Stately in the black turban and flowing robes that marked him as a senior Shiite Muslim cleric, Ali Abdul Kareem Madani received petitioners sitting cross-legged on a fine carpet. One after the other, they streamed in all day to tell him their woes and their needs.
Two factotums, standing on either flank of the soft-spoken dignitary, waved straw fans to keep him cool in the oppressive heat. The electric ceiling fan just above his head was motionless, as the power was out again in this fruit-growing farming hub 30 miles northeast of Baghdad.
"We blame the coalition forces for the lack of electricity," Madani said solemnly, as if handing down a religious interpretation. "After one year of occupation, a great country like the United States is not able to set up a big generator to give this city electricity?"
For many Iraqis, the 13-month-old U.S. occupation has failed to live up to its billing as an exercise in reconstruction and democracy-building. Like Madani, they are glad that former president Saddam Hussein has been overthrown and a new interim government has been installed in Baghdad. But most of Baqubah's approximately 250,000 people -- and most Iraqis around the country -- have experienced the U.S. presence here mainly at the wrong end of a gun. It is that, and not the news from Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, that informs their views.
"We don't see any civilians," Madani complained. "All we see are soldiers."
A relentless campaign of bombings and ambushes by insurgents determined to drive out the U.S. occupation has forced the military to continue a battle that soldiers thought was finished more than a year ago, when President Bush announced the end of major combat operations. The result has been persistent clashes, nighttime raids, armored patrols and detentions -- the blunt instruments of war -- that have led many Iraqis of different political and religious persuasions to resent the occupation they once welcomed.
Insurgents have organized into coherent guerrilla groups and forced U.S. authorities to deal with them as such in Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad, and around Najaf, 90 miles south of the capital. In countless other locations, including Baghdad and around Baqubah, they have remained underground. But in either case, the struggle has pushed U.S. soldiers into an aggressive military role that is the face of the occupation for most Iraqis.
"If you want to give us freedom, a sort of democracy, then you don't kill people, you don't destroy houses, you don't run over cars with your tanks," said Saad Abdul-Jabbar, a journalist in Baqubah who writes for the independent Zaman newspaper in Baghdad. "This only creates hatred."
Madani has his own reasons for disliking the U.S. occupation. He returned to Baqubah on May 25 after nearly 10 months in seven different Army detention centers, where he was taken after being accused of promoting anti-U.S. violence early in the occupation.
The charges against him have not been dropped, U.S. officials said. But Army Col. Dana J.H. Pittard, who recently took command here and realized Madani's position of influence, helicoptered to Umm Qasr -- about 325 miles to the southeast, at the head of the Persian Gulf -- to secure his release from prison and escort him home, according to Iraqi and U.S. sources.
Pittard has shown himself to be a gentleman, Madani said, but the gesture did not change his views on the U.S. occupation.
U.S. authorities in Baghdad have mainly blamed the violent insurgency for delays in rebuilding. Civilian contractors have retreated from the field, and often from the country, they note, and civilian U.S. officials have been hobbled by stringent security restrictions.
But for Madani, the converse is true: The delays in rebuilding have been a big reason for the violence. Thousands of young men, having been told their country would be swiftly rebuilt, have not found jobs, he said. And Baqubah's merchants, having heard of millions of dollars in reconstruction contracts, still have not seen the money flow or the return of municipal services.
"Services?" asked a Baqubah merchant known as Abu Ziad as he gestured toward the open sewage running in front of his sundries shop. "Look at that. Look at that. They say they have spent millions. Where are they? I tell you, it was better before."
Saad Abbas, who runs a small butcher shop on the edge of town, said his business has suffered because the Baath Party functionaries, security agents and soldiers who formed a large part of Iraq's economy before the war have run out of money and cannot find work. The economy around Baqubah seems frozen, he said, and until it gets moving again, nobody will be able to pay for his freshly slaughtered lamb.
"The most important thing is the electricity," said Abbas, 38. "Because when the electricity stops, everything stops."
List of Grievances
Khabair Sulman Hussein Dureimi, 65, was picked up late one evening by U.S. soldiers who came to his house in Ragat Haj al-Sheil, the date-growing village he heads on the edge of Baqubah city. He was taken to the nearby Farnas airstrip that serves as a U.S. base, he recalled. There he was interrogated once, he said, and released without explanation a month later.
Because of this and other reasons, the 4,800 people of Ragat Haj al-Sheil have little good to say about the U.S. occupation.
