BAGHDAD — Alaa Thani walked through the blackened shell of the Iraqi Ministry of Trade last week, raising puffs of ash as he nudged bits of metal and concrete with his foot.
“The Americans did this,” the 27-year-old construction worker said. “You see there is no furniture? They stole it. Then they set fire to everything. They did the same thing with the banks and the stores. The American soldiers are looting Iraq. We will not forget this.”
In the tumultuous days after Saddam Hussein’s fall, when television cameras recorded images of Iraqis looting and destroying buildings across the capital, Thani’s statements might have been dismissed as the ravings of an embittered regime loyalist.
More than a month later, the same stories are repeated by taxi drivers and engineers, students and laborers. They’re told downtown, the scene of the worst destruction, and in outlying neighborhoods.
In some cases, the accounts are perpetuated in the speeches of extremist Muslim clerics, who preach anti-Americanism to thousands of followers at Friday prayers.
While many Iraqis reject the reports outright, as does the U.S. military, their prevalence illustrates one of the difficulties the United States faces as it seeks to win over the Iraqi people, whose celebration at the removal of Saddam has been replaced by frustration and bitterness over a continuing lack of basic services, salaries and security.
The accounts also represent a potential danger to U.S. troops. Some of those relaying the stories pepper them with threats, though it is impossible to gauge what is bluster and what is not.
“I hear the stories every day now,” said Muntaha Patros, 42, a Baghdad teacher who has not been paid in two months. “I don’t believe them. The United States saved us from Saddam. But the people are angry. We have no electricity, no water and no jobs. I think people want to believe bad things about the Americans.”
The anger goes beyond the United States.
According to some accounts, much of the looting and destruction that followed Baghdad’s fall was carried out by Kuwaitis shipped in by U.S. troops.
“I saw the Kuwaitis with my own eyes,” insisted Ayad Hussein, a 26-year-old taxi driver. “They went into the Planning Ministry and set it on fire. We will never forgive them for what they are doing to us now.”
Mistrust of Kuwait runs deep in Iraq, which has historically claimed the tiny, oil-rich nation as part of its territory. The dispute was one of the reasons behind Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, triggering the Persian Gulf War five months later.
Other rumors target Israel, a common enemy of Arab states.
Ahmed Ibrahim, 26, a physics student at Mustansirya University in Baghdad, said Israeli tankers were siphoning Iraqi oil from a pipeline in the southern port of Umm Qasr.
“I know it is true. Israel steals our oil, and we have no gas for our cars,” Ibrahim said, referring to Iraq’s postwar fuel crisis, which has created mile-long lines at gas stations. According to another widely circulated account, Israeli businessmen were streaming into Baghdad to buy up homes and shops.
“The Iraqi people are educated,” said Alim Hamed, a 43-year-old engineer who has been out of work since the United States and Great Britain attacked Iraq on March 20. “We know what is really happening here. The Jewish want to control us.”
Taken together, the stories trouble Lt. Col. Anthony Healy, a spokesman for the U.S. military’s civil affairs command in Baghdad.
“Obviously, it’s not something we like to hear,” Healy said. “We’re working very hard to build trust here.”
He said he knew of no instances of American soldiers caught looting, and while U.S. troops did appropriate furniture from some government buildings for use in American command centers and barracks, Healy said he knew of no items removed from businesses or homes.
“We have made this a priority,” Healy said. “I assure you, anybody caught looting will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”
He denied outright that U.S. troops brought Kuwaitis to Iraq. The military does employ Arabic-speaking translators, he said, but they were hired either in Iraq or from within Iraqi exile groups in the United States.
Healy said the apparent willingness of some Iraqis to believe what they hear likely rests with the repressive atmosphere created by Saddam.
“Anytime you have persecution, it breeds hatred, and unfortunately, there was a lot of persecution in this country,” Healy said.
For some Iraqis, there is the added elements of grief and loss.
Esam Abbas Al-Khafaji, 36, is among those who unquestioningly accept that Americans and Kuwaitis instigated and participated in the looting and destruction in Baghdad.
When asked to explain why, he recounted at length the hardships of his life, from the brutal treatment of his Shi’a Muslim brethren under Saddam, a Sunni Muslim, to the deaths of two cousins in the Iran-Iraq War, an eight-year conflict started by the Iraqi leader in 1980.
In the 1990s, Al-Khafaji said, his family was forced to close its business, a bakery, because of the weakening economy under international sanctions and continual shakedowns by corrupt Iraqi police officers.
Alternating between sobs and shouts, Al-Khafaji said two more cousins, both civilians, died in the American bombardment of the capital leading up to the regime’s fall.
“They weren’t soldiers. They weren’t Fedayeen,” he said, referring to the paramilitary fighters whose hit-and-run tactics slowed the American advance on Baghdad during the war. “They were doing nothing but walking down the street when an American bomb fell in front of them.”
Al-Khafaji made his comments outside the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross, where he had gone for help in finding his brother-in-law, 32-year-old Mohammed Turki, missing since April 9.
Al-Khafaji didn’t know if Turki was dead, perhaps killed in the post-war chaos, or in U.S. custody. Military officials have so far refused to make public the names of civilian detainees despite repeated Red Cross requests.
“Why do I believe the stories?” Al-Khafaji asked. “If you had lost what I have lost, you would be disturbed. You would be angry. You would trust no one but yourself. You would believe them, too.”
Al-Khafaji said he and his relatives were angry enough to target U.S. soldiers, who have continued to come under sporadic fire in the capital. Last week, two soldiers were killed in unrelated attacks.
“I want to kidnap an American and send him home broken,” Al-Khafaji said. “There have been too many martyrs in my family.”
Such threats are usually voiced safely out of American earshot here, and they appear to represent the most extreme fringe of Iraqis’ distaste for their country’s occupation and for their poor living conditions, with scant electricity and water.
Along Baghdad’s streets, many servicemen and women can be seen bantering and smiling with the city’s residents.
“Most people have been pretty happy to see us,” said Sgt. Andrew Roser, a 3rd Infantry Division soldier who recently ventured into a Baghdad barbershop for a haircut. “A few people have been not so happy, but for the most part, it’s been positive.”
Even so, the contention that U.S. troops are here for anything other than helping the Iraqi people — and particularly the belief that Americans looted buildings — angers some soldiers.
“That bothers me,” said 1st Lt. Keith Zieber, whose squad has been guarding a branch of Baghdad’s Rasheed Bank for three weeks. “I mean, even the guys who grabbed ashtrays from the palaces, we made them put them back. What they’re saying is not the image we’re trying to project, and it’s simply not true.”