Many Iraqis have brought their family to safety in Syria, since years a refuge for especially Iraqi shi'ites. Most want Saddam out, but fear a lengthy stay of the Americans.
By Sietske Galama
SIT ZEINAB - When the ground under their feet becomes too hot in Iraq, Iraqi Shi'ites traditionally trek to Sit Zeinab, a small pelgrimage town 17 kilometers north of Damascus. [..] There are refugees here from 1980 - when Iraq started a war against Iran - from the Gulf War, from the Shi'ite uprising afterwards - and since two weeks a new inflow of over 30,000 Iraqis has flooded into town.
In the taxi office of Sit Zeinab nine Iraqi cabdrivers are watching the TV images of American troops [..] A long silence ensues when they are asked when they think this will be over. It can last a long time still, sighs Saleh. "They're not going to find Saddam Hussein just like that". And even when he is dead, the Iraqi's still won't be rid of the Americans. Those are going to stay, the cabbies say.
When Bush appears on TV stating that he comes to liberate the Iraqi people, they curse out loud. "Liberate us? That's a good one. I didn't know he loved us so much. What a son of a whore. They are just out to get our oil. All that chatter about weapons and democracy, we're not going to fall for that. Things'll be better, for sure, but we are worried that they won't leave anymore." He mentions Okinawa in Japan and Germany as examples. [..]
The only one who openly says that the days of the Iraqi president are numbered is Saleh (62), a building contractor from Bagdad. His family has long ago left Iraq, and now live in the West. He doesn't want to say where. "Saddam has to go, there is no choice."
In a little rented room he watches news, in his pyjamas. He came to Sit Zeinab a week ago, and wants to go back as soon as it is clear how the battle is going to go. As of yet, it doesn't look too hopeful. "This is only the beginning, and this war is not like that in 1991. This is going to be a bloodbath", he predicts. Iraqis may be against Saddam, but to surrender their country to another won't be done without reistance.
The bombs are music to me
March 24 "... those bombs are music to my ears ..."
The bombs have begun to fall on Baghdad. Iraqi soldiers have shot their officers and are giving themselves up to the Americans and the British in droves. Others, as in Nasiriyah and Umm Qasr, are fighting back, and civilians have already come under fire. Yet I find myself dismissing contemptuously all the e-mails and phone calls I get from antiwar friends who think they are commiserating with me because "their" country is bombing "mine." To be sure, I am worried. Like every other Iraqi I know, I have friends and relatives in Baghdad. I am nauseous with anxiety for their safety. But still those bombs are music to my ears. They are like bells tolling for liberation in a country that has been turned into a gigantic concentration camp. One is not supposed to say such things in the kind of liberal, pacifist, and deeply anti-American circles of academia, in which I normally live and work. The truth is jarring even to my own ears. [..]
There is enough chatter out of Washington to make me apprehensive. Last Wednesday, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, Marc Grossman, managed to deliver a long briefing to foreign reporters on "Assisting Iraqis With Their Future, Planning For Democracy" without any specifics on the issue. While Grossman summarized U.S. plans and offered statistical details on economic reconstruction, dealing with weapons of mass destruction, humanitarian assistance, and the role of the United Nations in all these things, all he could say about the central political question was that the Bush administration "seek[s] an Iraq that is democratic." Why? Does the United States have any ideas on this pivotal subject? [..]
March 19 "... elated and worried ..."
When I heard President George Bush deliver his ultimatum to Saddam Hussein on Monday, I could not help but puzzle over one crucial omission: the word "democracy." Why, I kept on asking myself, did he choose not to use it? Now only hours remain before the U.S. military rips apart Saddam Hussein's despotism. I seem to have spent the last 25 years of my life working toward this moment. The effort has been marked by cycles of frustration and elation, painfully elusive opportunities and betrayed promises. Since the end of the Gulf war, every piece of good fortune for the Iraqi opposition has been interwoven with disappointment and bitterness. Over the years we in the opposition have carefully parsed every word, cadence, and image of every public American pronunciation about Iraq. I heard the president say that Iraqi "liberation" was close at hand. But why did he not utter the one word that would ensure that what he was about to do in Iraq would enter the annals of history as one of its great moments? [..]
