On the day U.S. occupation authorities restored political authority to Iraq in a secretive ceremony, the only sure thing in the future of Saad Sarraf and his family, it seemed, was that the electricity would go out on schedule at 5 p.m.
For Sarraf, his wife and their three children -- and for countless other Iraqis -- the stealthy transfer of documents changing the legal status of their government was just another day in the struggle to stay alive. That goal has become the simplest expression of their hopes for the future as the U.S. occupation turned from high expectations to disappointment and uncertainty over the past 15 months.
"It is necessary, very necessary," Sarraf said of the transfer of authority, which took place inside the heavily guarded Green Zone and was announced only when completed. "But what will happen, I don't know. We can't expect anything to change in a few days."
Sarraf's business, importing car parts, has become a day-to-day scrimp, he said. Violence clouding the horizon has dissuaded Iraqis from investing in the future, even to fix their vehicles. The outlook for his children -- Rawan, 11, Yussif, 15, and Mena, 17, all of whom want to be doctors -- has been mortgaged by the men fighting to frustrate U.S. plans for the country. Sarraf has taken to frequent discussions with his wife, Shahdan, about whether fleeing abroad might be the best solution.
"We are not looking now for a better business climate," said Sarraf, 53, a secular Shiite Muslim who started out as a chemist in a government-owned plastics factory. "All those luxuries like that, we don't even hope for anymore. All we want is security. When I go out for business, my family doesn't know if I can be safe. And the same thing for me when my children go to school."
Sarraf said he has forbidden Shahdan, 44, to leave the house for shopping, which he now does himself with a list she draws up. The children also stay home after school and in the evening, Shahdan said, watching television until they are sick even of the satellite-borne fantasies from distant countries.
The Sarraf family's fears have grown from experience. A nephew working as a security consultant for the Health Ministry was shot 10 times recently as he shopped for barbeque supplies. He survived, but the man standing next to him, a South African guard, was killed. A brother's cell phone store, fronting a tony Baghdad street, was emptied by thieves.
A dozen blocks away, in the fruit juice stand where he works, Ayad Khalaf, 33, also said the realities of Baghdad's streets were unlikely to change because U.S. authorities have conferred more legal authority on Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's interim government. Khalad predicted that it would be a long time before the days returned when the stand welcomed customers long past midnight.
"All I know is that I'll go home tonight at 9 p.m., and I won't know if the roads are open or closed, or whether there will be an American checkpoint blocking my way," said Khalaf who drives to work every day from his home in Sadr City, a sprawling Shiite Muslim slum in eastern Baghdad. "Nothing is changing. We have the same difficulties, and the same fears."
Khalaf, whose neighborhood has been the scene of frequent clashes between militia fighters and U.S. occupation troops, spoke to a customer just after hearing on television that the transfer ceremony had taken place. He laughed at the secrecy, saying, "They're afraid."
Sarraf, however, described the surprise turnover as a clever decision, likely to throw off anyone planning car bombings or other attacks to disrupt the procedure and portray it as a vain exercise. "I think it was a very smart move," he said. "And I hope Prime Minister Allawi will be able to deal firmly with the terrorist challenge."
The fruit stand's owner, Abdul-Radha Hussein, agreed that keeping the turnover ceremony secret was a good way to preserve Iraqis from bombs that might have been set by the anti-occupation underground if the ceremony had been held on schedule Wednesday.
"They used the element of surprise," he declared.
The continuing power of U.S. forces here -- Allawi's government remains beholden to the U.S. military, which is still in charge of security -- did not seem to offend Hussein, who said Iraqis need the U.S. soldiers around until the violence subsides.
"Why are we so sensitive about the Americans staying here?" he asked. "For now we need them, because we have a lot of trouble."
He predicted that the U.S. troops, numbering 138,000, would leave as promised when Iraqi security forces are able to control the country. "Then we can tell the Americans to leave," he said. "They will have no more reason to stay."
Sarraf was less certain than Hussein that U.S. troops were going to leave soon. The country will need them for a long time to come, a matter of several years, he said in an interview in the ample middle-class home where he has lived for many years.
To move to the point where Iraqi forces can take control of the country without help, he said, Iraq needs someone who can impose order. No one wants another Saddam Hussein, he explained, but Iraq's history teaches that it requires a tough leader.
"What we need is someone with power, someone with a strong personality, who can make things go," he said. "This is because of our population."
No one among the former exiles who have been installed by U.S. occupation authorities, including Allawi, seems to be up to the task, he said. The answer would be for someone to rise up in the months ahead and reveal himself as the strong figure Iraqis yearn for.
"Our people were raised on that," Sarraf said. "Now it is just a mess. We need that. It doesn't make any difference if he is military or civilian."
The longing for strong leadership to confront the violence Iraq is suffering has surfaced in a number of conversations in recent days. Allawi's suggestion that a state of emergency might be declared, with suspension of some civil liberties, has not been greeted here with the same reserve it has met in Washington.
The democracy introduced by U.S. occupation authorities is a fine ideal, Sarraf said, but it may have been taken too far. For instance, the proliferation of new newspapers, each one criticizing and opining, he said, is not the democracy Iraqis had in mind.
"This is democracy, but what kind of democracy?" he asked. "All those people who were keeping their mouths shut, now for the smallest thing, they just yell and scream. If God Himself came down to Earth, someone would find fault with him."
But along a dusty Sadr City street, in a hole-in-the-wall shop selling soft drinks and cigarettes, Mohammed Abdul-Hussein said he was cheered by Monday's news. The secretive way it was done did not bother him -- "It was a tactic," he said -- and the new power gives Allawi a chance to get things done that he could not do before.
"We are very optimistic about Ayad Allawi's government, because he is a qualified person, and it is well known he is capable of leading." said Abdul-Hussein, 23, who has a college degree in administration but is still looking for a job. "He can change things."