Iraqis Bid Good Riddance to U.S. Troops Leaving Their Neighborhoods
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The behavior of an American soldier at the scene of an explosion revealed to Salima Hashim a paradox at the heart of the United States military's presence in her city.
"A bomb blew up among a group of schoolchildren walking through my neighbourhood," recalled the college teacher from Baghdad.
"An American patrol pulled up among the scattered bodies and schoolbags. One of the soldiers looked around him and just broke down. He started weeping violently."
Salima said she was moved and perplexed by what she saw, "I asked myself, why, if these Americans have such humanity, are they involved in killing us? Why do they rob us during their raids and make our daily lives so difficult?"
U.S. forces last week formally withdrew from Iraq's cities under the terms of a pact intended to hand greater responsibility to local security forces. Their departure was met with mixed emotions: memories of violent incidents and heavy-handedness blended with fonder recollections of individual encounters with the foreign troops.
Most Iraqis said they would be pleased to see less of the Americans. Many said they accepted the hard role the U.S. forces had to play. Several recalled incidents that left positive impressions about the Americans' commitment and professionalism.
But overall, it was time for them to go. Experience of encountering the U.S. military on Iraq's streets emerged as a recurring reason for relief at the pullback.
Nadia Sahib Mousa, a housewife from the southern Shia city of Karbala, said she remembers the fate of a traffic policeman who failed to get out of path of an American tank at a Baghdad intersection.
"He was crushed to death. The rest of the convoy then passed over him, as we stood there watching," she said.
Dia Salih, a shop owner, looks back on a frightening episode involving U.S. troops in Karbala. "The Americans blocked a road with their checkpoint and sent us down another route but when we moved a few meters, they opened fire on our car," she said.
"We stopped. My son got out and asked why they were shooting. They laughed and said we were going the wrong way and pointed us in another direction. Our car was damaged by their bullets."
In the southern city of Amara, Ali Zaydan, a retired teacher, remembers a local municipal worker who was shot by a passing U.S. patrol as he helped pave the streets.
"An American officer told the man's colleagues they thought he had been planting a roadside bomb," he said.
In the Sunni Baghdad district of Adhamiya, civil servant Omar Basil recalls the afternoon in 2005 when an American tank smashed the wall of his house after crushing his father's car.
"We still don't know why they did it," Basil said. "The Americans destroyed our property without checking or asking if it posed a threat to anyone."
Several Iraqis spoke of the dangers of getting caught in the crossfire when insurgents attacked the U.S. military.
In some cases, American troops are said to have opened fire randomly after being attacked. Media outlets have reported many similar cases since 2003, though few of these have been independently confirmed.
Sahban Ahmed, an electrical engineer from Mosul in northern Iraq, describes a U.S. patrol "firing indiscriminately after a masked gunman threw a grenade at them". He said one of his relatives was injured in the incident.
The June 30 pullout confines U.S. troops to bases on the fringes of the cities, potentially limiting a major source of antagonism between the military and ordinary Iraqis.
Yet not all accounts cast the Americans as aggressors. As they became regular targets for the insurgents, many Iraqis simply saw them as dangerous company.
Jamal, a police officer from Ramadi, recalls a suicide car-bomb attack on an American checkpoint in the Sunni Arab Anbar province, once a stronghold of the insurgency.
"Several U.S. troops died but the number of innocent civilians killed was many times higher," he said.
Some Iraqis said they had been struck by the Americans' bravery. Umm Khaled, a government worker from Amara, recounts a firefight between masked gunmen and American soldiers at a checkpoint.
"Everyone on the street took cover, except for a child who froze on the spot out of fear. As we looked on, an African-American soldier rushed up to the child and carried him off," she said.
"When the gunmen had gone, the soldier brought the child over to an old man hiding with us. Everyone was really moved by that."
Yacob, a Baghdad media worker, said he was impressed by an American officer who tried to evict him and some artist friends from a public building they briefly occupied in 2003.
Having demanded entry into the building, the officer complied with the group’s demands that he leave his gun at the door.
“Technically, he was an occupier and could have forced us to leave or at least entered carrying his gun. But he showed us respect,” said Yacob.
Bashir, an Iraqi journalist, said he was grateful to the U.S. military for ensuring freedom of expression.
“I was jailed for my opinions by the former regime. Now I am free to publish whatever I want,” he said.
Hussein Ali, a teacher from Baghdad, also said he has reason to be grateful to the Americans. He was working aboard an Iraqi ship in the Gulf when it suddenly began to sink. "A passing Arab vessel received our SOS message but it did not respond. We were rescued by the American military, which sent over two helicopters," he said
In the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk, contested by Arabs and Kurds, nine-year-old Ahmad Ayad said he was sad to see the Americans leave.
"They handed out sweets and gifts every time they visited our school," he said. "The Americans are heroes and they don't fear the terrorists."
But elsewhere in the city, Basira Hasan, a widowed mother of five, said she would forever associate the Americans with the deaths of her husband and son.
"They were shot dead by a convoy of U.S. troops on the highway. I will never forget the sight of their blood-soaked bodies," she said.
IWPR-trained reporters in Baghdad, Amara, Karbala, Ramadi, Mosul, Kirkuk and Erbil contributed to this report.