A month ago it seemed as if the administration was rejecting partnership with the Iraqi opposition just as the moment of truth was at hand. In Ankara, the U.S. envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, told the opposition of the administration's plan to install a military governor after toppling Saddam. We felt betrayed. I had spent months working with a team of Iraqi friends to draft a document about the transition to democracy. The document took for granted the idea of such a partnership; we had spent years preparing for this moment. We dropped our professions, all other commitments, virtually abandoned our families and worked relentlessly to put it all together. The document was first presented to a large conference of the Iraqi opposition held in London in last December, attended by some 400 Iraqi delegates. Out of those 400 people emerged a committee of 65 whose job it was to create an Iraqi leadership--an arduous process culminating last month in Salahuddin, in Iraqi Kurdistan, where 53 members of the committee selected a 6-man leadership on Iraqi soil representative of Sunni, Shia, and Kurds. But we had no assurance that our leadership would have any bearing on the future of Iraq. [..] I left Kurdistan, but the nagging apprehension still hung over my head.
It was lifted last week. In effect, I learned from Doug Feith that the Bush administration had discreetly abandoned its military government plan and decided to reaffirm the United States' decade-old alliance with the opposition. With little international support for this war, the administration has calculated that it cannot afford to lose support from the Iraqi people. I admit I was surprised. Feith said that it is now U.S. policy to pass over decision-making responsibilities to an all-Iraqi interim authority in stages, as quickly as it was possible for the Iraqis to manage them. [..]
March 20 "... ride into Iraq on American tanks? ..."
[..] Meanwhile, ardent Western-based Iraqi democrats were writing and speaking in the West as if no one else in the opposition mattered and as if they could achieve alone some kind of utopian new democratic order solely through the agency of the United States. The idea of an American military rule for two years was looking attractive to them as a way of bypassing the traditional parties of Iraqi politics (Kurdish, nationalist, and Islamist), parties that I myself had harshly criticized in the run-up to the London conference--which turned out to be a very badly managed affair--for their exclusionary and Stalinist practices. Whatever their shortcomings--and they are many--there is simply no alternative to engaging those parties in a new kind of politics inside Iraq. [..]
The Americans will be here for the shortest time that they can possibly get away with, and they will not understand during that time, nor even are they capable of imagining, exactly what it is they are dealing with, much less have they the stamina to move it all in the direction of the gentle and forgiving way of life (by contrast with Iraq) that we all have enjoyed for so many years in the West.
No one can rebuild and take responsibility for such a catastrophe other than the people who are in some way or another part of it, and even responsible for it. That is the most fundamental reason why we Iraqis must always insist on being partners of the United States and not its stooges. I am happy to be a stooge--I have no nationalist or patriotic problems with stooge-ism, believe me--if I thought it were in fact a stance towards the world that would actually get me to where I, and I believe you all, want to go. My problem is that I know it will not. [..]
March 26 "... De-Baathification in Iraq ..."
A new word has entered the English language: de-Baathification. Originally coined by Ahmed Chalabi, and honed by Ali Allawi, myself, and other Iraqi contributors to our Transition to Democracy report, the word has become part of Bush administration's vocabulary as it prepares to overhaul the state set up by Saddam Hussein's Baath Party in 1968. If you think about it, this is a very big victory for the democratic wing of the Iraqi opposition as it fights to make its case for what needs to be done the day after the shooting stops in Iraq.
But this victory could easily be fleeting. While there is broad consensus in the administration that some form of de-Baathification must occur, no one has yet worked out the criteria by which it will take place. Nothing is yet finalized, but some in the administration appear to have thought of de-Baathification primarily in terms of removing the most senior functionaries in the regime and eradicating the apparatus of Saddam's tyranny. This is certainly necessary, but it is not sufficient. [..]
To understand why this is so, consider the nature of Saddam's regime. The primary structures of his control are not housed neatly in government ministries. In fact, outside of the departments of interior, education, and defense, Saddam's ministries are largely technocratic bureaucracies that are either harmless or useless. The most insidious presence of the Baath Party is in the schools, the universities, the trade unions, the women's organizations, and the youth groups. It is reflected in curricula and in the way teachers have been trained to think; it is evident in the affairs of the mosques--especially the subordination of the appointment of clerics to political considerations; it figures prominently in the practices and mindsets of hundreds of thousands of police officers and army personnel. To further complicate things, seniority in the Baath Party does not always translate into a position of power in government, and conversely, not all officials who are guilty of crimes are high up in the Baath Party hierarchy. How are we Iraqis even going to begin to sort through all that?
