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Cheers to Jeers

Nicholas D. Kristof
Op-ed columnist, New York Times

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QURNA, Iraq -- I came to Iraq to see if I could help the coalition forces find those pesky weapons of mass destruction. It would make a great column if I could bring back my own nuke.

No luck so far. But I did find something just as elusive: paradise.

That's right. This city of Qurna, nestled where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers come together, claims to be the ancient site of the Garden of Eden.

Qurna residents even venerate an ancient tree that they call Adam's Tree, and some say it is the very tree that grew the fruit that got humanity evicted from Eden. But even this spot, as close to paradise as one can find in Iraq, is a mess, and people are getting angrier about that all the time.

The people of Qurna were mostly thrilled when American and British troops rolled through town this spring to oust Saddam. But nearly three months later, the cheers are turning to jeers, for very practical reasons: electricity and water services still haven't fully resumed, factories and schools remain closed, banditry rules, and people are even hungrier than before.

"We became angry that there is no government, there are no jobs, and life is worse than before," said Jabbar Sabeeh, a 68-year-old security guard. "Electricity goes out for two days at a time now." Unless life improves or the Americans leave, he warned, anti-American violence will erupt across Iraq.

The mood in Iraq has gotten uglier since I was last here during the war and its immediate aftermath. My fear is that having won the war, we may now be blowing the peace. Many ordinary Iraqis are enraged at the collapse of security, and we need to act much more quickly and decisively to establish order or Iraq could slip through our fingers and fragment.

"The Americans are useless," exclaimed Ahmed, a taxi driver in Basra who wouldn't give his last name because he's afraid that the occupation is falling apart and Saddam will return. He showed me a wound in his hand where bandits had stabbed him and added, "Some of my passengers say that although they hated Saddam, now they wish he would come back, because at least under him we had security."

That's a minority view, and there is also exhilaration at the democratic freedoms: thriving new newspapers, political demonstrations, ubiquitous banners erected by political parties. But insecurity casts a huge shadow over all of Iraq.

Few people dare go out at night, and even in the day there are carjackings and armed robberies. On the highways, bandits sometimes rake cars with automatic weapons so that they can plunder them. On my first night back in Iraq, I sat outside my little hotel in Basra, trying to make my satellite phone work and listening to gunfire erupting around the city.

At Basra General Hospital, Dr. Abdul Wahhab frets that the medical situation is worse than before the war. There is no functioning health ministry to procure drugs, water shortages have led to cholera as families drink from rivers that are also sewers, and UNICEF calculates that 7.7 percent of Iraqi children under 5, almost twice the rate before the war, now suffer from acute malnutrition.

On top of all that, Dr. Wahhab really got fed up last week when a gang of bandits attacked the hospital's infectious diseases unit, firing automatic weapons and hurling grenades as doctors and patients scattered. The bandits were after the air-conditioners.

The insecurity is wrenching even small cities like Qurna or, further north, Al Kut.

"In Al Kut, homes of former Baath Party members are blown up on a nightly basis, and there is gunfire on the streets every night," said Cassandra Nelson, an American aid worker based there for Mercy Corps. "The most important task now is to restore law and order in Iraq and to demonstrate to the people that . . . the U.S. is committed not only to defeating regimes it sees as threats, but to providing security and good governance."

So it will take tremendous concentration and effort including thousands more ground troops for us to rescue the Iraqi peace and turn places like Qurna back into anything approaching Eden. Oh, in any case, even if this was the Garden of Eden, I doubt that Adam's Tree really produced the fruit that tempted Adam. The problem is, it appears to be a cedar.

I goofed. In my last column, I referred to comments by Condoleezza Rice on a Sunday television show but misstated the show. It was "This Week with George Stephanopoulos." Mea culpa.

Nicholas D. Kristof is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times.

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