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An Iraqi-American teen reflects on the war.

On December 29, my father got a distressing phone call from Baghdad. His cousin's 12-year-old son, Mohammed, had been kidnapped that morning on his way to school. The kidnappers gave Mohammed's parents a week to deliver a $100,000 ransom. Borrowing from both friends and family, my relatives managed to come up with $60,000, which satisfied the kidnappers. Mohammed was released unharmed.

Since the current war began, thousands of Iraqi children, professionals, and foreign workers have been kidnapped for ransom. The kidnappings have multiplied as a result of the Iraqi police force's inability to provide security. And they're just part of the daily challenges in post-war Baghdad.

But a story like my cousin's kidnapping is not what most Americans hear about Iraq. I am shocked at how uninformed some of my classmates are about Iraq. To me, it feels like they're turning a blind eye to the harsh conditions that Iraqis live with.

My father has lived in the U.S. for almost 40 years, but he still keeps in touch with relatives in Iraq. Shortly after the fall of Baghdad, most of my relatives were hopeful. Some of my relatives in the U.S. returned to Iraq to start businesses and help with the reconstruction.

But the situation rapidly deteriorated. Insurgents began attacking the country's infrastructure, causing enormous hardships for Iraqis. Power outages often left Baghdad without electricity for days at a time; power is still unreliable today.

Before the war, most of my relatives lived under difficult conditions because of Saddam Hussein's harsh rule and the UN sanctions that crippled Iraq's economy for nearly 12 years. They depended on rations of sugar, flour, tea, meat, and soap. But since the American-led invasion, things have deteriorated even further.

Security is now the No. 1 concern for most Iraqis. My father's cousin says no one stays out past dark for fear of being killed or kidnapped. Many restaurants have closed for lack of customers. One relative recently had her wedding during the day so guests could travel safely home before dark.

My family's views on the January 30 Iraqi elections are split. Some believe they were a step towards democracy. Others say they were meaningless since violence still grips the country.

I've never been to Iraq. Before the war, there was the threat of Saddam, and now there's the insurgency. I hope Iraq will emerge as a democratic nation and that someday I will visit the country once known as the cradle of civilization.

Laela Shallal is a junior at Annandale High School in Annandale, Va.
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Title Annotation:VOICES
Author:Shallal, Laela
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 9, 2005
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