As the opposition recommended in the "Transition to Democracy" report, we can use history to guide us. Following the Second World War, German Nazi Party members were classified into one of five categories, ranging from "major offender" at one end of the scale to "exonerated" at the opposite end. [..] A law must declare the Baath Party illegal, and prevent convicted Baathists from holding office. There must be a legal definition of victimhood at the hands of the Baath, and it must be broad enough to include members of the Baath Party who were themselves victimized by the regime. [..]
March 27 "... the memory of March 1991 ..."
Do not believe any commentator who says that a rising surge of "nationalism" is preventing Iraqis from greeting U.S. and British troops in the streets with open arms. What is preventing them from rising up and taking over the streets of their cities is confusion about American intentions and fear of the murderous brown-shirt thugs known as the Fedayeen Saddam, who are leading the small-arms-fire attacks on American and British soldiers. The coalition forces have an urgent need to send clear and unmistakable signals to the people of Iraq that unlike in 1991, there is no turning back from the destruction of Saddam Hussein. And in order to do this effectively they must turn to the Iraqi opposition, which has so far been marginalized. [..]
March 29 ... Fedayeen Saddam ...
The training instills in [Fedayeen Saddam] recruits a sense of paranoia, the feeling that the very precariousness of the regime is a personal threat to them. This is a force that sees plots against the regime everywhere, even though the regime is all-powerful over them. This paranoia soon turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy, since the people they terrorize would gladly rip them limb from limb if they got half a chance. The Fedayeen, in other words, is a force that knows what fate awaits it after liberation. Khalid is certain that, unlike the regular army, they will therefore fight to the finish. [..]
The Fedayeen operate in small units, keeping in contact with one another other by radio. But their chain of command is not like that of an army. They have been trained to take cues from state television, Khalid says. If the Americans and the British were to take out Iraqi state television, there would be a sudden increase in cell phone calls among the Fedayeen, but confusion would set in and morale would diminish. Fearing retribution, they would probably try to melt away into the population in the event of a breakdown in their chain of command.
The fear is in the blood
The quest of a refugee Iraqi Kurd
At flight for war, driven away by a dictator. Writer-poet and filmmaker Ibrahim Selman exchanged Iraq for the Netherlands 22 years ago. But he is not celebrating after the fall of Bagdad. About the young years of Information minister Al-Sahhaf, a tramp in disguise and the bow of Saddam Hussein. "Who has a brave heart for sale?"
By Ibrahim Selman
On an early Friday morning in September 1961 I was crowed awake by the roosters. We had some breakfast and after that my little brother and I went on our way to my uncle, on the other side of the freeway. We were just about to cross the road when two Iraqi fighter jets skimmed over the village of less than twenty houses. They came from the South and flew very low. My little brother started crying in fright.
Near by the mountain tops the Russian noisemakers turned around and suddenly flashes shot through the sky. It was as if a whirlwind exploded. We fell to the ground, I laid on top of my little brother. He had stopped crying and it became awfully quiet. Only when the enormous cloud of dust had dissipated, did I hear women whooping.
The neighbour was with us quickest. He asked if I was still alive. I was alive, yes, and when I saw the face of my little brother, I started to laugh. His face was all covered with the red earth of our village. My little brother started to laugh too, he'd lost his right front tooth.
This was the beginning of the Kurdish insurrection against the Iraqi government. A few days later the Iraqi tanks rolled into our village and dozens of white tents were pitched. Eggs and chickens became scarce and my father was glued to the radio. I saw soldiers beat villagers, shackle them and take them away. The fighter jets flew over a few more times. One time it seemed as if they would fly into our house. We ran and fled. We left everything behind in the village, even our sighs and tears, and went to Mosul. The youngest brother of my father and my oldest brother went into the mountains.
The first night in Mosul we spent in a rented room. Splattered blood stuck to the walls of the rooms. We stood guard all night and the next day sought refuge elsewhere. But it wasn't easy. On the street we were jeered at: "Kurd, dumb idiot!" Life in Mosul was impossible because my father, two years earlier, had taken part in suppressing the Arab-nationalist coup, the putschists of which had wanted to exterminate all Kurds.
