Anxiety Escalates as Handover of Power Approaches
The Boston Globe
By Anne Barnard 

BAGHDAD — Firas Ahmed, a construction manager, told his drivers yesterday what to do if another round of looting sweeps Baghdad after the United States hands over power to Iraqis on Wednesday: Take the company trucks home to keep them safe.

Shatha al-Ubaidi, a city council member, added new precautions to her neighborhood rounds, amid a new wave of assassinations of people connected to the new government. She leaves her house each day at a different time on a different route, sometimes in a different car.

Abbas Hadi doubled the price he charges for a one-way ride to Jordan in a GMC truck to $250, after his travel agency was swamped with families who want to leave the country for a week or two around the handover.

“Today I took a doctor and his wife and daughter to Amman, where they will spend 10 days and see how the handover is going to turn out,” said Fadhil Ali Hussain, who runs another travel agency nearby. “The cars coming back in are empty; we only charge $10 or $20 just to have someone with us on the way back.”

June 30 is officially a holiday in Iraq, but on the streets of the capital the mood is not so much one of celebration as of trepidation.

Baghdad buzzes with rumors that chaos will sweep the streets after the US-led occupation authority hands back sovereignty to the new Iraqi government on Wednesday. Some are convinced that US troops will leave their bases something they have no immediate plans to do and that in the power vacuum, looters will ravage the city, as they did last year after Saddam Hussein fell. Others worry that insurgents will unleash a wave of deadly car-bomb attacks even worse than the barrage that has killed more than 100 Iraqis in the past week.

US officials say the handoff ceremony will be a muted event inside the heavily fortified, US-guarded Green Zone. US and Iraqi officials are so concerned about security that they won’t reveal until the last minute if the handover ceremony will be on June 30 or sometime sooner.

Meanwhile, employees of the Coalition Provisional Authority have been told there will be no armed convoys for the next several days to escort them along the dangerous road to the airport.

Many foreign companies and organizations working in areas from building democracy and infrastructure reconstruction to selling bulletproof cars have given their employees June 30 and July 1 off as a security precaution, according to Iraqi employees.

The US Consulate in the Green Zone yesterday warned Americans of “a period of increased danger” around the transfer of authority, enumerating the following hazards: kidnapping; extortion; “planned and random killings”; attacks on hotels, restaurants, checkpoints, embassies, humanitarian workers, airplanes, civilian vehicles, and military convoys; and roadside bombs “particularly in plastic bags, soda cans, and dead animals.”

It’s not just Iraqis who are trading rumors. Word has swept the diplomatic and foreign community that the Green Zone will be “locked down” for days.

“Is this true?” a German official asked a US soldier during a neighborhood meeting Saturday. “Not that I know of,” the soldier said.

In Hay Jihad, a Baghdad neighborhood that has been plagued by kidnappings, women anxiously consulted their neighbors about the coming week. Iklas Omran, 47, a high school teacher, wasn’t sure: Would it be more dangerous to stay in Baghdad or to brave the roads out?

“We have to worry about so many things we don’t know who to fear most the thieves and the gangs or the Americans and the resistance,” she said. “Wherever we look there is danger.”

Her neighbor, Alla Abdul Rahim, 33, was preparing for the blackouts and water shortages that came last year with war and its aftermath, buying fuel for the car and generator, filling every bottle in the house. “People fear chaos, and they fear whatever the government might do to stop it,” she said.

The jitters are a bit contradictory, since most Iraqis still hold out hope that violence will abate in a sovereign Iraq; that Iraqi police and security forces will work more effectively for Iraqi leaders than they did for US-led authorities; and that insurgents will no longer be able to claim they are fighting foreign occupation.

Of 1,920 Iraqis surveyed in late May and early June, 73 percent “believe the handover of authority to the Interim Government on June 30th will improve the current situation,” according to a poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, a US-funded democracy development group. And 48 percent said they thought the biggest improvement would be in security.

In the warren of canopied market stalls in the Shorja neighborhood, merchants appeared offended when asked if anyone was stockpiling foodstuffs in case of a crisis. They said business was ordinary, and insisted that they expect more police patrols and better security under Iraqi rule. Yesterday, a phalanx of police cars bristling with AK-47s blocked off a busy market area for hours and arrested several men they said were gangsters, drug dealers, and kidnappers, as shopkeepers looked on approvingly.

But the unusually empty streets this week suggest anxiety, as did a cartoon in the Iraqi newspaper, Al Sabah Al Jadid. It shows a man labeled “Looter” grabbing the arm of a victim, who puns, “Is this an authority handover [tasleem in Arabic] or an authority hijacking [tasleeb]?”

Al Ubeidi, the city council member, said she would still defy her parents’ orders to stay inside all week. “If you stay in the house, that means you’re afraid,” she said. “My neighborhood might need me.”

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