A pair of AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships thumped back and forth overhead, scouring residential streets for insurgents. Dun-colored Bradley Fighting Vehicles snorted and wheeled around, their tracks gouging holes in the tarmac. A dozen Humvees stood sentry, closing off the four-lane avenue to Iraqi cars, while nervous American soldiers with M-16 automatic rifles forbade local residents from approaching.
"Look at this," said Ghassan Abu Ahmed, raising his hand in a sweeping gesture toward the tableau of military might. "This is freedom? It is crazy."
A car bomb had just hit a U.S. military convoy passing down the main avenue Friday afternoon in southwest Baghdad's Sayediyeh neighborhood, one of the near-daily attacks on occupation troops across Iraq. By the standards of Iraqi violence over the past two months, it was not particularly bloody. The U.S. military reported no serious casualties. But for what it told about Iraqis' attitudes toward the 13-month-old U.S. occupation, the attack was devastating.
"What Saddam did was awful, but what the Americans are doing is worse," said Abu Ahmed, a laborer who lives with his wife and four sons in a government-built apartment house flanking the road. "They say they are bringing us freedom. But this is what they bring."
Since U.S. forces drove to Baghdad and overthrew President Saddam Hussein in April 2003, the 138,000 American soldiers stationed here have lost their status as liberators in the eyes of most Iraqis. Polling by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority has chronicled a steady souring of opinion, with the most recent surveys showing about 80 percent of Iraqis with an unfavorable opinion of U.S. troops.
They have been encouraged in their views by Muslim preachers, who, judging by their sermons, have concluded that the U.S. occupation should end immediately if peace is to be restored to Iraq. To buttress their arguments, they repeatedly have cited the abuse of Iraqi captives at Abu Ghraib prison, which has helped crystallize opinion against the presence of U.S. soldiers.
"It was discovered that the freedom in this land is not ours. It is the freedom of the occupying soldiers in doing what they like, such as arresting, carrying out raids, killing at random or stealing money," Sheik Mohammed Bashir declared in his sermon Friday at Um al-Oura, a Sunni Muslim mosque in the middle-class Ghazaliya neighborhood.
"No one can ask them what they are doing, because they are protected by their freedom," he continued. "No one can punish them, whether in our country or their country. The worst thing is what was discovered in the course of time: abusing women, children, men, and the old men and women whom they arrested randomly and without any guilt. They expressed the freedom of rape, the freedom of nudity and the freedom of humiliation."
Sheik Bagir Saad at the Hikma Mosque in Sadr City, a stronghold of Shiite Muslim militiamen who have confronted the occupation militarily, denounced U.S. and U.N. plans that he said call for increased involvement by the international body and an increased emphasis on military forces from a variety of countries.
"The new U.N. resolution calls for multinational forces, but we want to inform all the countries that we don't want their armies, whether Arab, Islamic or foreign armies, because we will look at any army coming to Iraq as an occupation, and they should not send their children into this trap," he said.
The Baghdad residents who lined up to watch as U.S. soldiers clustered around their wrecked Humvees on Friday were clearly among the majority who have heeded the call of their sheiks. No one was heard expressing concern for the soldiers who were bombed. Judging by their comments, the neighbors of Sayediyeh's middle-class apartments looked at the avenue and saw enemies in desert camouflage.
Mohammed Ali Ahmed, 24, a worker who lives nearby, complained that the wounded U.S. soldiers were picked up and driven away for medical care by an Iraqi civilian ambulance that happened by. Iraqi ambulances are not for occupying troops, he declared.
"They shouldn't have taken them in the ambulance. They should have left them there, left them to die," Ahmed said to a neighbor.
"That's not right," objected Aqil Kitab, 28, another worker who was standing next to him. "Have you ever been in the army? Even your enemy, when he is wounded, you have to treat him. Then you can interrogate him or put him in a prisoner-of-war camp. The ambulance driver did his job. It was the right thing to do."
Ahmed conceded Kitab was probably right. But he predicted that such attacks would continue as long as U.S. forces remained in Iraq.
"I think that when the Americans leave Iraq, these kinds of things will stop, and we will have security again. These guys have a big organization behind them," he said, referring to the insurgents. "That's why they can do this. But I don't think it's right. If the Americans leave, we will start to fight among ourselves."
The solution, he suggested, may be for U.S. and other foreign forces to concentrate at isolated bases, out of sight of Iraqis, and leave the country's security to Iraqi security forces. The foreign troops can be like reserves and come out of their camps only in response to emergencies that Iraqi troops cannot handle, he said.
Ali Samir Salman, 18, who works in the Baghdad University student cafeteria, said U.S. troops frequently have come under attack while driving down the broad avenue. He said he has seen insurgents -- whom he called fedayeen, or those who give themselves for a cause -- gathering by the roadside with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 automatic rifles to launch such attacks.
Neither he nor others have denounced the attackers to Iraqi police or U.S. troops. To the contrary, residents resent the U.S. convoys, he said, because the soldiers frequently shine brilliant lights into windows as they drive by and scan the roadsides for danger.
The attack Friday was carried out by a car rigged with a bomb that swerved sideways and stopped as a convoy of five Humvees drove by, he said. The driver bolted and ran to a waiting car, in which he fled with three other men, Salman said. The fourth U.S. vehicle to pass took the blast directly, he said, and a soldier manning a machine gun mounted on the roof was propelled high into the air.
After crashing to the roadbed, the soldier pushed himself up and tried to stand leaning on his gun, then collapsed again, he said. After that, Salman recounted, the soldier lay still until the Iraqi ambulance crew took charge of him and drove away. Before long, he said, the Bradleys, the Humvees and the helicopters showed up, and other soldiers spilled out to line the roadside.
"Look at that soldier. He is shaking," a boy shouted, pointing at a young U.S. soldier wearing yellow-tinted goggles.
"That's because he was with them in the convoy when the bomb went off," another boy said. "He was frightened. Let's talk to him, cool him down, so he can forget."
The boys joked and tried to attract the soldier's attention with an attempt at English phrases. The soldier smiled faintly and talked back, correcting their pronunciation.
"Stay away from him, and don't point at the Humvees," an adult scolded. "I'm afraid they will not understand and they will think you are talking bad about them and they will get angry. Stop it."