It was the time that in Mosul Kurds were regularly assassinated. One day the youngest brother of my father came to Mosul. He cried days on end for the death of his best friend, my eldest brother. We fled on to the capital of Iraq, Baghdad, in a scorching hot wreck of a van without windows. And there, in Baghdad, the first few months no fighter jets flew over and there wasn't any shooting.
But the fourteenth of the month ramadan (2/8/1963) that changed The fighter jets became active again. They flew very low and shot around and around. The house was too small to hide in. I crawled under a bed. My little brother thought I was playing a game, and came to lie next to me laughing. That day became a pitchblack page in the history of Iraq, with much blood. For the duration of nine months the friends of Saddam Hussein terrorised all of Iraq.
The Communists and Shi'ites were hit hardest. My leftist and pacifist father chose for self-arrest, while many of his Communist friends defected to the governing Baa'th party. In the meantime I had to make sure there was still bread in the house. No longer did I spend my Fridays in the teahouse to see Robin Hood on the 'lightbox' for a dime. The struggle to survive erupted. My biggest enemy soon was the stomach that wanted to be filled a few times every day.
the little things of life
Fourty years later, it was a day before the war erupted on 20 March, I had an appointment with a lady friend. A peace-loving and human rights-respecting writer with a red heart. We'd be talking about the little things of life, about the illness of her father and perhaps about travelling to the Cannes filmfestival. But we didn't come around to any of these topics. The first thing she asked: "You must feel awful because of that ultimatum of George Bush?"
I concentrated on my coat, which I had to somehow place on a chair. I didn't want to hear that question at all. It was an annoying question, no matter how well meant. I forced myself to remain quiet and calm and uttered a meaningless answer that sounded like "Mmmm, mwah, well".
"Don't you have family there?", she went on, to reinforce her commitment.
"Yes, that's right", I replied.
"Aren't you worried for them?", she said, annoyed a little now. Her eyes became big from disbelief and surprise.
"I've been worried for years."
"But it'll be war. A terrible war", she said, with tears in her eyes. How could I react in such a cool manner?
"Listen now, sweet woman", I said with a soft sigh, "the terrible war has now been raging for over twenty years. And what you mean is a war that is going to be terrible for Saddam and his people".
Her face looked like that of somebody attending the funeral of a loved one. Her lips turned dry in discomfort. I was stuck between my past, that was oppressed by the always-continuing regime of Saddam, and the tenderness of a friend who is against the war.
I wanted to explain that. But how can you explain that to somebody who's never known the misery of war? How can you tell somebody about a deadly fear if he has never known fear? I started to list how it is to live under the brutal regime of Saddam. I told her about his crimes against the Shi'ites in the south and about how he pumped dry his swamps and cut down many palmtree forests. I told her about how Saddam beat down their uprising with brutal violence. He used their women and children as shields for his soldiers. That way they forced the fighters to surrender, to subsequently force them and their families to lay down in the streets and run them over with tanks. I told her about the total elimination of 5,000 Kurdish villages, whereby he buried the inhabitants in pits in the desert. I wanted to tell about many other things, but she started about her fear. She was afraid, afraid of a spiral of terror and the increasing chasm between the West and the Muslims. She said between saying two other things "just as long as we have no trouble from that man, and we don't have any now".
Months before the beginning of the Six Day War in 1967 we were prepared for war by Iraqi TV and radio. 24 hour a day celebration of war and Arabs yearning for war wanting to drive Israel into the sea. Well-known singers like Abdulhalim Hafis, Om Kalthum, Fairoz took part too. But on the fifth day of the war I heard that 'Qonaytara' would keep on resisting the Jews. I looked at the map and saw that the town was located far beyond the Syrian border. I couldnt believe my eyes and said: "I think Israel is winning". My father responded: "Well, the Arabs can't win from anyone". "Just from the Kurds, perhaps", I suggested. He kept silent, looked at me with a bitter glint in his eyes and smiled. It was a smile without joy.
Over a year later in 1968 Saddam Hussein and his comrades committed a bloody coup and called it the "white revolution". The 'white revolution' has led to us now sitting glued to the television around the world. A few months after the coup all school and university students, workers and peasants of Baghdad were forced to demonstrate. The president had sworn on TV the day before that he would cleanse Iraq of spies. And those spies happened to all be Jews. They were hung on the best known square of Baghdad: Freedom Square.
