fear soldiers will rob them
By SHAILA K. DEWAN
BAGHDAD, IRAQ – After the war, U.S. soldiers referred to Iraqi looters as "Ali Babas."
Now, the name is more commonly used by Iraqis to describe the soldiers.
This view is spreading through the capital, propelled by word of mouth and amplified by anti-Western elements ready to exploit any hint of U.S. misbehavior.
Many Iraqis are convinced that the soldiers are here to rob them of money, jewelry and cars.
U.S. military officials refused to discuss specific charges of theft by soldiers and disciplinary actions, but said that in most instances property believed stolen was more likely to have been confiscated during raids or at checkpoints.
That distinction matters little to Iraqis trying to recover their property.
Sgt. Thad Farlow, a civil-affairs officer whose unit runs a civilian assistance center, said the complaints he heard stemmed from a mixture of negligence and actual misconduct.
"It's kind of hard to win the hearts and minds when soldiers are taking $650 Thuraya phones," he said, referring to a type of satellite telephone.
Iraqi community leaders warn that the perception is poisoning Iraqi attitudes, buttressing a sense of powerlessness and creating opposition to the U.S.-led occupation, even among Iraqis who welcomed the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
But the American forces have done little to refute the rumors of theft.
Nor is there a centralized system to help Iraqis recover their property or to answer Iraqi complaints.
On any given day, Iraqis can be found pleading at the gates of military bases or in civil-affairs offices: an old woman who laments that her savings were taken from her son on the road to Baghdad; a young man who says he gave a Thuraya phone to a soldier for a call and did not get it back; a cigarette merchant who says he returned to a checkpoint to recover his vehicle the day after it was confiscated, only to find that both car and checkpoint had vanished.
Part of the problem is a cultural misunderstanding.
In Iraq's cash-based society, it is not unusual for people to carry stacks of dinars and a gun to protect them.
But soldiers who discovered piles of cash (a million dinars equals only $700) and an AK-47 often assumed that the owner was up to no good.
Even now, some American soldiers seem not to realize that many regular Iraqis are carrying on their normal business - buying houses, selling cars and livestock - often in cash.
"Where would an Iraqi get $3,000?" one sergeant asked when the question of confiscation was raised. "I can't even get $3,000."
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