A Difficult Ramadan

President Bush speaks as United Arab Emirates Foreign Affairs Minister Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahayan, right, listens to remarks during an Iftaar dinner at the White House, Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2003 with ambassadors and Muslim leaders. AP

For many Muslims, this is a difficult Ramadan - with the holiday marred by bombs in Baghdad and violence in other pockets of the world.

President Bush Tuesday night hosted a Ramadan celebration at the White House, a traditional "iftar" dinner for the breaking of the daylight fast of the month-long Islamic holiday.

Mr. Bush and administration officials including Secretary of State Colin Powell were joined by American Muslims and officials and diplomats from Islamic nations.

Speaking at the dinner, President Bush called religious liberty the most basic human right and said that Muslims now have the same freedoms in Iraq and Afghanistan that they enjoy in the United States.

Referring to the still fluid and dangerous situation in both countries, Mr. Bush added that "terrorists who use religion to justify the taking of innocent life have no home in any faith."

In Baghdad, suicide bombs on the first day of Ramadan have left Iraqis both angered and saddened at the carnage.

"We heard boom, boom, boom. All the victims are innocents - Iraqi men, women, children," says a Baghdad doctor, Laith Hussein Jabir. "What happened yesterday reminds me of what happened Sept. 11 in the U.S. These are terrorists."

Monday was the deadliest day in Baghdad since the start of the U.S. occupation - some three dozen dead and 220 wounded.

Iraqis say they fear that as long as the Americans are in their country, they will continue to live in a war zone.

"I feel myself in a prison," said Remon David Tuma, 51, whose small grocery store is across the street from the al-Khadra police station, one of three hit by car bombers Monday.

"I go from my shop to my house while my family never leaves home. We are still in a war that hasn't finished yet. My big wish is to leave the country as soon as possible."

After sunset and the end of the day's fast, Ramadan usually takes a festive feel, with families going out to eat and celebrate. But Tuesday night, the streets of Baghdad were largely empty, even though U.S. authorities lifted the city's curfew days ago.

Along with the three police stations, the bombers struck the Red Cross headquarters in Baghdad. President Bush on Tuesday blamed both Saddam Hussein loyalists and foreign fighters for responsibility in the recent rash of violence.

But many Iraqis on Tuesday adamantly rejected the idea that fellow countrymen were responsible.

"The people who did this are not Iraqis - they are from other countries," said Najah Shamon, a luggage vendor. "The people making these attacks are not Muslims. If they were, they wouldn't attack during Ramadan. I accuse al Qaeda."

Shamon, who lives in the 'New Baghdad' area, said he was at home when an explosion ripped through another police station nearby. He watched as shattered bodies were evacuated from the scene.

"I feel like I want to cry when I see this because Iraqi citizens are helpless. People are just trying to live their lives, support their families," he said.

Across town, Jabir, 28, an emergency room doctor who was on duty at Medical City Hospital on Monday, saw dozens of victims being wheeled in with injuries from the glass and debris from the explosions.

"Absolutely, we are expecting worse in the next few days," he said.

Like many others, Jabir pinpointed the start of the escalating violence to the truck bomb that blew apart the U.N. headquarters on Aug. 19, killing 23 people, including the head of the U.N. mission. A dozen major bombings have rocked Iraq since August.

"After the war, we felt a little better but after what happened at the U.N., we knew this was just the beginning. That makes us very frightened," he said.

Cleaning up the debris and glass that filled his small shop Tuesday, Tuma expressed outrage that the attacks had mainly killed Iraqis, and said he feared that with American troops remaining in the country, more will die.

"This is not human. If they think Americans are the enemy, why are they hurting Iraqis? As long as Americans are going around the city and showing weapons against people, the results will be much worse," he said.

"(The attackers think) anyone cooperating with the Americans is also the enemy. I can't accept such attacks. The policemen are my people," Tuma said.

Not all Iraqis believed the bad times would last, saying things have improved over the last six months.

"I think this is a dirty war," said grocer Munir Ali Judi, 45. "They are targeting police stations, they are targeting the law, the security of the people. They clearly showed they are against the Iraqi people."

But Judi expressed defiance, saying that he plans to take his family into the streets to celebrate Ramadan. "Bombs will not make us hide behind the walls of our house. They cannot stop me from having a normal life."

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