"Your father liked Saddam?” I probed.
"My father hated Saddam,” he replied. "He spit on him—in the home, that is. As long as you obeyed the rules by not criticizing the regime outside of your home, you were fine. With Saddam, there were clear rules; now there are none. Now we are caught between the Americans and the insurgents. Everybody hates terrorism, but we're more vulnerable than you.”
"Should the Americans leave?” I asked.
"No,” he said. "That would only make things worse.” He told me that he was impressed with the American military, as long as it was alone and not with the Iraqi army. But he admitted that the Iraqi police had improved, and that Mosul was no longer the battle zone it had been the year before. "Your soldiers are disciplined. They don't scare people by shooting their guns in the air, like ours.”
"But that discipline,” I argued, "is an indirect effect of a free society, which allows the military to constantly criticize itself.”
"No, no,” he said. "What good is voting if the Shiites and Kurds will vote, too? Elections are useless without water, sewage, electricity, and safety.”
"So you won't vote on December 15?”
"Maybe I will vote. What else is there to do?”
He was a mass of understandable contradictions.
More confusing was that another shopkeeper recommended the opposite: that U.S. soldiers should always patrol with the Iraqi army. If you applied every recommendation you got talking to Iraqis on just one street, you'd wind up doing exactly what you were doing before.
When an infantryman on patrol encountered Iraqi civilians, the best thing he could do was take off his sunglasses and his helmet too, if possible, look people directly in the eye, give them a lot of deference (especially if they were older), ask them for advice, here and there interject an opinion so as to actively engage them, and plead his case without trying to lecture. That was the only way to build trust among a population that was taught for centuries how to be subjects rather than citizens.
But it is simply impossible for the soldiers to be wholly liked. There is no nice way to barge into people's houses, bristling with weapons, stomping your dusty boots on their Oriental rugs, and expect it to be a pleasant experience for them, even if you hand out candy to their kids and replace a lock you had to break with a new one. On most such occasions, only a woman and her children were present. The soldiers would find an assault weapon that had recently been fired and its magazine of 7.62mm bullets half empty: very suspicious. Did the woman know anything about it? No, she would tell the Americans, peering out below her kerchief, staring past them at the wall.
Great numbers of such seemingly ineffectual searches did work, to the extent that they kept terrorists on the run (or at least inconvenienced), forcing the insurgents to hide their guns and bomb-making paraphernalia outside their homes. But it was an inefficient way to make progress, and it bred hostility. If this keeps up, I thought, the Americans will end up being as hated in Iraq as the Israelis are in the West Bank. But it will be worse for the Americans, because they will be hated even as they are not feared.