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Iraq Journals

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Monday, March 24

Essay - Occupying force would see fierce side of friendly Iraqis

By Greg Barrett | GNS

Six weeks ago, I ate lunch with men employed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the southern region of Iraq where today Iraqis and coalition soldiers are engaged in firefights.

In and around the city of Basra, the notoriously oppressed Shiite Muslims are offering stiff resistance to "Operation Iraqi Freedom" - a less than convincing euphemism to people there, who were under British rule as recently as 45 years ago.

My lunch was in a makeshift restaurant in a cheap hotel in downtown Basra, a congested city that has been a center of combat this week. It was a peaceful, windy day in February when a slim well-dressed government "minder" named Zad shoveled his rice, peas and beef ribs toward me, using the saucer of his teacup as my plate.

Next to me were two of Saddam’s "enforcement officers," well-muscled men who wore matching brown leather jackets and smiled and nodded when Zad said I looked famished and needed the nourishment.

If it seems odd that Iraqis, especially government officials, would care whether or not an American journalist went hungry, you don’t know the Iraqis. They dance to the music of Britney Spears, wear T-shirts with Disney icons Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, hang posters of Michael Jordan - and are capable of executing invading soldiers.

"Just because you are treated well here doesn’t mean (U.S. forces) would be," said an Iraqi engineer. "American soldiers would never be accepted in the streets of Baghdad."

Nor, apparently, in the impoverished streets of Basra.

The unexpected combat in this Shiite region far south of Baghdad’s ruling Sunnis has killed several coalition soldiers. Just north of Basra, near the city of An Nasiriyah on Sunday, 12 coalition soldiers were captured and at least two may have been executed with single shots to the forehead.

I flew from Baghdad to Basra in February on an Iraqi Airways Boeing 727 jet. I was served snacks by the flight attendants in lime green uniforms that resembled those of U.S. Airways. The flight was filled with Iraqis who occasionally peered at me curiously but were always pleasant.

In Basra, an Iraqi businessman who escorted four members of the Western news media predicted that when U.S. forces arrived they would be waved on toward Baghdad.

"As long as they don’t remain, we will not fight," he said, insisting on anonymity.

But this weekend, coalition forces were attacked in Basra, in Safwan and other cities south of Basra, and in cities to the north, such as An Nasiriyah.

Iraqis endured centuries of rule by the Turkish Ottoman Empire, and the British invaded and occupied the country after World War I. The League of Nations recognized Iraq as an independent nation state in 1932, but it wasn’t until the overthrow of the constitutional monarchy in 1958 that it was completely freed from colonialism.

President Bush’s talk about installing an interim government to help rebuild post-war Iraq sounds to many Iraqis like a return to colonialism. To some residents of Basra, it sounds disturbingly similar to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.

"Bush can say whatever he wants out there, let him come here and say it," said Um Nadra, a teacher in Basra.

Bush is "doing the work of Israel," she shouted defiantly in February. "We say ‘Down, down with USA! Down, down with Israel!’"

Yet in Nadra’s house were English-language calendars and posters that showed blond-haired and blue-eyed Western children playing on fishing piers that resembled those of Florida, and on toy motorcycles that could be found at any Toys R Us store.

For all her bluster about Bush, Um Nadra never voiced support for Saddam. She never mentioned the Iraqi president by name.

During my two days in Basra, I never heard one word of support for Saddam.

The Sunni Muslims of Saddam’s Baath Party sorely neglect the Shiite region. The residents of southern Iraq blame their dictator in part for the raw sewage that pools in their streets, for the putrid trash that goes uncollected, and for the faulty electricity that blinks on and off every day.

Following the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the men of Basra attempted to overthrow the Baath Party. They murdered local party members and fired a tank shell at a downtown mural of Saddam before helicopter gunships were dispatched from Baghdad.

That use of Iraqi air space violated a preliminary cease-fire agreement signed at the conclusion of the gulf war, but Washington refused to intervene in the internal strife. With control from the air, Saddam crushed the rebellion. Thousands of corpses were reported in the streets of Basra.

Local residents said in February that the failed revolt explained why plainclothes police were seen in town and why international phone calls from Basra were funneled to a single line thought to be monitored.

But if the military was bracing for an uprising or for a military invasion, it wasn’t obvious just a month ago. There were only a few bunkers and military vehicles visible, and soldiers manning a checkpoint had left their Russian-made Kalashinkov rifles propped up in a roadside bucket.

Ikbar Fartus, who invited me and several other Americans into her home, said her neighbors always ask why she welcomes Westerners into her house and graciously serves them hot tea.

Four years ago, her two young sons, Hyder and Mustafa, were playing outside when an errant U.S. bomb fell nearby, killing Hyder and injuring Mustafa. The Pentagon apologized and called it collateral damage, part of the ongoing fight with Saddam in Iraq's no-fly zone.

"The American people I have no problem with," Fartus tells her neighbors. "They are like us."

The U.S. government is another matter, she said, and rolled her eyes.

At the largest mosque in Basra, the imam, Abdul Razaq, explained why war would quickly turn ugly in southern Iraq. He was hosting a dozen peace activists from the United States and Canada who sat in a circle on the carpeted floor of the million-dollar mosque and sipped from the cans of Pepsi that Razaq offered.

Several hundred Shiite clergy in Iraq signed a fatwa last year pledging to fight any "invading forces," and I asked Razaq exactly what that meant. Would the Shiites actually fight to save a Sunni dictator?

Razaq sounded determined in his answer.

"We will defend our borders ... against any enemy who's coming," he said. "Islam is being threatened, not Iraq."