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WORD ON THE STREETS

Hope, optimism reign as Iraq faces new challenges

BAGHDAD -- Sa'ad Saddam, a merchant in the Iraqi capital's notorious Thieves Market, normally has nothing polite to say about his country's rulers.

So he was surprised yesterday to find himself hopeful about interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's new Iraqi government -- not because he cared about the symbolic passing of sovereignty, but because he was thrilled to see Iraqi police officers pistol-whipping suspected carjackers near his clothing stand the day before.

''Allawi is a strong, powerful guy," Saddam, 35, raved. To him, the raid on two carjacking and kidnapping rings in the downtown Betaween neighborhood meant that Iraq's new leaders were starting to impose concrete order on the streets. Most Iraqis are withholding judgment on the new government, which officially and unexpectedly took the reigns of power yesterday -- two days before the scheduled transfer; they want to see results, first and foremost in the field of security.

But so far, many like what they see. Allawi has spewed tough talk, dismissing a televised assassination threat by the Al Qaeda-linked terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as a ''cowardly" attempt to intimidate all Iraqis.

The 58-year-old prime minister already survived an assassination attempt in the 1970s, when ax-wielding assailants attacked him in his bed.

Unlike occupation officials and members of the now-defunct Iraqi Governing Council, Allawi has stepped outside the security bubble to visit the scenes of deadly suicide bombings and tell Iraqis not to surrender to fear.

And on Sunday, his rough-riding interior minister led a platoon of police commandos into the Thieves Market, where they arrested dozens of criminal suspects, pointedly kicking them around in front of Iraqi reporters so the message will get out.

''The police have to show some force so that people develop a healthy fear and respect for the law," said Captain Abdullah Mohammed, 48, the traffic police officer in charge of Tahrir Square, the central roundabout in Bab al-Sharji, Baghdad's historic eastern gate, which fronts the Thieves Market. ''That's how we can terminate the bad elements."

The busy traffic circle in central Baghdad, whose name means ''Liberation Square," was the location of a major suicide bombing two weeks ago that killed 13 people and spurred an outpouring of anti-American anger.

It is also the confluence of the Thieves Market and the rough redoubt called Betaween, a place where pickpockets, pimps, and gangs that specialize in kidnapping and carjacking converge.

Iraqi police seem eager to prove their mettle. Mohammed, the traffic police captain, proudly showed his ticket book, with carbon copies of several $14 fines written for motorists who had parked illegally in the traffic circle.

''We've stopped five carjackings this week," he said.

It is just this sort of action the merchants of Bab al-Sharji say they want to see.

''If the police see a gang on the street, they should shoot at them," said Mohammed Yassin, 22, who sells video discs. ''The Iraqis have to prove they're in charge."

Yassin said the police commandos had swooped into Betaween ''like a little army," confiscating weapons and drugs while arresting criminal operatives.

If Allawi's government continues to take strong-arm steps -- as the prime minister has promised, even suggesting he will impose martial law in some areas -- the merchants near the Thieves Market said they will cut him slack on addressing other pressing needs, like electricity, employment, and housing shortages.

''We have to climb the stairs one step at a time," Yassin said.

Around noon yesterday, Al-Arabiya satellite television reported that Iraqi police had arrested Zarqawi in the southern city of Hillah. Within seconds of the report, word spread onto the streets of the Thieves Market, passed by word of mouth and by cellphone text messages.

The report, which proved false, generated far more excitement than the transfer of sovereignty.

''We will fire our guns in the air tonight to celebrate," said Ali Abbas, 19. ''Zarqawi is a dog."

Minutes later, television reported Zarqawi's capture was a false rumor. ''When they do catch him, they should strangle him to death on live television," Abbas said, shrugging.

Many of the same Iraqis who have professed anger and frustration at the slow pace of reconstruction during nearly 14 months of American-led occupation have now assumed the same optimistic wait-and-see stance they once took toward the United States.

Baghdad residents sounded more hopeful about the fight against terrorism and crime than they had in recent months.

''The Americans are very strong on the battlefield, but Iraqis can deal with the terrorists more effectively because they have better intelligence," said Naseer Hassan, an architect and poet who is translating the work of Emily Dickinson into Arabic.

He did not plan any celebration yesterday, even though he considered the legal transfer of sovereignty a ''great thing."

''The coming days are not to be days of comfort. This is a celebration full of anxiety," Hassan said. ''It is the beginning of a new battle."

Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at tcambanis@globe.com. 

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