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Daunting task

BAGHDAD, IRAQ — BAGHDAD, Iraq - Saddam Hussein is out of power, schoolchildren are being taught mathematics rather than Baath Party propaganda, newspapers are publishing with no official censorship, the closed society has opened, and democracy, or another step toward it, arrives on Wednesday.

This is the new Iraq.

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Then there is this: Two men are burned alive in front of a barbershop after hitting a roadside bomb, foreigners are beheaded for being foreigners, the bodies of four dead American soldiers are left to bake on a rooftop, electricity blinks out for hours at a time, U.S. guns are pointed at the heads of innocent women, a bomb explodes at a recruitment center, another bomb explodes on a street corner, another bomb cuts an oil pipeline, cities are battle zones again, bodies are strewn about, and a toddler is killed.

This is also the new Iraq.

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The government of Iraq is to be formally returned to Iraqis on Wednesday, with a caveat that 160,000 U.S.-led coalition soldiers will remain here without a date for their departure. To mark the end of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority and the beginning of a new, interim Iraqi government, there will be hopeful speeches by Americans and Iraqis, but also great fears about the future.

When the new Iraqi prime minister, president and Cabinet members officially take the wheel to try to drive this country forward - with the outside occupiers acting as curbs - the road out of misery will be long and forked and filled with land mines. The cliche fits: The task ahead is daunting.

"Maybe things will be better, but maybe they will get worse," said Khaleel Ibraheem, 32, the owner of a Baghdad shoe shop, which was open last week but empty. "All the promises that Iraq would be better have been broken, but maybe that will change. Only God knows."

Since April 2003, when Baghdad fell and the Coalition Provisional Authority took power, a series of promises have been made and some kept. But almost every success has been compromised, and even reversed, by the failures.

Traffic moves better, but the roads are littered with wreckage from bombings. Schools have been rebuilt, but many parents keep their children at home, afraid to send them. Streets are filled with more police, but few of them are trained and many are corrupt. Hospitals have more medicine and equipment, but also have more patients in emergency rooms.

"We are exhausted," said Wael Sabar, 27, selling ice at the Rekhaita Market. He spoke of the fatigue of a war not yet ended. "Now another summer is here, and I don't know how people will get through it if there is no calm."

The interim government will take over in a ceremony under a summer sun that exhausts people and frays their nerves, bringing frustrations to the surface made all the worse by the traffic jams caused by a collection of concrete barriers that keep streets and bridges closed to protect troops and Westerners in the capital.

Garbage and debris are piling up because it is too dangerous for workers to haul it away. Sewage, human waste, is spilled onto the streets. And more than 17 months after the United States began dropping bombs on this country, most Iraqis live with electricity cut off for 14 hours a day, sometimes longer.

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Against that backdrop, against all the violence, the interim government is supposed to organize three national elections and create a constitution in the next 18 months.

"We will do all we can to strike against enemy forces aiming at harming our country," Iyad Allawi, who will officially become prime minister Wednesday, said last week. "The Iraqi people are determined to establish a democratic government that provides freedom and equal rights for all its citizens. We are prepared to fight and, if necessary, die for the cause."

'Nobody is safe'

Fairly recently, peace in Iraq seemed tantalizing close. But to many here, that moment of optimism seems like a lifetime ago.

In fact, it was many lives ago.

By April 9, 2003, Hussein was gone and Iraq's capital was in coalition hands. The United States had arrived with promises that billions of dollars would be used to rebuild Iraq. On May 1, 2003, President Bush landed on an aircraft carrier, and in front of a banner that declared "Mission Accomplished," he told the world that major combat operations were over.

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It seemed that peace was indeed at hand.

Here is a sampling of what happened in Iraq over the past two weeks: An Iraqi minister in the interim government was assassinated along with a deputy minister; the chief of security for an Iraqi-owned oil company was assassinated; more than 100 people were killed and hundreds more injured in attacks; tanks rolled again; planes bombed insurgent strongholds; helicopter gunships strafed suspected hideouts.

More than a dozen U.S. soldiers were killed from ambushes, bombs and rockets, bringing the toll since the war began to more than 840 American military killed. Four U.S. soldiers appeared in courtrooms, accused of torturing Iraqi prisoners in an overcrowded and dangerous prison. And the toll of killed Iraqi security personnel hit more than 100.

Gunmen shot and killed three contractors driving from Baghdad International Airport into the capital. The dean of a college was shot to death with her husband. An average of one roadside bomb exploded each day. One of them, on Tuesday, killed a 3-year-old girl.

"Nobody is safe in Iraq," said Mohammed Kasim, a 38-year-old barber. "If soldiers and contractors protected by big guns are being killed, how safe is Iraq? The new government will be a success because nobody could do worse than the Americans."

The Al-Basha Hairdresser's Shop, where he works, is a 45-second walk from the main gate of the Green Zone, the heavily fortified U.S. operational nerve center.

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Last month, Kasim heard an explosion that nearly shook a customer from his chair. Kasim looked out his window, and there, maybe 20 feet from the barber's chair, a sport utility vehicle was twisted and afire in the street. Kasim bolted out his front door and saw two men trapped in the back seat, unable to get out.

"They were banging on the windows, 'Help me! Help me!'" he recalled. "I got to their door and pulled but could not get it open, and then the bullets were coming at me, so I ran."

The driver of the vehicle and one following it were firing at him, he said, thinking he was trying to harm the occupants, that he was part of whoever was responsible for the bomb.

