Occupational Hazards

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TAKING CHARGE: U.S. soldiers attempt to restore peace after Iraqis waiting for propane grow unruly in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, where anti-American sentiments run high

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These allegations may be false. They may even have been planted — some U.S. officials believe that the speed with which a particular story makes the rounds is a good indication of the strength of the local Baath underground. But in a part of the world where rumor is a hard currency, the truth or falsehood of any specific incident hardly matters. What counts is what Iraqis believe. And they will continue to believe the worst of the Americans as long as communications between occupier and occupied remain terrible. In the office of the regional governor in Kirkuk, there are just four or five interpreters mediating between U.S. troops stationed there and the governor's approximately 200 local staff. "We don't speak English, and they don't speak Arabic," says Alefan, the Fallujah tribal chief. Because few TVs work, it's hard to disseminate official decrees. When the U.S. Army first entered Iraq, says an ORHA official, it had state-of-the-art links to everything that moved in the air or on the ground. Now Iraqi ministries rely on part-time couriers — that means someone's cousin on a motorbike — to deliver official mail outside Baghdad. "I admit I don't think our communications with average Iraqis have been good," says Bremer, whose frequent travel around the country seems to be an attempt to compensate.

So far his message doesn't appear to be getting through, although ORHA has some good stories to tell. In cities in the north, like Kirkuk, and the south, like Basra, conditions are much better than they are in Baghdad, in part because they are smaller and more manageable and in part because they are areas that were less sympathetic to Saddam and the Baath. There has been some progress in Baghdad too. Iraq's patchwork power grid last week managed to pump more than 1,000 MW of electricity into the city for the first time since the main fighting ended — though that was still less than half of prewar levels. But disorder still prevails in the capital. "There's no doubt in my mind that crime is increasing," says Major Loy Majeed, the assistant chief of the Bayaa police station in southwest Baghdad. "Now we get reports of five, six, seven killings in a night, and all we can do is write it down." Police officers complain that patrol cars have been stolen in broad daylight and that their small-caliber pistols are no match for the heavy weapons toted by criminals. The city coroner in Baghdad says he has seen 15 to 25 corpses a day since April, most from gunshot wounds. (Last week three schoolgirls were killed, a rarity in Baghdad; two had been raped.) To be sure, before the war, the coroner never saw the bodies of those whom Saddam's thugs had murdered; but back then, he reckons he saw only five murder victims a month.

In the inevitable effort to assign blame, some ORHA staff members criticize the Pentagon's top brass for America's postwar effort. In Washington too, some insiders grumble that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his allies made a critical error by not — as the military saying goes — hoping for the best while planning for the worst. Civilians in the Defense Department seemed to have believed that Iraqis would be so grateful to the U.S. that the number of troops needed after the war could be relatively modest.

Rumsfeld himself rejects the idea that more troops would necessarily have made the task of rebuilding a traumatized land a snap. Former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik, now overseeing Iraq's police force, similarly doesn't think that more soldiers would make his job any easier. In Kerik's view, it's the quality of decision making, not the quantity of officers, that determines how well a job is done. Alefan, the sheik in Fallujah, wouldn't disagree. He doesn't want more U.S. troops, just better behavior. If Americans want to maintain security, they just need to understand a few simple things, he says: "Don't search our women, don't insult us, hire an interpreter, show us respect. If they do all that, one humvee will be enough."

Perhaps. But even so, prepare for the humvee to stay parked down the street for some time. "Pardon me, speaking frankly," said a leading Shi'ite cleric to Garner last week. "Do not abandon your work too soon. If you say you will stay here for two years, I say stay for four." Like the man said, you have to be patient.

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