AMARAH, Iraq – Local leaders were adamant when the U.S. Marines came into this eastern city: They didn’t want to see U.S. flags, didn’t want Iraqi flags torn down and didn’t want soldiers interacting with their women at checkpoints.
“The Americans are not the best at knowing what’s good for Iraq. The Iraqis are,” a man identified as the leader of freedom fighters who liberated this Shiite town from government control told Brig. Gen. Rich Natonski, commander of Task Force Tarawa, over tea at a local sheik’s house.
Iraqis cheered U.S. troops who rolled tanks into Baghdad and knocked over a 40-foot statue of President Saddam Hussein on Wednesday, happy to see their oppressive leader ousted. But they are also reluctant to give up too much control in the rapidly shifting political landscape — and already wondering how soon the Americans will go.
“Whatever he has done, he is a Muslim, and we are a Muslim nation,” Baghdad store owner Ali Al-Obeidi after watching U.S. troops help celebrating Iraqis pull down Saddam’s statue. Referring to coalition troops, he said: “We will never allow them to stay.”
The fight to liberate this southeastern Iraqi city began Sunday, when local Iraqis rose up against Saddam’s 10th Armored Division in a battle supported by heavy U.S.-led airstrikes. When Marines arrived Tuesday, they had no one left to fight, finding abandoned tanks littered across this barren, muddy landscape in freshly dug bunkers.
On the main highway through town, which leads to Baghdad, a government building was still smoldering, documents and file cabinets littering the front yard. Armored vehicles and artillery pieces littered the street, lined by sandbag bunkers.
Sheik Ali Shalan al-Faisal, hosting a meeting Wednesday at his house in a village about security and a new administration, bragged that residents had killed the division’s commanding general.
Al-Faisal, sitting under a picture of himself, said the largest problem the city now faced was a lack of electricity because the power lines from Nasiriyah had been cut and looters had taken all the repair equipment.
Despite that, the local leader said his own men wanted to be in charge of controlling the chaos that has followed the fall of Saddam’s regime.
“We don’t have to have American security. We can have our own security if the U.S. allows us,” he said.
Foreign troops in other conflicts have often worn out an initial welcome.
Shiite Muslims showered the Israeli army with rice when it entered Lebanon in 1982 to root out guerrillas. Many Roman Catholics welcomed British troops into Northern Ireland in 1969.
“But when they began to put up checkpoints, barbed-wire perimeters and limited population movements, attitudes began to change,” said Sandra Mitchell, an International Rescue Committee lawyer who has worked missions in Kosovo and Bosnia.
Some Iraqis are already expressing anger at the British troops controlling the southern city of Basra, accusing them of being ill-prepared and failing to halt widespread looting and lawlessness.
“We thought when they entered the city, they would prepare an administration to take control,” said Dr. Janan Peter al-Sabah, chief of surgery at a local hospital. “We don’t need food or water. What we lack is safety and protection. Our message to the coalition troops is to take responsibility for the security of the people, of the homes, of the facilities.”
In Amarah, it wasn’t entirely clear if the situation was as calm as locals insisted. Gunfire could be heard throughout the afternoon and large cloud of black smoke rose into the sky just before sunset.
Natonski said his medics treated a 12-year-old girl shot in the head, and had evacuated her by helicopter.
At a military base the Marines visited near Amarah on Wednesday, the local leader insisted his men could control the site and see that the weapons didn’t fall into the wrong hands.
“We want to go home also to our families,” Natonski reassured the local leaders,
“Inshallah,” they all heartily replied, Arabic for “God willing