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Last Updated: Sunday, 6 July, 2003, 16:58 GMT 17:58 UK
Iraq rumour mill grinds on
By Magdi Abdelhadi
BBC News, Baghdad

I arrived in Baghdad at night. The city was plunged into darkness. It has been like this for weeks.

"Power cuts are the Americans' greatest failure," the driver told me at the end of the seven-hour long journey through the desert from the Kuwaiti border.

US soldiers talk to Iraqi children
US troops are trying to win local hearts and minds...
"Electricity, electricity is so important. If they only fixed that," he said with a look of frustration rapidly going over into a resigned expression.

He then added: "You know what, I think they are punishing us because of the continued attacks on their soldiers."

I came across another version of this rumour when I visited a small but burgeoning power generators market on the streets of the old town.

"The Americans," an Iraqi worker in Al-Rashid district told me, "drove around in a Baghdad suburb announcing in a loudspeaker 'security for us in return for electricity for you'".

A later version was even more conspiratorial.

An Iraqi shop owner in A-Karrada district, on the eastern bank of the Tigris, squatted on the pavement outside his shop after giving up hope that his air conditioner would ever work again.

"The Americans are behind the power cuts and the ensuing chaos," he said with a confident tone, "because this will give them a pretext to stay in Iraq for ever."

Temperatures can climb up to 50C in Baghdad during the summer.

This explains why electricity is next only to security for the residents of this city now.

X-ray vision claims

So, heat-induced rumours are not hard to come by.

When I rushed to the scene of an attack on an American humvee in the Mustansiryya district in the east of Baghdad on Tuesday, curious Iraqis gathered around American soldiers who had thrown a cordon around the scene of the attack.

US soldiers keep back demonstrators in Baghdad
...but there is still a gulf of understanding

Some of them expressed pride in those who blew up the vehicle injuring three American soldiers. One of the soldiers died of his wounds later.

An American officer approached the crowd. "There's a lot of rumours going round Baghdad, aimed to make American forces sound evil, to sound bad," he said.

An Iraqi volunteered to translate. Then suddenly the officer unzipped his flak jacket and said pointing to it: "You've been told this is air-conditioned. Here, touch... feel that. Is that air-conditioned?" asked the officer, his quiet tone betraying signs of irritation.

The Iraqis watched in disbelief, but the officer continued. He took off his sun glasses and held them in front of the crowd.

"Since we've been in Baghdad, we've been told these are x-ray and can see through clothes?" asked the officer while offering his glasses to the crowd to try them on.

Yes, I have heard that rumour, though in a slightly different version.

Culture clash

An Iraqi man told me he believed that the Americans use their night-vision goggles to see through women's clothes while conducting house searches looking for weapons or supporters of the ousted Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein.

I can imagine how such a rumour may have developed from the problems caused by such searches.

Nearly all Iraqis I spoke to have accused the Americans of a lack of sensitivity to local traditions, paying little attention to the sanctity attached to private homes in this culture, particularly space allocated to women.

I doubt whether the officer's efforts to win the hearts and minds will succeed unless there is a clear and rapid improvement in power supplies and security, the two areas identified by most Iraqis I spoke to as the most important.

Every delay in bringing normality back to the lives of Iraqis, are bound to fuel more rumours about what the Americans are up to in this country.

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