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U.S. Business Remains to Be Done in Iraq

U.S. Business Remains to Be Done in Iraq

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- The courtroom's air conditioner doesn't hum; it was looted. The judges are at home, waiting for laws to interpret. The attorneys are huddled at the Bar Association down the street, and a handwritten sign adorns the courthouse door: "Cluster bombs. Don't risk your life."

On Thursday night, President Bush is to declare an end to "major combat operations" in the war on Iraq. But the tasks ahead seem almost more daunting than those Bush tackled March 20, when he set out to eject the repressive regime that was running this nation of 24 million people.

Saddam Hussein has not been found. No weapons of mass destruction have been discovered. U.S. troops exchange fire with Iraqis daily. Across the Middle East, millions are concluding that the United States will ignore all opposition when it decides to attack an Arab state.

And a vibrant country the size of California has become a shattered anarchy filled with live ammunition, criminals at large and heavily armed citizens furious at their American occupiers.

U.S. officials are positive overall. They acknowledge they're still getting organized, but insist they've accomplished much in little time. They are encouraging Iraqi bureaucrats to return to their jobs, and working alongside them to get public utilities and law enforcement going again.

They are meeting with citizens to find out Iraqis' concerns, and organizing conferences aimed at getting a transitional government into place by summer. They say they will remain until Iraq becomes a stable democracy.

While many in Baghdad feel freer to express themselves and are less afraid of harassment and torture, many Iraqis also spend more time thinking about the struggles of their daily lives.

Nazar al-Tabakchali, 67, a Paris-educated attorney, once argued cases in the now-empty Karkh Criminal Courts Building, which oversaw the west bank of the Tigris River in Baghdad.

Now, al-Tabakchali spends much of his day at the Bar Association, chain-smoking cigarettes and hanging around with other lawyers in dark suits to discuss their mounting list of frustrations and their common sense of doom.

Al-Tabakchali doesn't have words to describe what he feels when he visits his former courthouse, damaged by bombing and so heavily looted that wires protrude where light fixtures have been torn from the ceilings.

He holds his hand over his heart, clenches it into a tight fist and gasps, grabbing a companion's shoulder for support.

"I have no electricity. I have little water. I have no telephone. I have no garbage collection," he says plaintively. "It's true Iraqi people were against the regime, but we can't live under this foreign occupation."

In many interviews since the regime fell, Iraqis say they have seen little interest on the part of the United States in finding the weapons of mass destruction that Bush insisted Saddam had. U.S. officials say they are aggressively scouring the landscape for such evidence and believe they will find it.

On the edge of southeastern Baghdad, at a site shut by U.N. weapons inspectors in the mid-1990s, Dr. Muntasar al-Aani expected an expeditious visit by American forces. They never came, and he wonders why Bush hasn't sent anyone to confirm suspicions that the facility was developing biological weapons.

"They came to the gate and turned around," he says, eagerly throwing open the doors of his General Establishment for Animal Development, next door to his house. "Every day the Americans drive by, but they never come inside."

And Saddam? There's been little progress in confirming his death or discovering his hideout.

He was last reported seen April 9 in Baghdad's Azamiyah neighborhood, where a 35-year-old bus driver sits on the curb with two friends, staring at two American GIs basking in the sun atop a towering armored vehicle.

The square is pocked by bullet holes, and the surrounding apartments are charred from looters' fires. A mosque's watchtower is shattered by tank shells. The word "Allah" still stands atop it.

Ismael Abbas, the bus driver, swears he saw Saddam here -- in uniform -- on the day the Americans entered Baghdad, striding through cheering crowds. He says the Iraqi leader even commanded a military unit for a few minutes before driving off into hiding.

"He is still in Iraq and, God willing, he will return to the presidency," Abbas says. "God willing, this is not over. We will throw the United States out of this city. We are still ready to sacrifice ourselves for Iraq."

The American GIs nearby say they doubt Saddam was anywhere near Azamiyah when they rolled in -- and scoff at Abbas' suggestion that the deposed leader will surface again soon.

"My guess is he skipped out while we were coming up from Kuwait," says Spc. Terry Nolan, 20, of DeKalb, Ill.

But on one count, Nolan finds himself agreeing with Abbas more than with Bush: The war, the soldier says, is far from won. As he begins to explain, a volley of automatic gunfire crackles down the block. Nolan doesn't flinch.

"This war isn't over," he says evenly. "This war is over when we get on a plane."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

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