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No guarantees

IRAQ: Postwar Iraqis are struggling to light their homes and fuel their cars, but few would trade today's hardships for yesterday's dictator

MUTHAFAR YACOUB IS ONE MAN trying to win against postwar Iraq. Right now that means he has to fight for his lights.

He grabs a box cutter from the coffee table, slices into cable, then splices colored wire, threading each piece quickly into copper conductors for a new plug. A friend sits at his shoulder, holding a penlight above the work. The living room is dark and chilling fast. Shadows trace across the walls from three scattered oil lamps. Mr. Yacoub is eager to have light-and heat on a December night-because he has guests. Outside, other generators whir in the dark, filling the air with gas fumes and homes with something to see by.

Baghdad is promised a full-time electrical grid by next year. In the meantime everyone is sharing not enough power. In Baghdad electricity is at best unpredictable. Some days there is juice all day; others, only a few hours. Today power was promised on a three-hours-on/three-hours-off rotation. But after two hours in the afternoon it quit. Around 7 p.m. it was on again, but at 9 p.m. it went off.

"Ma fe dhaimaan," Mr. Yacoub declares as he works. "No guarantees."

Eight months after coalition forces took Baghdad and the lights went out, generators persist as a high-demand item. Mr. Yacoub returned to Baghdad from Jordan only a month ago with his wife and two young daughters. They have lived in this walkup only 10 days, but already the frustrations with power outages prompted him to pay $225 for a household generator. At home he discovered that the box had already been opened, and the generator wouldn't start.

He returned to the store. "It's yours now," the owner said. He would give Mr. Yacoub only $100 on return, then Mr. Yacoub had to buy another generator at full price. Back home, its engine sputtered and caught, only for Mr. Yacoub to discover he didn't have the right cable to connect his new power supply to the fuse box. Back to the store he went. And the late night retrofitting began. The cable finished, he yanked the engine to life, flicked a switch inside, and-lights at last.

Like his electricity, Mr. Yacoub and his family are back in Baghdad with fits and starts. Each new day in what U.S. administrator Paul Bremer likes to call "new Iraq" is a surprise, they say, and holds no guarantees.

Sixty percent of Iraqis are out of work, double the number from before the war. Prices in the city are rising. Gasoline is in short supply, sending fuel prices to five times their normal rate. Outside stations, the lines of cars can extend a mile or more. Some drivers wait all day for half a tank. Some will choose instead to buy a liter of fuel at black-market prices-12 times the normal cost-from boys toting fuel from the stations in soda bottles. Customers set an all-time record on Dec. 6 in Baghdad: 670 cars in one gas line.

For a country that has lived through three costly wars and 30 years of dictatorship, the old adage about things getting worse before they get better isn't one Iraqis want to hear.

"Lift up your heads-you are Iraqis," reads a sign in Arabic at the center of Firdos Square, where Iraqis in April triumphantly pulled down a statue of Saddam. Another reads, "The dictator will not be back." But at midpoint between the start of the U.S. invasion and next year's expected handover of sovereignty to a new Iraq provisional government, residents believe they have reason to see more progress in "new Iraq."

For most residents, utilities they had before the war-power, phone service, and water-have not returned at all or return only intermittently. The fuel situation is particularly galling. Iraqis are acutely aware that they sit atop the world's second-largest oil reserve yet cannot power their homes or cars. "We are like a camel who goes hungry while carrying all the food," said Mr. Yacoub.

Mr. Yacoub, a biochemist who once worked in the oil industry, said most Iraqis recognize that it was looters who crippled the oil supply, not U.S. forces. But it's hard to be patient with winter winds blowing and the oil fields not yet fully operational. He knows that insecurity created by Islamic fighters is hampering reconstruction. Still, he thinks the Coalition Provisional Authority should have been ready before the war to do more in the aftermath.

"When they came to change the situation, they should have been ready for the next step," he said. "They should have been ready to supply hospitals and to fix electricity. They should have trained people for security. If they had been ready, they would not have given an opportunity for Islamic parties."

Even now, signs of foot-dragging continue. Defense contractors arrived in Jordan only this month to set up a training camp outside Amman for new Iraqi security forces. They expect to house and train up to 20,000. But with six months to go before the coalition hands state sovereignty-including local security-to a new government, the training facility isn't yet built.

In northern Iraq support for the U.S. invasion could hardly be higher. The newest restaurant in Irbil is called Washington Restaurant and welcomes patrons with side-by-side U.S. and Iraqi flags. Children in Kirkuk greet an American with "hi, buddy" and thumbs-up-gestures they borrowed from paratroopers. But local officials are frustrated with U.S. civil authority. At offices for the Coalition Provisional Authority, the most common answer to the latest problem, say local officials, is "I don't know." They are frustrated by staff turnovers among the civilian administration and frequent policy changes.