I was part of the mass of people standing there and suddenly stood underneath the corpse of a young man, swinging back and forth. His face is burned onto my retina. Saddam avenged the failing Arab leaders who over a year before had lost against Israel. At night the face of the young strung up Jew multiplied into a stage set for countless nightmares. I decided to demonstrate never again.
[continued in part 2]
But a teenager's decisions are no decisions, and so I stood amidst more than a million Iraqis, mostly Kurdish, demonstrating on 12 March 1970. The day before the Iraqi president had signed the peace treaty with the Kurds. Saddam Hussein stood on the balcony with two sons of the legendary Kurdish leader mullah Mostafa Barzani, waving at the masses, hand in hand. Most Kurds who had fled to Baghdad and environs before the war returned to Kurdistan. My family as well.
But Saddam Hussein made sure that the Kurds chose for insurrection again on 12 March 1974. I had a long conversation with my father to convince him that the Kurdish insurrection would not hold and that they would be betrayed by the Shah of Iran and the Americans. Because the Communist parties and countries around the world in their turn saw the Kurds as feudal peasants who served America and imperialism. The propaganda machine of the Communist party of Iraq made sure of that, together with that of Saddams party.
The Kurdish uprising began when Saddams fighter jets bombed the city of Qaladize where the Kurds were just opening the doors of their university. Hundreds of students and high school pupils were killed. Nobody, not a single country, spoke up about it. My family joined the Kurdish uprising and the resistance, while I went back to Baghdad, to follow a university training to become a film director in the daytime, and work for the state broadcaster of Baghdad in the evenings.
Director-general of the state broadcaster then was Mohammed Said al-Sahhaf, who addressed the TV audience almost every day until last Wednesday as Iraqi Minsiter of Information. During a meeting with all the Kurdish workers at the station he ordered them to fully ignore the Kurdish resistance. Now, more than 29 years later, he hasn't deviated from his doctrine. While the Americans had conquered the palace of his boss and were taking the streets of Baghdad less than half a kilometre from his Ministery, he had the nerve to say that his troops had taught the Americans a lesson and that they were being driven out of Baghdad.
The Kurdish uprising lasted a year. That year I was assailed in the daytime by my communist 'friends'. They saw Saddam Hussein as their best friend and contended he was about to become communist. I warned them that it would be their turn still, once Saddam had dealt with the Kurds, but they laughed at me.
Midway March 1975 the Americans and the Shah of Iran ceased their support to the Kurds. The Shah of Iran got from Hussein a rich piece of territory near Basra and the Americans were deluded with beautiful promises. The Kurdish resistance was reduced to zero. Thousands fled abroad, hundreds committed suicide and the remainder surrendered to the Iraqi troops. I went to Kurdistan to see my father. I wanted to tell him I'd been right. I didnt get the chance. My father had been killed months earlier. And my little brother was a witness to his death. He had carried the bullit-ridden body back home through the snow. My mother said that my little brother only realised father wouldnt be coming home anymore two days after the funeral.
Hundreds of families that returned from the mountains and surrendered to the Iraqi regime were deported to the desert in Central and Southern-Iraq. A communist friend proudly told me that he'd been cheering on the deportation with many Baghdad inhabitants from the side of the road. He told me the Kurds deserved the fate and that Saddam had done well to treat them like that. A few months later I saw him back, disguised as a tramp. He asked me if I could help him flee to Kurdistan, because he was sought by the men of Saddam Hussein. I asked him how that was possible. Wasn't he the one who had claimed that Saddam was a Communist comrade? I put him in contact with someone who could bring him to the mountains of Kurdistan nevertheless. I had heard that a fellow student and cameraman had been executed merely because he had greeted a well-known Communist.
In the meantime Saddam Hussein rewarded every Arab man with a large sum of money if he'd marry a Kurdish girl. That way he wanted to humiliate the Kurds and end the Kurdish race. Late March 1974 I took my mother, sister and little brother with me to Baghdad. My little brother couldnt find peace anymore. He started having bouts of depression. There was no such thing as psychological care in Iraq. If you wanted something like that, you'd be laughed at immediately. I didnt think of it, in any case. I just wanted him to finish his school.