For them, according to a conversation with several Iraqis at Dureimi's spacious home, the occupation has meant being forced off the road by U.S. armored personnel carriers that insist on driving down the middle. It has meant being unable to get water from a nearby stream because it runs too close to the Farnas base. It has meant getting shot at when they move about the reeds and underbrush of their palm groves. And for Dureimi's 35-year-old son, Labib, it has meant trying to leave at 5 a.m. to get a good spot in a gasoline line and having his car damaged by machine-gun fire from an armored personnel carrier crew that was startled in the darkness.
Encounters with soldiers have so soured the villagers' view of the U.S. military that even a public works project funded by the Army has become a source of contention.
Civil affairs officers from the Farnas base donated money to spruce up the village school, which villagers said had not been maintained since it was built in 1954. Workers have begun replastering the walls and pouring concrete for a playground. But the new roof, villages complained, is made from mud that will disintegrate at the first winter rain.
"The work should be done right," said Mohammed Aly, an unemployed former soldier whose six children attend the school.
Villagers complained to U.S. soldiers that the Iraqi contractor was doing shoddy work, but got no result, Aly said.
A Dialogue in Bughros
Lt. Col. Steve Bullimore, 43, of St. Joseph, Mo., the commander of Task Force 16 with responsibility for Baqubah, was well into the third hour of his meeting with local sheiks and dignitaries. I have $625,000 to fund reconstruction projects, he told them, so come forward with what you need.
"What will it take to change the minds of some of these people in Bughros?" he asked, referring to a violence-prone village on the edge of Baqubah. "Is it jobs? Is it money? Be honest with me."
Bughros has been a thorn in the side of U.S. commanders here for months. For most of the last year, U.S. forces have sought to avoid the village because they were consistently ambushed there. Bullimore -- tall, smiling and confident -- told his visitors that deal was over.
From now on, he said, U.S. forces will continually visit Bughros. They will come to help, he added, but if they are fired on, they will fire back.
"My understanding is that every time they went into Bughros, they got shot at, so they just left it alone," Bullimore said of his predecessors. "Is that right? What I'm telling you is that I cannot do that."
"Nobody is against the government," protested Aouf Khasheri, an engineer and village leader.
"My information is different," responded Bullimore, smiling.
Rocket-propelled grenades have been fired at his unit's tanks patrolling in Bughros, he noted, and his men have been fired upon from rooftops by gunmen wearing the black clothes that are a sign of insurgents loyal to the former Baath Party government.
"Why do they do that?" asked a white-turbaned sheik, pointing out that the village contains many former Iraqi soldiers who have come home with nothing to do. "Because they don't have jobs. That's why they attack you."
Khasheri, dressed in Western clothes and speaking passable English, urged Bullimore to pay his respects to the sheiks before venturing into the village. When he wants to go somewhere around Bughros, Khasheri said, he goes to the sheik who controls the territory and asks authorization to proceed. Then the sheik gives him gunmen to escort him and all goes well.
That is the way the U.S. Army should do things, he suggested.
"Look at this man," he added, gesturing to a sheik dressed in traditional Arab headdress and robes. "He is 81. He is a big sheik. In Saddam Hussein's days, people used to come to him. They did not ask him to come to their office for a meeting. No, they went to him. Now the coalition forces have killed his son."
The suggestion seemed to have little appeal for Bullimore, who pointed out that occupation rules allow only one gun per household. For those who wanted a permit to legalize their weapons, he said, a form was available with his aides that could be taken to the town hall.
'We Meet With Everybody'
Since November, Edward Peter Messmer has been trying to build Baqubah into a democratic, economically flourishing city. The going has been rough, he acknowledged in an interview, but progress is visible. It will be even more visible, he said, when the $18 billion recently approved for Iraq's civilian and police reconstruction starts flowing through the economy.
"That right now is kicking into gear," said Messmer, a diplomat who was detached from the U.S. Consulate in Bombay to come to Baqubah.
Provincial officials said bids must be received by noon Saturday for the first of the big contracts that will be let here, primarily for sewer, irrigation and electricity-generating projects. But already, Messmer said, the amount of electricity available in Baqubah is increasing and merchants have more money in their pockets.
Baqubah residents have displayed great enthusiasm for the new organs of government he has helped them organize, Messmer said, and for the first time, Iraqi police in the past two weeks have dared to patrol Baqubah's streets at night.
The complaints that only U.S. soldiers are visible around Baqubah are unfounded, he said, since he and his civilian colleagues from the Coalition Provisional Authority sit down regularly with local residents. "We meet with sheiks, we meet with imams, we meet with students, we meet with everybody," he said.
The rebuilding efforts will hit a high moment June 30, Messmer said, when the U.S. occupation formally ends, sovereignty returns to Iraqi authorities and Coalition Provisional Authority officials go home. To celebrate, Baqubah will hold "Sovereignty Day" festivities.
"We're going to have a great time," he said.