In holy city of Karbala, the U.S. occupation sits lightly
By Anthony Shadid, The Washington Post
KARBALA, Iraq - Hundreds of demonstrators surged through streets snarled with traffic. They coursed past the gold-leafed dome of one of Shiite Islam's most sacred shrines, past grimy walls plastered with portraits of young men killed by Saddam Hussein's government and past the hovels of pilgrims.
Through a rickety bullhorn came chants demanding that U.S. forces occupying Karbala pay the salaries of soldiers in the disbanded Iraqi army and pensions to veterans.
But the protest Monday was perhaps most remarkable for what was missing. Not once was there a chant denouncing the U.S. occupation, a staple of demonstrations elsewhere in Iraq. A request by U.S. troops for the crowd to make way for military vehicles prompted protesters to shout: "Get back! Get back!" The crowd hurriedly did.
In a city so sacred that its soil is used to make the stones on which Shiites bow their heads in prayer, the American occupation of Karbala - 1,110 U.S. troops in a city of 500,000 - has emerged as a rare example of a postwar experience gone right.
In gestures large and small - from reopening an amusement park with free admission to restoring electricity to twice its prewar level, from stopping looting with a rapidly reconstituted police force, to a conscious effort to respect religious sensitivities - Karbala seems to have avoided the bitterness and disenchantment that has enveloped Baghdad and other cities.
"It's not Fort Apache," said Marine Lt. Col. Michael Belcher, the city's senior American officer and a native of Temple Hills, Md.
Yet problems remain, and deep-seated fears linger over the future, many residents say. Complaints are rife over what many still perceive as too little security. The local government and police are seen as too weak, even corrupt. Clerics, some more militant than others, angrily trade rumors that U.S. servicemen drink alcohol, leer at women and distribute pornography.
Lurking underneath is a fear that once the Americans leave, even uniformly Shiite cities like Karbala will erupt in bloodletting as scores are settled from three decades of Saddam's rule and dozens of factions - many armed and claiming religious sanction - slug it out for supremacy.
"I'm one of the citizens who rejects the idea that the Americans leave," said Awad Rubai, a father of six. "Revenge is in the air. There would be chaos."
Here, the chief of the two-month occupation is Belcher, a hard-driving Marine with a crew cut and a sunburned, bulldog face. In other cities, such as Fallujah, where soldiers are fighting a smoldering guerrilla war, the U.S. military presence has proved provocative. In Karbala, Belcher, 42, is treated as a mix of ambassador and potentate, and he touts as a model the ability of his staff to engage the city council and police with the tacit blessing of key clerics.
Karbala is one of the few cities where government employees - 28,000 municipal workers and 31,000 retirees - were paid without interruption. To get the money for the salaries, troops had to escort a bank manager to neighboring Hilla to get approval from his supervisor to open his doors.
Blackouts are limited to a few hours a day, better than any time since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Water filters were brought in to improve quality, a long-standing problem. And the city government distributed rations at the end of April.
In the dreary classrooms of the school that serves as Belcher's base, he chats with his staff about "micro-enterprise lending" - loans to help Iraqis start small businesses - as well as providing Internet access and upgraded equipment to the local television station.
"If all you have is a hammer," he said, "every problem looks like a nail."
At a soccer game on Saturday, just before dusk subdued the summer heat, the Iraqi police team took on U.S. Marines in newly purchased uniforms of blue and red. Belcher sat next to the police chief, Col. Abbas Hassani. Expletives poured from the American sidelines as the Marines rooted for an outgunned team that ended up losing to the Iraqis, 8-3. But it was all civility in the stands.
Belcher and Hassani called each other "general," even though both are colonels. Before the match, Hassani recounted, Belcher asked whether his men's shorts were modest enough. "They're the same as ours!" a surprised Hassani exclaimed.