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Uncertainty, Security Concerns Grow Among Iraqis Amid U.S. Drawdown

August 31, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Margaret Warner continues her series of reports from Iraq with a look at how Iraqi citizens feel about their safety, security and future amid the U.S. troop drawdown.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn to Margaret Warner’s second story this week from Iraq.Today, she talks with Iraqis around the country about how safe they are now feeling.

MARGARET WARNER: One of the great delicacies of Iraqi cuisine is masgouf, fresh fish split open, sliced and oiled, then grilled over an open-wood flame for an hour.During Baghdad’s years ofbloodshed, this popular park along the Tigris River was shut down.And restaurateurs like Mohammad Abu Abid left town.Now he’s back doing what he loves best.

MOHAMMAD ABU ABID, restaurant owner (through translator):People just want to go out and enjoy themselves.They are sick and tired of the situation.They want to relax again.

MARGARET WARNER: Among his customers this hot Baghdad night, Ali Alsadi and his wife, Montaha.They are relieved to be out.

MONTAHA ALSADI, resident of Baghdad:We don’t go after two years ago any place, any place.

MARGARET WARNER: So, do you feel safer?

MAN: Yes.

MONTAHA ALSADI: A little bit safer, but…

MAN: But more than before.

MONTAHA ALSADI: When we go, all family, we (INAUDIBLE) but alone, alone, alone, no.

MARGARET WARNER: Make no mistake about it.Baghdad retains the feel of a garrison city.Drivers must navigate a maze of blast walls, checkpoints and roving Iraqi convoys.Many buildings bear the bullet and mortar scars of seven years of fighting and occupation.And bombs still explode almost daily.Its people, too, bear the scars and trauma of war, none more so, says activist Hanaa Edwar, than women.

HANAA EDWAR, head, Iraqi Al-Amal Association:We have over one million women are widows because of the violent situation after 2003.And this is a lot for the country, where the widows, they have no incomes, no source of incomes.And there are children.They have children.

MARGARET WARNER: One of those widows, 40-year-old Batol Jassin Mohammed.In 2006, her police officer husband and their two young sons were abducted by insurgents.

BATOL JASSIN MOHAMMED, widow (through translator):They took him out of the car and chained him to the back, took him to some ruins near the highway, and slaughtered him in front of his kids.And after they slowly killed him, they cut off his head in front of them.

MARGARET WARNER: Since then, she and the children have been living on the edge, and not just financially.Her house in Baghdad’s Yarmouk neighborhood was at the center of the inter-ethnic carnage that exploded that same year.

BATOL JASSIN MOHAMMED (through translator):Bullets were flying everywhere.Sometimes, they hit inside the house.We had to lock the doors, sit inside the room, and listen to the sound of bullets.I didn’t have a weapon.My husband was dead, and I was so scared someone would come inside and kill us.

MARGARET WARNER: During the height of the sectarian violence in Baghdad, this traffic circle in Yarmouk was a war zone.Killings, car bombs, suicide attacks, this neighborhood saw an average of 40 bodies a day pile up in its streets.Now it’s quite a different picture.

Army and police patrol the streets in convoys and on foot.Markets are coming back, and so are some shoppers — 33-year-old dentist and mother Maysaa Alani is shopping for shoes with her sister.

MAYSAA ALANI, dentist:And seeing the guards here, the policemen more.And they’re in the market.You can feel safe here.You can do the shopping.Two years, three years ago, we don’t go alone.

MARGARET WARNER: Security is so improved, she says, that she can now see her dental patients in the evening.But, still, she feels confined, since police set up random security roadblocks without warning.

MAYSAA ALANI: It could be closed.You can’t stay in your car with your kids and this — hot.You stay two hours sometimes in your car.

MARGARET WARNER: So, if they shut down the neighborhood…

MAYSAA ALANI: They don’t tell you.

MARGARET WARNER: Then they don’t tell you, and you’re trapped — you’re locked out.


MARGARET WARNER: More than a million other professional Iraqis who couldn’t deal with the violence or frustration fled the country.And Hanaa Edwar says Iraq’s middle class hasn’t recovered.

HANAA EDWAR: The middle class is suffering from poverty, from displacement of enduring the sectarian war.Many of them, they run away from the country.

MARGARET WARNER: The lack of predictable security also holds back the economy and jobs.With just a ninth-grade education, another widow, Shaimaa Ali, is now learning computer skills.

SHAIMAA ALI, widow (through translator):My dream is to get a job with a good salary, to be something in this society and support my children.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you think it will be possible to find a job?

SHAIMAA ALI (through translator):I could get a minor job, but nothing to fulfill my dream.We have students, male and female, who graduate from universities, and they can’t find a job.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you want to stay in Iraq?Or, if you had the option, would you want to leave?