"They didn't know I was trying to help," he said with a shrug. "So I cannot blame them."

Among the security problems in Iraq is just that: telling who is trying to help apart from who is trying to harm.

When violence in the country worsened last year - attacks on coalition forces and contractors now average about 40 a day, by some reports - the provisional authority began hiring Iraqi security forces. Many of these troops had only a week of training and most, about 70 percent, had none. Experience was no prerequisite, and background checks were cursory at best.

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As a result, the coalition ended up handing AK-47s and ammunition to young men who became part of the insurgency here. Last week, three police officers were arrested for planting a roadside bomb in Tikrit. The International Committee of the Red Cross reported in February that some Iraqi police officers were threatening to falsely accuse residents of being militants unless bribes were paid.

On any given day, about half of the force is absent from work, and many of those who report for duty scatter at the first sign of trouble. When a bomb exploded June 13 and shook the heart of Baghdad, Iraqi men enraged at the violence torched vehicles and then put the flame to an American flag. Meanwhile, Iraqi police went into retreat. An American, two Britons, a Frenchmen and one other person lay dead from the blast.

"I am watching babies who have no experience and no idea how to handle different situations," said Falah Hassan, a captain who has been an Iraqi police officer for 13 years and now commands 60 recruits, nearly all untrained. He earns $280 a month, a huge increase compared with his old salary, which was about $60, but his job is far more hazardous. Iraqi police are primary targets of insurgents.

Hassan is 31 years old but among the more experienced officers on the force. Two months ago, the station where he works was hit by a suicide bomber, killing six officers.

"I worry a little, of course, but I have been a police officer for a long time," he said. "I would like to spend more time helping Iraqis on the street, but half of my time is spent training others. I want them to know what to do when they face trouble."

When the bomb went off outside Kasim's barber shop, another group of Iraqi police was responsible for responding. They did not arrive until after the Baghdad fire department extinguished the fire, about 20 minutes after the explosion.

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The two men trapped in the back seat, security guards for private contractors, were then removed, dead.

Recruiting troubles

Efforts to form an Iraqi army are even more troubled.

This month, more than 130 people were injured and at least 41 killed when they were hit by a car bomb as they waited outside a recruitment center.

Bushar Abdul-Jabar Bader was among those wounded. He lay last week at al-Yarmouk Hospital with two broken legs encased in heavy plaster casts. Blood from a head wound seeped through the gauze, and the bandages on his arms were stained red, too.

"I have to feed my son," he said from his bed in Al-Yarmouk Hospital, where the boy, 16-month-old Mohammed, was crying at his bedside. "I have to fight for my country."

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In a bed across from him, though, with similar injuries from the blast, Yaser Khudaer, 27, joined the ranks of Iraqis who have given up on the army. "I'll do anything but join the army," he said. "This time I did not get killed. Maybe next time I would."

The military has been trying to quickly train an army for more than a year, but it has reached only half its goal of graduating about one-third of the new force, partly because of the slowness of recruiting.

"I am proud my son wants to join the army, but Iraq has been lawless since the Americans arrived, and it is getting worse," said the injured recruit's father, Abdul-Jabar Bader, 55, himself a former military man.

"I have a fighter's heart but also a father's heart," he said, as he grasped his prayer beads, "and I worry."

'Please, mister, please'

The three women cried, which was understandable because they had rifles pointed at their heads and the men who forced them to the ground were yelling in a language they could not understand. They used the few English words they knew to beg for their lives: "Please, mister, please." The 74-year-old man who was forced to his stomach with them did not cry, but he was scared and humiliated.

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As this family recounted that terrifying night from their home last week in the Resalaa District, about five miles west of central Baghdad, the electricity had been out for 24 hours, a cousin was recovering from wounds caused by a bomb, a relative spoke of how she has not been to school since the war, and the man complained that there is no work for his son.

"When we heard the Americans were coming, we were very happy," said the elderly man, Finjar Liwas, a retired goldsmith. "We did not expect that we would not be able to leave our house because of the explosions and kidnappings or that soldiers would put guns to the heads of our women."

Now they live in a comfortable house, though piles of garbage clutter the curbs outside. And they are still afraid to go on the streets because of the violence.

"This is my neighborhood now," said his wife, Fawizia Falhi Jabir, 65, who was sitting on a white plastic chair in a small tiled living room. "All the government buildings have been looted, so now the gangs come to the houses and steal or kidnap. I am an old woman, but I do not want to die."

Said her daughter, Nawal Finjan Liwas, who is 30: "Now people are killed on the streets for nothing. Maybe under Saddam special people were killed, but now it's for all the people."

A family member, Lina Salah Maktof, is 20, and has not yet completed high school. She has not felt safe enough to travel to her school, three-quarters of a mile away, since the war began.

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A cousin, Mustafa, who was wounded by a car bomb, still has stitches from his armpit to his navel.

"Everything has happened to my family," said Liwas, the patriarch. "We are praying to God that we all remain alive." The soldiers who broke into their house did so without a translator, the family said. All the family knew was that something bad was happening.

Then the troops got a call on their radio and left abruptly.

About 20 minutes later, an army officer arrived with a translator in tow and explained that his men had entered the wrong house - the right one, with the former Iraqi intelligence officer inside, was a street away - and the officer gave them a slip of paper that entitled them to free repairs for the broken door and windows.

Liwas shrugged, a gesture that communicates resignation, as if to say, "What can we do?"

"This is Iraq," he said.


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