But stricken by unrest and nightmares he drifted from here to there, and every time returned after weeks in a bewildered state. He cried often and saw no point in life anymore. I had no grip on him. He joined the insurrection of the Kurds but couldnt settle there either. He made trouble and now and then I had to appear at a court. In the bus on our way to a courtcase in Basra he talked of the death of our father in a way as if we were saying goodbye. And that turned out to be the case. A few days later I had to flee, and he ended up in jail. When the war between Iraq and Iran erupted, he was sent to the frontline in Basra. On 12 July 1982 Iran launched a big attack on Basra. My little brother didnt come back. His name is not registered as living, nor as dead. Not as a POW either. My little brother is registered as "missing" in the Iraqi army registration. The Red Cross can't give any other information since 1982 either, except for the official denial of the Iranian authorities that he is not a POW. The TV programme 'Missing' couldn't play a role in my search for him either.
And then it was Wednesday. Last Wednesday. Before the eye of the cameras Baghdad was liberated. I saw how the largest statue of Saddam made a deep bow, then landed full on its face. I saw an old man with a shoe in his right hand and the portrait of Saddam in his left. With his shoe he beat on the face of the dictator and almost cried in joy while he was crying out slogans. What also made a deep impression was the subdued image of a boy, of hardly ten years old, who in silence walked to an American soldier and kissed him on his cheek.
The war is almost over and my heart is in my mouth when I think about the aftermath. Then the terrible wounds will open. Then it will become clear what Saddam has done in all these years. Then it will come to light how he has destroyed the culture in all its layers. All these years he has sown distrust in even the smallest family, the deepest fibres of society. People in Iraq don't trust each other. A mother doesnt dare to talk about her worries to her children because she is afraid they will say something about it at school. The same for a father. Nobody knows whether a member of the family works for a special secret service. And these secret organisations are many in number. The fear is in the heart of the people. The fear has become part of the marrow and of the blood that flows through the body. How can such a fear be taken away? And how do you create democracy and good administration in such a world?
Up to three weeks after the beginning of the war, the Iraqis couldnt believe that they would be liberated. It will last a long time, too, before that awareness really filters through. As long as the disorder continues, there is possibility for the settling of scores, in which many deaths may fall. The Iraqi opposition, divided as it is, resident abroad and of very diverse plumage, wont make that any less. And again every group within Iraq is robbed of its Iraqi culture. Think of people who spent years in Iran, Syria, Jordan or other Arab countries. Followers who have lived for years in America, the West and other parts of the world are again influenced in different ways than the opposition that stayed in Iraq and that helped, sometimes out of sheer necessity, Saddam.
If there is one people that is diverse in its religion, politics, ethnicity and diversity it's the Iraqi people. Among the Shi'ites there are diverse currents and chieftains. The same goes for the Sunnite Muslims and the Kurds. And, not to forget either: the Christians, the Turkmens, the Assyrians, name them. All those peoples mean to lay their claim to the heritage of Saddam.
If the power is handed over to the Iraqis themselves too quickly, the Kurds will be chased back into the mountains and many other groups will be robbed of their rights. The Turkish government let it be known on Thursday, after the liberation of Kirkuk, that it won't tolerate the establishment of Kurdish fighters in the oiltown. But an invasion into northern Iraq thus far stayed away, possibly because of the very heavy pressure the US and Europe are exercising on Turkey.
I fear a black future for the Kurds. My cousin e-mailed a week ago: "The Kurdish people is a people that lives in fear. It is a people that is always at the point of fleeing. The Kurds are now afraid of everything. They are afraid of the chemical weapons of Saddam Hussein. They are afraid that the Turkish army will occupy and annex their country. They are afraid the Americans will desert them. They are afraid their leaders won't keep standing up for them."
Now that all of Iraq is celebrating, I want to be there. To look somewhere from a street corner, in all calmness, at the cheering people. I want to burn all those images, that no camera can register as beautifully, onto my retina. But I'm not going back. Not now. Perhaps I am afraid that I won't find happiness there. I am afraid I will meet too many dead acquaintances. I still have to reanimate all those dead sighs and desires from the past years. No, first I will go in search for a strong heart. Perhaps somewhere here a brave heart is for sale. Who knows.