In Baghdad, Reality Counters Rhetoric

Iraqi soldiers celebrate after a ceremony restoring Iraqi border security in the western city of Qusaybah, along the frontier with Syria.
Iraqi soldiers celebrate after a ceremony restoring Iraqi border security in the western city of Qusaybah, along the frontier with Syria. (Pool Photo/by David Furst Via Reuters)
By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 1, 2005

BAGHDAD, Nov. 30 -- Through the smoke of car bombs on the streets of Baghdad, Ali Kathem has trouble seeing the progress that President Bush described Wednesday in a speech in Annapolis.

"At least we didn't have terrorism under Saddam Hussein. Now, we have explosions, kidnapping, stealing," said Kathem, 24, a stocky man who has sold cigarettes on a busy roadside in the Iraqi capital for nearly a decade.

In an electronics store nearby, Haider Falleh, 32, said his opinion of the new Iraq crystallized when a half-dozen men in police uniforms, driving police cars, robbed his shop of 45 cell phones. He ran for help to police at a checkpoint across the street. They shrugged.

For Ghassan Abdul Haider, 26, a Shiite police officer in the capital, the religious lines dividing the country have kept him from his home in northern Baghdad for three months. The last time he was there, little children brought notes from his Sunni neighbors saying he would be killed.

Bush, in his speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, spoke of progress toward independence, of land restored to Iraqi control, of gains in stability and democracy, and of the "skill and courage" of newly trained Iraqi security forces.

But on the streets of Baghdad, such optimistic rhetoric contrasts sharply with the thunder of suicide bombs, the scream of ambulance sirens, the roar of racing police cars bearing men with masks and machine guns, and the grim daily reports of assassinations, murders and hostage-taking.

On the same day Bush spoke, nine farmworkers were killed when gunmen opened fire on a bus near Baqubah, snipers fired on the office of a National Assembly member in the capital, and three Iraqi army officers were wounded when a bomb went off near their patrol. In Fallujah, 20,000 people marched in a funeral for a Sunni cleric shot while leaving prayers.

For Iraq, that was a quiet day.

"You just never know what you will face. Each day when I come to work, I think it will be my last day alive," said Falleh, the electronics store operator. He said he survived one bomb blast and escaped death a second time when police reacting to the bomb fired wildly into his car.

The horror stories of Iraqis are supported by the tabulations gathered from police blotters and daily reports. Statistics are slippery here, but almost every attempt to quantify the violence shows a grim trend.

Multiple-death bombings reached an all-time high of 46 in September, a record likely to be broken this month. More than 400 people have died in bombings this month, compared with 91 a year ago. Every day, according to an estimate by the Brookings Institution in Washington, there are roughly 100 attacks, double the rate of a year ago, and each month between 200 and 300 Iraqi policemen and soldiers are killed. Ninety-three U.S. troops died in October, the fourth-highest monthly toll since the invasion of Iraq.

Iraqis generally agree that things are awful, but there is less unanimity about what should be done. Bush pledged that U.S. troops would stay until the mission was "complete." Some here approve, but others want them out now.

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