Friday, July 02, 2004

A large Iraqi flag flapping on his Soviet-era jeep, 1st Lt. Shehab Abdul-Jabbar led an Iraqi National Guard patrol down Baghdad's heavily commercial Karrada Street. As he passed, merchants and shoppers smiled and waved their greetings. "Way to go," one man shouted from behind the small charcoal stove where he was grilling a splayed fish for lunch.

"People are comfortable with this," said Abdul-Jabbar, 38, an officer freshly minted from a U.S.-provided training course for the 35,000-man paramilitary force designed to bring internal security to Iraq.

The Iraqi guardsmen -- venturing out for the last several days in their own vehicles and flying the Iraqi flag conspicuously -- have found a warm welcome from most residents, some of whom have showered them with chocolates. Judging by their comments on seeing Abdul-Jabbar's patrol come by Thursday, Baghdadis seem relieved to see their own soldiers taking over from U.S. occupation troops after nearly 15 months of foreign domination and violent disorder.

"It's the best thing that could happen," said Bilal Ismail, 34, a taxi driver who had just been stopped at a checkpoint and patted down by Abdul-Jabbar's men.

The eagerness to see Iraqis back in charge of the streets of Baghdad suggested that replacing U.S. soldiers with Iraqis could go a long way toward reducing popular resentment directed at the U.S. military presence here.

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