SHAIMAA ALI (through translator):I would definitely leave.It’s just too difficult to live in Iraq.Everything is difficult.

MARGARET WARNER: Things are quite different in the ancient holy city of Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad.It attracts Shiite pilgrims from throughout the Islamic world.

This Thursday night, outside the Shrine of Imam Ali, thousands have gathered on a sea of Oriental carpets to break the daily fast of Ramadan.After picnicking on roasted chicken and rice, they relax for hours, visiting with family and friends and with us.

Najaf was brutalized in the time of Saddam Hussein and saw its share of post-invasion bloodshed, too.Yet, college student Zaid Mohammed Kadim notes, when explosions hit more than a dozen Iraqi cities the day before, the holy cities of the Shiite south were untouched.

ZAID MOHAMMED KADIM, college student (through translator):We are all Shiites here, so we feel safe and secure.We come to Najaf to visit the Shrine of Ali or to Karbala to visit the Shrine of Husayn, because they are holy places for the Shia people.We feel safe.

MARGARET WARNER: Under a tent nearby, Karrar Salman Al-Ganny man and his family are resting in the cool of a misting fan.

KARRAR SALMAN AL-GANNY, resident of Karbala (through translator):Four years ago, we could not go out after a certain hour, not because they told you not to, but because you were too scared to go out.Now, in Karbala, you can go out any time.

MARGARET WARNER: His mother agreed, up to a point.

MAYSA SALMAN SHAHEEN, resident of Karbala (through translator):I feel totally safe.Our area is just as safe for women as it is for men.

MARGARET WARNER: But she is still haunted.

MAYSA SALMAN SHAHEEN (through translator):I can say this to you.Iraqi women are tired, tired of this situation.As mothers and sisters, we’re always living in fear.When our sons or brothers go anywhere, especially if they go to Baghdad, we worry all the time.And that’s why Iraqi women are so tired.

MARGARET WARNER: These Najaf women didn’t look tired later that evening at the brand-new Mirage (ph) mall down the road.Clad in their full-length abayas, they scooped up the American-packaged cosmetics, clothes and baby wears.

HUSSAIN ALKAFAJI, Najaf mall owner:If you check with the cashier every day, they have more (INAUDIBLE).

MARGARET WARNER: Hussain Alkafaji of Dearborn Heights, Michigan, just opened this mall three weeks ago.It’s Najaf’s first.And at 10:30 on a Thursday night, it’s mobbed.He never would have dared make this investment two or three years ago.

HUSSAIN ALKAFAJI: Najaf different than Baghdad, different than another city in Iraq, as the business start become very good.

MARGARET WARNER: Alkafaji credits the local government for enforcing a high level of security.But he says the war-scarred people of Najaf are a factor, too.

HUSSAIN ALKAFAJI: They understand because, if anything happens, they lost.

MARGARET WARNER: The governor of Najaf, Adnan Al-Zurufi, isn’t a bit modest about his role in bringing security to this region, with an iron hand when need be.

ADNAN AL-ZURUFI, governor of Najaf:We are not against anybody here, either the Islamist, secular, liberals.And I told them you are free to work, to do anything, religious, education, culture, anything, except the security.Security is the issue of the government.

MARGARET WARNER: He’s also quick to share credit with Najaf’s Shiite clergy and tribal leaders.

ADNAN AL-ZURUFI: The clergy has the power on the people.They are always talking to their people to respect the government, to respect the system.

MARGARET WARNER: Back in the sectarian stew of Baghdad, dentist Maysaa Alani doesn’t share the same faith in Iraq’s central government or Iraqi society to bring about a better life.

MAYSAA ALANI: Who will change it?Nobody will change it.

MARGARET WARNER: You don’t think the government ever will be strong enough and capable enough?

MAYSAA ALANI: We have 30 years we are suffering from this.From the day I born, we have wars, killing, in 30 years, the same.We need up to 100 years, we need to change the conditions.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, I hope you’re wrong.

MAYSAA ALANI: I don’t think so.I don’t think so.Ask my mom and my grandmother.It was the same.And I will ask my children and their children.It will be the same, Believe me.It have cursed — Iraq is cursed.Believe it.It is cursed.

MARGARET WARNER: There was no such fatalism on display amid the Friday night crowd at the popular al-Faqma ice cream shop in Central Baghdad.Banana splits and double-dip cones were being served up with a smile from behind bulletproof glass.

Driad Fadil, taking in the scene with his new baby, says he feels safe enough.

DRIAD FADIL, resident of Baghdad (through translator):The situation is good in general, but, sometimes, it’s really good, and, sometimes, it’s really, really bad.So, it’s a 50/50 chance.

MARGARET WARNER: He gives better odds on a brighter future for his country, God willing, he said, but Iraqis will have to do the work.

JIM LEHRER: Tomorrow, Margaret will have a conversation with Vice President Biden, who is in Iraq.