BAGHDAD - Through the toxic haze of Baghdad's traffic jams, unbowed by 105-degree heat that turns the asphalt into a sizzling griddle beneath him, Muslim Abdullah has an intimate view of Iraq's postwar malaise.
From the intersection of al-Maalive and al-Shortha al-Arab streets, 12-year-old Abdullah directs traffic with his red baseball cap.
Electricity shortages have rendered traffic lights useless in much of Baghdad, and the city's main arteries are choked for hours at a time. Motorists inch their way forward by bluffing past rival drivers, and the occasional fender bender can ignite a confrontation that makes matters worse. There are not enough policemen in postwar Baghdad and none to spare as traffic cops.
Into this cauldron stepped Abdullah two days ago.
"I saw a woman get crushed to death attempting to cross the street," he said. "I believe it is my responsibility to keep our society going, and all Iraqis should feel this same responsibility."
Since the fall of Baghdad, frustration over the loss of such basic services as electricity, clean water, and medical care has nearly obscured the joy that followed the removal of Saddam Hussein. While many Iraqi children flock in awe and delight to the US troops who patrol Baghdad's streets, Abdullah disparages them and the gridlock he said is caused, perhaps even encouraged, by the Americans.
"This is what they want," he said, bellowing above the horns and the odd squealing tire. "They want us to stay down, so they will have an excuse to remain in Iraq. We should not wait, but work to help ourselves, step by step."
Abdullah shares the conspiracy theories and suspicions of ill intent his older countrymen harbor of the US invasion of Iraq, particularly as each day passes without a trace of the weapons of mass destruction that President Bush said were the primary motive for the war. The United States came to steal Iraq's oil and make the Middle East safe for Israel, the preteen said. He believes that American troops can see through the clothing of Iraqi women with their night-vision goggles, that the looting that convulsed Iraq for days after the war ended was committed by Kuwaitis and Kurds, not Arabs.
Like most Iraqi children, Abdullah can sing five songs in praise of Saddam Hussein. He will not sing them now, however, for fear of punishment by the Americans. "It would have been better if they had not come at all," he said.
There are many young people like Abdullah, and they have few prospects. The entire Arab world is growing in population more than three times faster than its economy is expanding. Nearly half of all Iraqis are under the age of 30, and they face chronic unemployment unless the US occupation and the Iraqi government it will presumably leave behind can develop a robust, diversified economy.
Two decades ago Iraq had the Arab world's most dynamic economy and its largest white-collar class. It produced some of the finest engineers and doctors in the region, most of whom earned their degrees in the West. But the young of Abdullah's generation know nothing but sanctions and decay.
Abdullah is a middle child in a family with six boys and three girls. His father is a retired army officer, and his mother works at home. School is back in session in Baghdad, but only for hours at a time, and Abdullah said he is too busy selling cigarettes on street corners to attend classes. He wears a faded turquoise polo shirt, torn jeans, and brown plastic sandals. His red cap has the Adidas logo on it. He said he wants to be a policeman when he grows up.
Motorists wave to Abdullah as he gestures at them to stop, go, back up. When a vehicle swoops past him in defiance of his authority he slaps at it with his hat.
"The child is shaming the rest of us Iraqis," said 47-year-old Mohammad Daud Al Sharif, who wore a neatly pressed button-down shirt and a white head-covering that shows that he is sayyid, someone who can trace his lineage directly to the Prophet Mohammed. "Saddam brought the Americans upon us, and now we won't do anything to help ourselves. I am afraid for the future of this young man."