With or without Rumsfeld, US staying in Iraq

BAGHDAD — US soldiers strolled through neighbourhoods in troubled north Baghdad on Thursday, poking their heads into storefronts and delivering the same message all day: Donald Rumsfeld’s departure does not mean American forces will abandon efforts to stabilise the capital.

Yet, as they walked the dangerous streets, the soldiers carried with them their own and varied opinions of the war and the man who ran it from the Pentagon.

Spc. Wayne Thimas, a 32-year-old Bostonian with the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry, 172 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, said Rumsfeld’s departure meant nothing to him.

“It’s kind a weird, but this is just another day for us.

Nothing changes here. You hear explosions and gunshots, you feel the explosions, and you don’t even flinch — it’s just another day in Baghdad,” Thimas said.

Sgt. David Alberg, a 22-year-old from Modesto, California, said the hard-driving Rumsfeld wouldn’t be missed: “I don’t think you’ll find many people around here who have anything good to say about him.

Last summer people were really upset when two days before we were supposed to leave for Kuwait (en route home), he extended us another 120 days.” Ammar Kajjo, a 34-year-old Kurd under contract as an army interpreter, found a middle ground.

“I think history will remember him as the engineer of the Iraq war, and a lot of people don’t like him because of it.

For some reason, for the American people, the positive sides of the war don’t sell,” said Kajjo, who lives in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

But the 172nd Stryker Brigade’s chief, Col. Al Kelley, was busy digging for Iraqi opinions as he handed out wintergreen lifesavers to children near a Shiite mosque where troops recently uncovered a large weapons cache hidden under electrical equipment. Posters of anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr covered a cement barrier around the mosque.

“How are you feeling today? Did you hear the news about Rumsfeld? What do you think about it?” Col.  Kelly asked residents.

“I’m curious about what they’re thinking today. It’s a leading question that gets to deeper security issues, and the reassurance they get from us being out here today is a byproduct,” he told a reporter travelling with the brigade.

Soldiers waded through a busy outdoor vegetable market in Hurriyah, a formerly Sunni Muslim neighbourhood now dominated by Shiites. It’s part of a crescent of Shiite dominance stretching from Sadr City in Baghdad’s northeast across the Tigris River to neighbourhoods like Hurriyah in the west, where US forces have seen increasingly sophisticated attacks.

A man selling live carp from the Tigris held one up for the passing soldiers, its mouth gaping. The owner of a fruit stand flagged soldiers down to tell them he had heard the news but didn’t think a new US defence secretary would make much difference in this part of town.

“His resignation won’t affect the situation in Iraq or the United States, and it won’t affect Washington’s support for the government of [Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri] Maliki,” said 55-year-old Abdul Zahra Kabi, wearing a red-checked Arab headdress and sitting on a wood crate in the market.

“I don’t think it will either,” Kelly said.

In these neighbourhoods where anti-American sentiment runs high and sectarian vendettas run even deeper, any shift in US policy in Iraq — perceived or real — could set off a surge in killings. Rumsfeld’s resignation Wednesday had the potential for such violent response here, but US troops said they were determined to not let it happen.

“It would be a problem if the new guy wants to leave Iraq soon,” said Kamel Tahar, 48, the town council chief in Salam, just north of Baghdad. He was referring to US President George W. Bush’s nominee to succeed Rumsfeld, former CIA director Robert Gates.”We look at you as the freeing forces of Iraq, and your presence is still needed,” he told American soldiers overseeing the unloading of food aid at a community centre in Salam.

Members of the 172nd Strykers, part of the Army’s 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry unit, chatted with Tahar over tea at the community centre, where they were flooded with requests: One woman needed a rare medication for her son, another had a relative he said was unfairly detained others says the community centre needed a new conference room.

Residents rattled off a catalog of unfinished business for America in their neighbourhoods, at a critical time.

“I don’t think it’s (Rumsfeld’s resignation) the right step, but it’s probably related to the Democrats’ victory,” Taha said.

While many soldiers said the US midterm elections didn’t mean much to their daily lives, many Iraqis — whose infrastructure has been pummelled and access to electricity severely diminished — knew of the Democratic takeover and commented on it.

“It doesn’t matter who’s in power, because Americans enjoy democracy. It’s not a matter of who’s in power, the country will stay the same,” said Said Haki Ismail, 60, who shared tea with the visiting US forces.

Asked whether he thinks Iraq can one day emulate American democracy, Ismail said: “Human nature is democracy, but ours was cut from us for so long. We’re born with rights, and if you can’t enjoy democracy, you’ll feel like a slave.” But as he stuck his head into barber shops and bakeries across north Baghdad, Kelly knew he faced danger as well as Arab hospitality.

“There’s not an (Iraqi) official that I deal with on a daily basis, like any of these neighbourhood council guys, that would not just as soon see me dead. But they know I can bring money into their communities, projects and stuff — that’s why they tolerate me and need me here,” he said.

In a city where sectarian differences have spiralled into bloodlust, being tolerated was sufficient for Thursday.

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