At the same time, those officials don't want to publicly criticize the Bush administration, one of them told WORLD, because they are more afraid of what might happen if President Bush is not reelected next year. "A lot of people are angry in northern Iraq," said Douglas Layton, director of field operations for Health Care Partnerships, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization working in the region. "That's unfortunate because this is a passionately pro-American region."

Mr. Layton, who has done humanitarian work in Iraq for a decade, believes the civil administration of Mr. Bremer misunderstands both the ethnic and religious diversity of Iraq. "Mr. Bremer does not want a factional government, even the kind of provincial federalism Kurdish leaders have argued for. He wants a powerful central government," something only the predominant Shia favor. Iraq's Sunni and Kurdish Muslim leaders, along with ethnic Turkmen, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and others fear a Shiite-dominated central authority, however many democratic guarantees eventually make it into a new constitution.

"Americans made a mistake because of their misunderstanding of Islam. Shia and Sunni will never like us. They will always hate us and our view of government. They don't recognize inalienable rights," Mr. Layton said.

None of that seems to be stopping Iraqis from approving today's limbo with their feet. Remember when humanitarian groups worried about teeming refugee camps at the borders? Just the opposite has happened. Exiles from Saddam's regime, most of whom sat out the last decade in neighboring countries, cross the border hourly. Ironically, their sudden influx is intensifying the fuel crisis. Roads in major cities are sporting cars from Jordan, the Gulf States, and as far away as Denmark. Many who were chased out by Saddam-like Mr. Yacoub-are coming back to stay and bringing automobiles with them.

And like those who lived through the Saddam era, few would trade today's hardships for yesterday's dictator. They can point to a surprising plenty that is new about Iraq: new license plates, new currency, new computers and supplies for every school (courtesy of the U.S. Army). Policemen are wearing new uniforms and driving new Suzukis. There is new flight service to cities like Basra in the south and Irbil in the north-cities once cut off from Baghdad by no-fly zones imposed after the Gulf War.

Satellite dishes-nonexistent in Saddam's Iraq-are abundant. Where television viewers once had two government-controlled channels to choose from, they now have dozens-including 13 channels of Christian programming. Few cities had internet access. Now the Coalition Provisional Authority has seen to it that every major city is wired.

While prices are on the rise, so too are salaries for many who can find or keep jobs. Akram Almashmos, a cosmetics wholesaler, said he used to make the equivalent of $3 a month when Saddam set prices and salaries. Now he is making over $150 a month.

For a city where street demonstrations were outlawed for three decades, street marches against terrorism in early December were a breakthrough. Newspaper publishers also are taking advantage of their newfound freedom of expression. Independent newspapers proliferate, and hawkers walk the traffic jams selling the latest editions. One, an Islamic daily, gave full-length treatment to the photo of President Bush serving U.S. soldiers turkey on Thanksgiving Day-only the turkey had been cropped into the shape of Iraq and the platter was held out to a smug Saddam.

"There is fear inside every Iraqi that has built up for 30 years. It's not easy to get away from it," said Insaf Safou, another recent returnee. But clearly most believe their future is up to the U.S. president.

Lawlessness and insecurity do weigh on many. Asked if he is afraid of being robbed, Mr. Almashmos replied, "I expect it." Greater fear arises from bombings and roadside attacks. While November was the deadliest month for U.S. forces, it was also a high-casualty month for Iraqis. Seven Iraqis-including a father of four-were killed in the Dec. 5 Baghdad bombing that killed one U.S. soldier. Twenty Iraqis were seriously injured. "We are afraid of explosions more than thieves," says Mr. Yacoub's wife, Ghada.

Nevertheless, residents here believe they are safer than they were a few months ago, and certainly than they were under Saddam. "In the small towns there is already more control. Baghdad is bigger and has more immigrants, it is more insecure," said Mr. Almashmos. Like most Iraqis WORLD interviewed, he believes bombings are coming from foreigners with ties to al-Qaeda. "Iraqis don't kill other Iraqis like this," he said. He and others support the aggressive efforts of U.S. forces to go after terror cells.

"Every day you see people going to school and going to the store. They are fighting for their way of life. They are wanting to be normal," said Ghada.

Mr. Yacoub once worked as a teacher and his wife was a dentist. Both also participated in Christian outreach ministries. They were forced to flee to Jordan in 1998. Saddam cracked down on groups suspected of Western ties, and their ministry in Baghdad was specifically targeted. After more than five years in exile, they could have lived on in stable, more prosperous Jordan. But both say they have no regrets about their decision to return this month with their young girls.

Every day Ghada gets a thrill putting local Iraqi cheeses on her table. Relief at resettling in her homeland and once again living across town from relatives overwhelms the frustration of daily shortages and other hardships. "There are so many rumors that are not true," she said. "You can unlock your doors. All day my door stays open, and I can go to the store. It's very safe."

More importantly, even when the lights go out, one thing is guaranteed. The dictator will not be back.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy is senior editor of WORLD Magazine and the author of They Say We Are Infidels. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.