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Raid Mohammad

I have been talking about this for more than tree years. Please read the article below.

Austin American-Statesman (Texas)
February 29, 2004, Sunday
SECTION: Metro/State; Pg. B1

LENGTH: 829 words

HEADLINE: Austinite aims to help Iraq rebuild
Trip to native land reveals cultural chasm, desperate needs, dangers


Baghdad's nighttime silence haunted Raid Mohammad as he lay in his hotel room bed.

"In the evening, once the sun sets, it's like a ghost town," he said. "It's really a very eerie feeling."

Then the occasional gunshots rang out, and Mohammad thought about the telephone. There was no service at the hotel or in most homes in the area. "What would you do if something happened?" he wondered.

This was post-war Iraq. This was also Mohammad's home, which he had not visited since the U.S.-led invasion last year. In November he traveled through the country for several weeks. He stayed with friends and relatives, talked to military officials and local leaders, and tried to visualize Iraq's future.

Mohammad returned to Austin, where he has lived for 10 years, depressed
and troubled. "It was like hell on Earth," he said.

Still, he plans to go back to Iraq in April, convinced that he can, in some way, play a part in the reshaping of his homeland.

Many Iraqis abroad and in the United States are worried about their country's future. To them, Iraq is not some distant place, a vaguely conceived war zone. Nor is it fodder for political debate, a key issue that may decide an election.

Mohammad's Iraq is specific: street names, storefronts, faces of friends. And, as a Shiite Muslim, he has a special place of pilgrimage there: Karbala, where Husayn, the grandson of Islam's prophet Mohammed, was martyred in 680. Shiite Muslims gathered there last week.

But these are not the details, Mohammad said, that U.S. military and political leaders seek to learn. The cultural chasm is wide, he said. "Iraqis have no idea how to deal with (Americans)," he said. "Nor do Americans have any idea how to deal with Iraqis."

Thus far, the Coalition Provisional Authority, Iraq's temporary governing body designated by the United Nations, has not demonstrated an ability to bridge that divide, said Juan Cole, professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. He tracks the situation in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East daily in a Web log. The provisional authority, Cole said, needs more Arabic speakers and people who are familiar with the Iraqi culture.

Cultural differences aren't the only problems, Mohammad said. He painted a discouraging picture: hours-long traffic jams and lines for gasoline, inconsistent electricity and telephone service, a scarcity of jobs and rough treatment by the military.

Rumors swirl of missing valuables after military inspections of homes, he said. While driving throughout the country, Mohammad found road blocks and patrol motorcades were often not clearly marked, leaving drivers vulnerable to fire from anxious soldiers on alert for suicide

"They should be marked better," he said. "The simplest things could be done to save people's lives."

Resentment toward the military is building, Mohammad said, even among those who initially celebrated Saddam's ouster.

Cole agreed. "In this Shiite south, most people are really, really glad that Saddam is gone," he said. "They have a certain amount of gratitude to the United States for getting rid of him. They don't like being occupied; none of them do. There is an underlying hostility about being occupied."

Part of the difficulty in understanding post-war Iraq, Cole noted, is the mixed reports about conditions there. He relies on media sources from around the world and reads many papers in Arabic. "The problem is that the situation is very ambiguous," he said. "It's possible to read the evidence in more than one way."

Mohammad said he feels conflicted. On one hand, he had reason to despise Saddam. He blames the former dictator's henchmen for the death of his father, a prominent journalist, in 1981. "I think Saddam's being out of the picture is the best thing that could have happened to Iraq," he said.

But toppling the regime is not enough, Mohammad stressed. Traveling from Baghdad to the border of Turkey, he said, "I did not see a single thing that I could point my finger and say, 'That's an improvement.' "

Mohammad's battered passport is testament to the 1.6 million miles he's logged traveling the world since 1995.

His experiences, he said, give him a perspective on global events that many Americans don't have. And as strong as his ties are to Iraq, he is eager to point out that he wants what's best for the United States, which is the only home his wife and children know.

He worries about the growing anti-U.S. sentiment abroad and about the debt his children will inherit from the war in Iraq. And he's not sure that a political change will solve the problem.

"On the one hand, I hate to see Bush go because Bush is more obligated to do something about Iraq," he said. "But at the same time, I think Bush and his cronies are doing a lot of damage to this country. The problem is there's no single solution to Iraq right now."

Eileen E. Flynn
Religion Reporter
Austin American-Statesman
305 S. Congress Ave.
Austin, Texas 78704
Ph: 512-445-3812
Fax: 512-445-1736


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