Iraq security fears spark first anti-US protest


Iraqi anger grew yesterday over continued lawlessness in their occupied country with local residents staging the first anti-American demonstration there since US troops arrived to a warm welcome last week.

The protest by about 100 Iraqis came as US forces began the herculean task of restoring the battered country to normalcy, launching a recruitment drive to put Iraqis back to work in key sectors.

If the size of the Baghdad demonstration was small, it reflected mounting impatience in the Iraqi capital with the US failure to stem widespread looting and re-establish order and basic services since the regime of Saddam Hussein fell Wednesday.

Brandishing a huge banner that read "Bush=Saddam," the demonstrators gathered in front of the Palestine Hotel to criticise US President George W. Bush for failing to fulfill his promise of a better Iraq.

"They are guarding oil facilities, but have not done anything as yet to restore essential services like power and water, " alleged Mr Ali Zuhair. Another of the protesters said that the "Americans were interested only in oil."

"United States, you will regret it if you don't keep this promise," they chanted. "We will sacrifice our souls and our blood for Iraq,!" shouted another.

Baghdad was known as a bastion of state-organized anti-Americanism during Saddam's 24-year rule but Sunday's demonstration was tinged more with disappointment than ideological fervor.

But life was inching back to normal, with stores beginning to reopen their doors and traffic picking up pace. More people were on the streets and bus services were resuming between the Iraqi capital and cities in the south.

Near the site of the protest, hundreds of locals queued up for their first jobs in the post-Saddam area, triggering massive traffic jams in central Baghdad.

They flocked to a recruitment desk in the Palestine Hotel, where a marine spokeswoman said US officials sought to put Iraqis back to work in key sectors, starting with the police and electricity departments.

Baghdad, a city of five million people, has been without electricity for about 10 days while most homes are also without water and telephone services.

But the biggest fear among residents has been security, highlighted by the pillage of entire sections of the city in recent days by rampaging youths from the immense Shiite suburb of Saddam City.

Marine Staff Sergeant Jeremy Stafford, a spokesman for the civil affairs program, said US troops were in talks to start joint patrols with Iraqi security forces.

"The intended plan is to have joint patrols with one Iraqi car along with one of our Humvees," Sergeant Stafford said.

US troops were also seen detaining looters for the first time in Baghdad, stopping 25 men on a bridge over the Tigris and taking three into custody.