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Exiles yearn for Hussein's doom

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 24, 2003

[Times photos: Jamie Francis]
An image of Saddam Hussein on Jordanian TV attracts the attention of 1-year-old Moosa Fadeel Chasim, whose parents are Iraqi refugees living in Amman.
AMMAN, Jordan -- In Iraq, Jamal Albostani wrote books. They were works of fiction that clearly were also indictments of Saddam Hussein's regime.

"They were talking against war," he says of the novels that were published in small numbers and given only to friends. "My country is very rich but Saddam has exploited all this in wars." Knowing he could not express himself freely, knowing that if he did he might die, Albostani sought refuge across the border in Jordan.

Two years later, he welcomes the war against Iraq, hoping it might finally release him and about 25-million Iraqis from the tyrannical yoke they have worn all their lives.

"I'm not afraid of war," he says, lean fingers nervously rearranging the neon blue scarf around his neck. "I'm afraid of Saddam Hussein."

Albostani is among 300,000 to 500,000 Iraqis living in Jordan. In contrast to the obsequious displays of love for Hussein back home, the Iraqis here are nearly universal in their hatred and condemnation of the man. Most think war is necessary to remove him.

But even among the Iraqis who loathe the regime there is widespread disagreement about what should follow and the role the United States should play in a postwar Iraq.

Their lack of consensus is yet another sign that the military campaign might be the easy part.

Abu Saltan, an Iraqi staying at a hotel in Amman, Jordan, shows pictures of seven of his 12 children stapled inside his passport.

Albostani, for example, is deeply skeptical that Iraq can be a model for democratization of the Middle East, as the Bush administration says.

"The Arab world doesn't know what democracy is. It will be difficult to put a democracy in place because they are used to ruthless administrations. Nobody understands what democracy is -- it's a faraway dream."

But Amjad Al Maini, who worked as a radio journalist in Baghdad until 2001, says formation of a democratic government should be a high priority.

"The United States must get the people to trust it and think it is trying to do a good thing," he says. "If the United States comes in and exploits the resources of Iraq, the people are clever and will see that. But if they see the United States comes to make a democratic government, giving people their rights and freedom of expression, I'm sure the Iraqi people will cooperate."

The Iraqi community in Jordan exists largely in the shadows. Most Iraqis here are poor people who fled their country during the 1991 Gulf War and never returned. Today they live in refugee camps or cheap hotels in Amman, eking out a few dinars by selling cigarettes and plastic lighters from blankets on the sidewalk.

Many are in Jordan illegally. They are afraid to talk to strangers, let alone be photographed, because they fear Jordanian police might arrest them and ship them back to Iraq.
Rabia Hason Shambee and her husband Sabah Abdulrahman, enjoy their traditional Friday meal with their children.

There is another group of Iraqis, also poor, but well-educated and passionately concerned about the future of their country. They are writers and other intellectuals whose ideas got them in trouble with Hussein's regime. Many won refugee status through the United Nations and are biding their time in Jordan until they can be resettled in another country.

In late afternoon and early evening, they can often be found drinking mint tea at Cafe Central, reached by a steep flight of stairs off a nondescript street in central Amman. The walls are yellow, the lighting fluorescent, the primary sound that of dominos clack-clack-clacking on table tops. But now that the war has started, more heads are turned to the color TV in the corner showing Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite channel.

"This is a very dangerous opinion, but I support the war because we want to get rid of Saddam Hussein," says Jasim Hais, a former history professor at Basra University.

Why dangerous? "Because his agents will try to kill us."

(In fact, many Iraqi exiles in Jordan live with the uneasy sense that the mukhabarat, Hussein's secret agents, keep them constantly in their sight.)

Hais ran afoul of the regime when he did his doctoral thesis on the Islamic revolution in Iran, which fought a long war with Iraq in the 1980s. That his thesis simply mentioned the name Ayatollah Khomeini caused two years of tension between the university and Iraq's ministry of education.

"Why? Because they are afraid of Islamic ideas, especially those of Ayatollah Khomeini," Hais says. "Saddam is afraid of everything -- Islamism, Wahhabism, communism -- he wants his ideas only. If I was in Iraq another year they would have arrested me."

Hais got refugee status in 2001 and came to Jordan. His wife and three children joined him later, and now all five live in one room. He writes commentaries for a Jordanian newspaper but makes barely enough to pay the rent.

Basra University, where Hais taught, is in an area of Iraq populated by Shiites, a Muslim sect brutally treated by the Sunni Muslims who dominate Hussein's regime. There have been grim warnings that once Hussein is gone, Shiites will exact a terrible revenge on their Sunni oppressors.

But Hais and others in exile think fears of ethnic warfare and Iraq's disintegration are exaggerated.

"Maybe this will happen but not in general, just person to person," Hais says. "This idiot Saddam Hussein convinced the Iraqi people that if he leaves the government there will be revenge. This idea is from Saddam Hussein only."
Iraqi refugee women sell cigarettes and other items outside the central bus station in Amman, Jordan. These women say they are supporters of Saddam Hussein.

Where Iraqi exiles part company is over who should run the country if Hussein is killed or deposed. Some concede a strong U.S. military presence might be needed for a few months to maintain order. But no one likes the idea of Gen. Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command, serving as a military governor for any length of time.

"Tommy Franks is a friend and liberator from Saddam Hussein but we cannot support him for governor," says Hais. "We have leaders who could make a democratic government."

Often mentioned is Dr. Ahmed Chalabi, an intellectual ex-banker who left Iraq decades ago and helped organize the Iraqi opposition movement in the early 1990s. His admirers think Chalabi would bring a formidable intellect and other attributes to the job.

"He's very highly educated, he's not a soldier and he knows the political history of Iraq," says Albostani, the novelist.

But his journalist friend, Al Maini, finds Chalabi unacceptable.

"This guy hasn't been in Iraq for 30 years and he doesn't know anything about Iraq," he says angrily. "He's been living with people in London, they are comfortable getting together drinking whiskey and beer. I don't know anyone in Iraq who supports them. These guys like Chalabi, the only thing they want is to get power and money."

Al Maini, a handsome man in his 40s, almost fell victim to his own candor and Hussein's extensive network of informants. Talking in private, he used to complain that he did not have the same access to books and newspapers as journalists considered friendly to the regime. Someone reported him, and he knew his days in Iraq were numbered.

Now he is a refugee and the United Nations pays the rent for a house he shares with another exile; he can't afford to bring his wife and three children from Baghdad. Despite all the talk of "regime change" and "democratization," Al Maini says the main thing Iraqis want is peace and stability.

"The government changes, so what? Do they have food? Do they have a better car, a better house, can they send their kids to school? The Iraqi people are extremely exhausted from 30 years of wars and killings. The important thing is that people must see a difference in their lives."

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at .

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