He lost his job once the U.S.-led invasion began, and he says he's had no way to make a living since. He said the only way to get money to buy food has been to sell the family's furniture, but there isn't much left -- a sofa and an armchair in the entrance hall and several mattresses. The family's television, radio, and carpets have all been sold to buy vegetables and cigarettes.

With visible anger, Anvar painted a picture of his family's postwar life in a few simple words: "Nothing has changed. Shootings are still going on. [There's] no electricity, no work, no security, no money."

Retired U.S. Major General Jay Garner, the U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, said last week that the situation in Iraq is improving every day and denied any humanitarian crisis. Lieutenant General David McKernan, commander of the coalition land forces that took Iraq, was also optimistic about the situation in the country, saying that "for every one thing that doesn't look right or smell right, there are 10 things going well."

Tell that to Anvar and his family. Anvar said they once enjoyed a good life due to the Saddam Hussein government's monthly food rations. Since 1991, that ration had included 2 kilograms of sugar, 9 kilograms of flavor, 3 kilograms of rice, 150 grams of tea, as well as cooking oil, soap, salt, beans, and lentils, all for the symbolic price of less than $1.

Under Saddam Hussein, Anvar said the only thing he needed to buy was meat and vegetables. Today, he said, his family can't afford meat, which has tripled in price. He said they are still using past rations that the family had put in storage.

Anvar's three sisters-in-law used to earn money by preparing brides for weddings -- dying their hair and hands with henna and offering them pedicures. In postwar Iraq, however, few weddings have been held.

Thirty-six-year-old In'am, who had to cancel her own wedding due to the war, said it will take a long time before weddings are scheduled again with any frequency. She said she has little hope for her future.

Her sister Zahra, Anvar's wife, cuddled her 18-month-old son, who has a fever. Zahra said she couldn't get medicine to treat the child at the hospital.

She said the nonstop crying of her son, the shrinking stocks of food, their dwindling savings, and especially the daily and nightly gunfire in her neighborhood, all made her nostalgic about Hussein and the life they lived under his rule. "I am missing baba [father] Saddam, good baba Saddam," she said. "I told you, whenever you [used to] go out and come back, it was safe. Nobody touched you. Now, if I walk from here to there and stumble, they will -- ta-ta-ta-ta -- shoot me."

Muhammad is a well-known Iraqi businessman who lives in a cozy two-story house in Baghdad. Muhammad's wife, Sajida, served what she calls a humble postwar lunch. On the long family table, she set out a big bowl of spaghetti Bolognese served with a fresh vegetable salad and a fruit salad.

Although there is also no electricity in the Al-Jamiya neighborhood, a generator helped the family maintain a near-normal lifestyle -- the television, refrigerator, and air-conditioning are still running.

Despite these luxuries, the mood in Muhammad's comfortable house is the same as in Anvar's empty apartment -- nostalgia for Saddam Hussein. A lack of security and fear of the unknown makes Muhammad angry toward the U.S. and British troops who are currently occupying his country.

"We wish we stayed the same with Saddam," he said. "It was much better. We are sitting here [for] two months and we are doing nothing. How we are going to live? Nobody asked the Americans to come here all the way from America to Iraq to give us democracy. If they are asking for freedom and democracy, why they don't go to Cuba, which is next door to them?"

Sajida said she lives in constant fear for the safety of her five children. "Each time one of them is out of the house, I am on needles," she said. "It is so dangerous to go out when the streets are full of armed people, with no law and order." She continued: "They say that schools have to start. But nobody will send, especially girls, they don't send them to schools. Because I don't know when explosions will be and when. Maybe they are at school and something will happen."

Ahmad, Muhammad's 27-year-old son, is a doctor who said he is continuing his work without knowing if he will ever get paid. Ahmad is the only person in the family who appreciates what the Americans have accomplished in Iraq.

Despite long and emotional debates with his parents over American intentions, Ahmad defends his position and tries to justify the current postwar situation, while also acknowledging that more should be done.

"The destruction we've got due to the war is understandable," he said. "But the fact that the Americans are not doing enough to meet the basic, daily needs of Iraqis is not understandable, and there is no excuse for such a delay." He added: "This makes me feel depressed so much. I was thinking, when America comes here, everything will be OK. We were thinking that [the Americans] are like the sun. When the sun shines, everything [will be OK]. Understand me? But now I think they are here to free the country and to stay [without really helping]."

What makes him even more frustrated, Ahmad said, is the possibility of missing a great chance to build a new and democratic country atop the ruins of Hussein's dictatorial regime. "If the situation stays as static as it is now, I'm afraid there will be enough forces to drag the country into even more chaos and darkness," he said.