Iraqis fear power vacuum once U.S. turns over authority

Campuses in Iraq’s capital city were vacant Wednesday. Businesses barely opened. The chaotic traffic jams that were considered a sign of exuberance vanished overnight.

While Baghdadis hunkered down, warily watching news reports of mounting battles between U.S. and resistance fighters, posters and banners appeared around the capital praising Muqtada al-Sadr, the young militant Shiite cleric who’s battling the American-led coalition with his black-clad Mahdi Army, an upstart militia.

“We will never give up Muqtada!” said one banner that was unfurled by three young men at a traffic circle near the Tigris River and the Babylon Hotel.

Almost a year after Baghdad fell, many Iraqis are losing confidence in the U.S.-led coalition. While American troops and their allies battle Sunni and Shiite Muslim rebels, many Iraqis watch on the sidelines and reel off a long list of complaints:

– The coalition and its proxy Iraqi forces haven’t stopped the car bombings and other random attacks, which were unheard-of in Saddam Hussein’s time.

– Electricity is still spotty, three hours on and three hours off.

– Roads are a maze of checkpoints, and buildings are still bomb- and bullet-scarred.

– Saddam and his Baath Party cronies haven’t been put on trial.

American officials say they’re setting the building blocks of democracy and establishing new Iraqi security forces to take over for the 130,000 mostly U.S. troops in Iraq. Trials and greater security will come once Iraqis choose their own leaders, over 18 months, in an election system being devised by a team of United Nations experts.

In the meantime, however, no strong Iraqi leadership has emerged, the Iraqi police look weaker than the militias and many Iraqis fear a power vacuum.

Iraqis today are “embarrassed and frightened and troubled” by a year of neither peace nor war, Baghdad University sociologist Ihsan al Hassan said. “Now there is supposed to be no war. It stopped officially, yet you see explosions everywhere. We have been disappointed.”

It’s not clear who’ll take charge when the coalition returns sovereignty to “the Iraqi people” June 30. On that date, senior coalition officials said, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer plans to board a plane and leave behind the biggest CIA station in the world, a 3,000-person U.S. Embassy to be led by an as-yet-unnamed ambassador; and some 100,000 American troops.

Iraq’s leadership is to be decided by Bremer in consultation with the Governing Council’s 25 members, all but three of them former Iraqi exiles whose names were unknown to most Iraqis. Bremer chose them in a bid to find a balance among Sunnis and Shiites, Kurds and Christians.

To many Iraqis, they seem a distant bunch meeting behind the concrete barriers and barbed wire of the protected Green Zone, as do the 25 ministers who run Iraqi bureaucracies, likewise named by Bremer for their professional expertise, most of it acquired in exile at Western universities.

Iraqis look at the distant Governing Council and yearn for a single strong leader, minus the brutal excesses of Saddam’s Baath Party regime.