From behind trays stacked high with honey-soaked sweets, Dhiya Mohammedawi cracked a shy smile when asked about Ayad Allawi. He had something he wanted to say, all right, but it was not about Iraq's prime minister-designate and his new interim government.
"We're not spending our time worrying about the Governing Council or the prime minister, things like that," said Mohammedawi, looking over a largely deserted counter at Baghdad's renowned Abu Afif Sweet Shop. "What we worry about is electricity, gasoline and that kind of stuff."
Baghdad residents talked Saturday of Allawi's surprise nomination to become prime minister as if it were a distant event, not of their making and not very important in their lives. Keeping private generators humming to bolster the still-faulty electricity network, lining up for hours to top off the gas tank, staying safe among the car bombs and seeking some way to make a living in a country ripped up by war -- these were the priorities they said were on their minds.
When Saddam Hussein was president, Iraqis were used to regarding their government as forbidden territory, a place where only Hussein's family and Baath Party loyalists were allowed to tread. To a large extent, they have retained that outlook during a year of U.S.-led occupation. They feel powerless to affect decisions made in the heavily guarded Green Zone, where American occupation authorities live and work. Conversations on Saturday indicated little expectation that things would change on June 30, when the United States is scheduled to turn over some self-governing authority to Iraqis.
For most people in Baghdad, the daily grind of getting by also leaves little time for anything else.
Abu Afif's roomy sales shop and the adjoining bakery that turns out thousands of sticky little cakes daily have been forced to hook into a large private generator that kicks in when the electricity fails along Karada al-Kharj Street in Baghdad, which it does intermittently every day. The shop's entrance has been framed by stacks of smaller generators, still in their cardboard boxes for sale by neighboring merchants to families and shopkeepers similarly desperate to have reliable power for their refrigerators and other appliances.
Along the road to the airport, cars lined up for several hundred yards Saturday morning, as they do most mornings, to await their turn at the gasoline pump. Closer to the city center, meanwhile, near a convention center used by occupation authorities, vehicles sped out of a traffic circle after a mortar round landed in a nearby street, kicking up dust and black smoke.
A reporter witnessed the mortar's launch by three men in masks on the banks of the Tigris about two miles away. It was almost a casual affair. They pulled the tube out of a red Opel station wagon, set it up on a quay, fired three rounds, dismantled the tube, repacked it and drove off, all within about a minute. Bystanders watched impassively.
Amer Faris, who opened a smartly decorated cell phone shop only two weeks ago on Karada al-Dakhl Street, said he and his friends were "astonished" to learn of Allawi's emergence to lead the interim government and to find out that the U.S.-appointed Governing Council made the choice.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy charged with picking a prime minister, had said he was looking for a technocrat from outside the exile-dominated Governing Council. Yet the council named Allawi, who lived outside Iraq for 30 years and headed a CIA-funded exile group before joining the council after U.S. forces took over the country.
But for Faris, 47, the main preoccupation Saturday afternoon was that his spanking new store had few customers and that a good portion of his cell phones were stolen by thieves who broke through display windows two nights ago.
"It's our way of paying taxes," Faris joked, alluding to Baghdad's widespread unemployment and lack of security under the U.S. occupation.
One of the unemployed, Walid Banna, accosted a foreigner on the sidewalk nearby to demand that he be given a job. For seven months, since he took a bride, Banna, 30, had been seeking work without success, he said. He brushed aside questions about Allawi and the interim government.
"Where is the work?" he asked, his lower lip trembling. "The Americans came here and they were supposed to bring jobs for us. What are we supposed to do? Steal? No, because if we steal, they'll just put us in jail."
Although he has little known political following in Iraq, having spent most of his adult life abroad, Allawi was acknowledged by some Baghdad merchants as a good choice because of his reputation for firmness.
"He is tough," said Fadhi Salah, who owns an appliance store down the street from Abu Afif's. "We need that to get the country under control. The first thing is to get things calmed down. After that, anyone can come along and be the leader, and it will be okay."
Faris said he, too, thought Allawi was acceptable. Although Allawi was a member of Iraq's Shiite majority, he was regarded as a secular moderate, Faris said. He pointed out that Allawi had reached out to members of Hussein's Baath Party in hopes of re-integrating them into national life.
"He is somebody who can be sort of a balance," Faris said. "He's not a radical, but he is a Shiite. He is acceptable to everyone."
Ibrahim Jafari, head of the Shiite-based Dawa party, said his group was also willing to embrace Allawi's leadership pending national elections scheduled for January. That vote, he said, would be the one that counts.
"For us, it was not important who was chosen now, because it was not an election," he said. "It is our patriotic duty to support the choice, but it is the election we are looking for."
Correspondent Daniel Williams contributed to this report.