Young Iraqis Doubt Future

Many hoping for new life in West

BAGHDAD, Iraq – On a market street that survived bombing and
looting, 25-year-old Sudad al-Bayati sat on a bench recently eating a chicken shwarma sandwich.

A white Iraqi police car pulled up by her and parked.

“It’s probably stolen,” she said, watching the two officers.

She’s equally skeptical that voting could ensure better Iraqi
leaders in the future. Her participation in elections would
“depend on whether any of the candidates are good,” said Bayati,
a recent graduate of engineering school.

Anyway, she added, she plans to leave her war-torn Iraq – for
Denmark or the United States.

“I know Iraqi people. They are still the same. Things will not
change. Each man who gets a little power, he will try to use it to
get more money.”

Today, she’s one of thousands of Iraqi university graduates
delicately testing freedom as Iraq staggers back to life. They
venture out to shop and look around as gun battles recede into the
night and black smoke from burning buildings thins. Vegetable
stands and grocery shops are opening. Barefoot soccer players cut
and swerve in the rubble.

But her skepticism raises a key question for Iraq’s future: Will
young Iraqis commit to their country? There are no jobs in sight,
universities are trashed, and many such as Bayati are convinced
that a better life lies elsewhere.

They prefer to simply get out, slipping across Iraq’s borders.

This represents a major challenge not only for Iraq but the Bush
administration, which has promised to create a stable post-Hussein
society that can spur democracy around the authoritarian Middle

Iraqi religious and political figures this past weekend were
talking the talk of building democracy. And interviews with elders
in various communities last week revealed strong agreement that
Iraq, with its Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish and other factions, must stay
together as a country.

Yet, without the participation of a new generation, elders
lamented, success will be limited, at best.

Grinding poverty in the hinterlands was worsened by a war that
broke down food and water distribution. Mobs of teens lurk along
roadways waving worthless dinars and occasionally attacking
vehicles. Factional leaders have begun to assert their own

First, Kurdish armies, backed by U.S. special forces soldiers,
captured the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk before withdrawing as
Turkey protested. Then, Iran-based Shiite leader Abdul Aziz Hakim
returned to Iraq at a time when many Shiite Iraqis are organizing.
And Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi, with Pentagon
connections, has moved from a U.S.-run base at Nasiriyah to Baghdad.

Today, U.S. troops remain crucial, shifting from combat operations
to enforcing law and order. Gunners atop Humvees secure strategic
intersections, buildings and former government compounds across
Baghdad. Troops also search Iraqis for explosives, patrol
neighborhoods and try to stop looting. One soldier, spotting Iraqis
scavenging gasoline from an abandoned oil truck recently,
repeatedly fired his M-16 rifle into the ground and shouted “Get
out! Go away!” until the scavengers scattered.

Behind the scenes, U.S. civil affairs soldiers convene meetings for
Iraqi authorities, including about 2,000 re-hired police and

But troops say anything could happen any minute.

“A lot of people here are worried we are going to stay – sit on
the oil,” said Marine Cpl. John Hoellwarth at a central compound
targeted repeatedly by renegades with Kalashnikovs firing from
abandoned buildings. “We want Iraqis to know we are only going to
stay long enough to help Iraqi people restore critical
infrastructure and form a government for and by the Iraqi

Iraqi elders, meanwhile, are beginning to express their visions for
the future.

“What we want is that there will be no poor people in Iraq. We
want every man to be able to get married. Most of the men around
here cannot afford to get married because there’s no work,” said
Ayad Shuber Al-Mosawy, 47, a leading Shiite imam.

“And we want everybody to be able to own their own house – not pay
rent. Iraq will start a new life, a new system.”

Wearing a black headdress, he spoke from behind a copy of the
Koran, seated in Al-Hurea Alaaskareen Mosque in a crowded
low-income neighborhood.

Heads of local families gathered around him.

“We want Islam to be our law,” Mosawy said. “God willing, there
will be no separation” into tribal and religious factions.

“America did a very good thing. America saved us from Saddam. Now
we hope we will be like brothers with America,” Mosawy said.
“America is a country with power. Its soldiers came for us and
helped us. Because of our ex-leader, we were weak. It was a favor
we will never forget. All the Iraqi people will remember how
America saved us.”

Iraq’s future leaders could come from any faction, said Saaed
Khaleel Omar, 43, a Kurdish electrician living in a dilapidated
central neighborhood with overhanging wood balconies. “We just
need a fair president. Muslim, Christian – that doesn’t matter.
Just fair.”

Under Hussein, Omar said, Kurds in Baghdad felt they were excluded
unfairly from government jobs. Sometimes they couldn’t even enter
government ministries.

“We are afraid that somebody like Saddam Hussein will take
power,” Omar said.

Even though a neighborhood youth, 15-year-old Mohamad Haidar Dara,
had been killed in a crossfire the day before as U.S. soldiers
battled renegades, Omar and other Kurds here said they want U.S.
forces to stay as long as possible.

The problem is that wanting stability, let alone democracy, does
not guarantee it will happen.

There simply is no model in oil-rich Iraq for transparent
self-rule, taxation in return for representation, and civic
participation for the common good. When it comes to settling
conflicts, Iraqi notions of legal systems clash with Western norms.
Many favor Islamic law based on the Koran, or eye-for-eye justice.

Anybody who served in Hussein’s collapsed government now is
discredited – including the police and firemen that U.S. officials
are counting on to ensure security.

Iraqi-American Talib Zangana, 53, a silver-bearded “Free Iraqi”
fighter in camouflage fatigues, said he returned home after 25
years in San Diego, Calif., hoping to build a democratic Iraq. He’s
guiding U.S. efforts to beam in radio and television programs.

But he said last week’s looting, including the plunder of the
national museum, shook his confidence. He’ll leave his
Mexican-American wife and two children back in San Diego for now
and devote one year to the effort.

People are united in hatred of Hussein now that his government has
collapsed, Zangana said, but “I just don’t know if hatred is
enough to build up a nation.”

Zangana said he was approached by a young man asking him about
leaving for America.

“I said: ‘Why do you want to go to U.S.A. when U.S.A. is coming
here? We are going to make this place look like the U.S.A.’ ”

The young man was adamant. “He was still afraid,” Zangana said.
“This is the big challenge we face. Every Iraqi will have to
change themselves psychologically.”

But Sudad al-Bayati said she just doesn’t want to commit. Under
Hussein’s rule, she lost a beloved uncle in the war with Iran, and
her grandfather was executed. She yearned to see the world but
couldn’t leave because Hussein wouldn’t let women leave Iraq unless
their fathers accompanied them. Bayati’s father had abandoned her

Now, she said, she figures those rules are over. She and her
sisters have planned a passage to India and from there would aim
for Europe.

The postwar looting is only making their lives harder. Bayati
studied French at a French Embassy-run school. It was trashed last
week. She had also enrolled in a master’s degree program at
Baghdad’s leading technical university, but it, too, was

“We have been suffering for so long,” she said. “I feel as if I
haven’t had a chance yet to live my life.”