Thursday, August 07, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Aug. 6 — As an American soldier peered out of a passing tank, a young engineering student and a retired accountant contemplated one of the more common questions on the streets of Baghdad: Did the soldier's wraparound sunglasses give him X-ray vision?

"With those glasses, he can definitely see through women's clothes," said the engineering student, Samer Hamid. "It makes me angry. We are afraid to take our families out on the street."

The retired accountant, Hekmet Tinber Hassan, smiled and said it was a baseless rumor, just like the widespread story that Saddam Hussein had been secretly working for America and was now at a C.I.A. safe house. "I do not believe Saddam is in America," Mr. Hassan said. "I heard he went to Tel Aviv."...

"I let a kid put on my sunglasses, and he was still convinced they had X-ray vision," said Sgt. Stephen Roach, a soldier from Lufkin, Tex. "He kept saying to me, `Turn it on, turn it on.' "

When they are not peering through women's clothes, the male soldiers are said to be groping underneath the clothes during searches at checkpoints, supposedly provoking some of the attacks on soldiers. (Never mind the absence of evidence for this theory.)

Other versions of the ugly-American stories have the soldiers drinking beer (or sometimes Kool-Aid laced with alcohol) inside their tanks near mosques. They have been accused in the Arab press of using pages from the Koran for toilet paper and of giving children candy packets containing pornography.

The rumors became so numerous that Al Sabah, a new daily paper run by Iraqis with financial backing from the Coalition Provisional Authority, the American-run administrative organization, printed a supplement debunking them. "It will take awhile for people to reject the conspiracy theories," said its editor, Ismael Zayer. "Under Saddam, people had to depend on rumor because they could not trust the media."

Some of the stories seem intended to encourage the fighters who have been attacking Americans. G.I.'s are said to be so demoralized that 30 percent of them have already abandoned their posts and paid $600 apiece to escape by an underground railroad to Turkey or Syria.

Others have supposedly converted to Islam and fled to marry women in Saudi Arabia. There are also rumors that Americans are hiding their casualties by dumping large numbers of soldiers' bodies each night into the Tigris River...

For all the frustration, there remains some admiration for the occupiers, as seen in a popular fashion accessory on teenagers like Zahra Thaer, 13. She was walking down a sidewalk in Baghdad wearing a new pair of wraparound sunglasses.

"These are the latest style," she said, explaining that she had been lucky to get one of the last pairs left in the store.

Did she believe the soldiers' glasses gave them X-ray vision?

"I am not so sure about their sunglasses," she said. "But I know about the helmet. Inside each helmet is a map showing the soldier the location of every house in Iraq. My friends at school told me about it."

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