Iraqis Frustrated with Diversions

Did Thaer Abbas Shammari --whose scars were inflicted during 14 years as a political prisoner under Saddam Hussein—vote on Iraqi constitution referendum day?

"I did not vote or encourage anyone to vote because the government has given us nothing," the 47-year-old shop owner said, grimacing and waving his arms in disgust. "Where are the results?"

It's easy to find people like Shammari in today's Iraq. The electricity and water systems are still in shambles 30 months after Hussein was toppled, unemployment has soared, and gasoline lines stretch for miles in a country with the world's fourth-largest oil reserves. There are kidnappings, assassinations, suicide bombings and sectarian strife. Even many people who did vote in last Saturday's referendum have indicated they are running out of patience.

The week also brought the opening of Hussein's trial on war crimes charges. While many Iraqis welcomed it as the beginning of a national catharsis, they criticized the government's focus on the trial as a milestone in the country's march to democracy. What matters most, they said, is improvement in the conditions of daily life.

"If I'm able to get fuel . . . it's more useful for us than this theater called the Saddam trial," said Salim Hussein, a taxi driver waiting in a long line for gasoline.

"The Americans and the Iraqi government are trying to divert people's attention, first with the constitution and second with this fake trial," said Mohammed Yousif, 31, the owner of a downtown Baghdad parking garage. "Explosions increased, enemies of Iraq increased, and the current situation is terrible. I wish we still lived under Saddam."

In interviews across Iraq during and after the Oct. 15 referendum, people expressed relief that Hussein was gone but anger about the path the country is on. "These frustrations have only gotten worse even as the rhetoric that 'democracy is coming' has increased," said Joost Hiltermann, a Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group, a Belgium-based organization.

Citizens "are asked to persevere and defy terrorism, violence and all threats," he said, "but when a man goes home and finds that there is no electricity, no gasoline for his car, no water to wash with, no garbage collection, what is he to say? How should he react?"

On Dec. 15, Iraqis will go to the polls again to select a new parliament -- the third time this year that the country will have mobilized for a national vote -- and some Iraqis are questioning why. The time, effort and money would better be spent fixing the water and electricity systems, in their view.

"There is no need to hold elections in Iraq -- we tried elections before and got nothing," said Rauof Abdullah Ouji, 35, a doctor from Kirkuk. "People lost hope in their government and political powers and the Americans."

Compounding the anger, Iraqis and political analysts said, is the widespread view that senior Iraqi government officials are carpetbaggers who came home principally to enrich themselves and who now spend most of their time outside the country or in secure compounds equipped with private utilities. Those notions were fueled by arrest warrants issued this month for Iraq's former defense minister and 22 others who are accused of embezzling more than $1 billion from the ministry's accounts.

"This government is making the same mistake of the former government, which is being far from the people," said Tawfic, a Baghdad university professor. In the provinces, he said, "the governor, the police commander, high political officers, and so on, live inside secure compounds with continuous electric power, and clean water, surrounded by high concrete blast walls. So the simple people ask: What have we gotten out of all that?"

"The Americans say they brought democracy -- yes, we have democracy, but on paper," he said. "There is no development, improvement, peace or construction because of this democracy." After the Persian Gulf War, Ali said, "Saddam rebuilt Iraq in 1991 within months, but now, 2 1/2 years have passed and nothing has been rebuilt."

[From article written by John Ward Anderson and Bassam Sebti, Washington Post]

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