Iraqis Retreat to Jordan's `Little Baghdad'

Iraqis seek refuge from sanctions where they can trade, feed their families, start a new life - a letter from Amman

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN the rigors of life in embargoed Baghdad grow unbearable, those Iraqis wealthy or desperate enough can always make the 10-hour drive west to Amman. About 30,000 of them have made their home in Jordan - perhaps the only foreign country in the world where an Iraqi feels welcome today - since the Gulf war last year.

Iraqi exiles, travelers, traders, and vacationers throng the streets of this quiet, almost provincial city. They fill the restaurants, and, with a reputation for aggressive driving, they throw their big American-made sedans around the freeways.

Some have come to do business, although traders' dealings with Iraq have dropped off sharply since 42 merchants were reportedly executed for profiteering in Baghdad late last month.

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Some, if they have savings abroad, are simply waiting out President Saddam Hussein, enjoying a relatively comfortable life until the day comes, they hope, when the Iraqi leader finally falls, the world readmits their country to the community of nations, and they return to a normal home life.

Others have given up all hope of return, and spend their days pleading with American and European consular officials for a visa, planning a new life elsewhere.

The wealthiest among them, many of them merchants and by no means well disposed toward the government in Baghdad, have bought property here or rented spacious apartments in the chic western suburbs, put their children in school, and settled in for the long haul.

On one recent evening they could be found at fashionable watering holes such as La Bonita Inn, forking mouthfuls of paella Valenciana from steaming bowls while the singer of an Iraqi band crooned Lionel Ritchie ballads under a full moon.

THEIR less prosperous compatriots, perhaps just visiting Amman, crowded into the dim, smoky Al-Diwan restaurant, piling plates with oriental salads and filling the dance floor whenever Ismael Khadr, the resident musician, struck up the distinctive rhythms of Iraqi music on his six-stringed, wide-bellied oud.

Mr. Khadr, clearly accustomed to his clientele, found it easy to inspire his audience to clap along with the beat of the tom-tom drum: He played a traditional Iraqi folk song about a hawk, and changed the words to laud Abu Udai - father of Udai - as Saddam Hussein is known to his supporters.

Less fortunate are the poor Iraqis and the middle-class families living in reduced circumstances who flock each evening to the park in Hashemite Square, in downtown Amman, under a steeply tiered Roman amphitheater.

An Iraqi Christian named Kamel - he was reluctant to give his family name - has been in Amman for over a month trying to arrange the papers he needs to emigrate with his wife and six children to join his eldest son in San Diego. "Life is very difficult in Iraq," he says. "There's no business." His monthly salary as a health official - worth $600 a month at the official exchange rate, but only $10 a month in real terms - was not enough to feed eight mouths, he explains.

As a Christian, Kamel has been able to scrounge a little rice and sugar from local churches, and he hopes his wife might earn a little money this week cleaning a nearby Greek Orthodox church. Meanwhile, he has sold his gold chain and cross, and his wife has sold her rings, while he struggles with the United States Consulate's bureaucracy.

Catering to the Iraqis who have made Hashemite Square their favorite gathering place are scores of petty traders from Baghdad and beyond, squatting on the pavement to hawk the few disparate items they have managed to smuggle across the border.

Plastic combs, cheap watches, tin trays, disposable razors, black-market cigarettes, bracelets, cassette players, and coffee cups are offered for precious Jordanian dinars, hard currency that can be turned into considerable sums of Iraqi dinars in Baghdad.

Whether the Iraqis stay in the grubby hotels around Hashemite Square for $10 a night or take rooms in the Marriott, they are all spending money in Jordan, and that money is a welcome boon to Jordan's hardpressed economy.

How long they will stay depends on events back home. But as long as Saddam remains in power, and as long as the United Nations sanctions remain in force, Amman will be hosting a Little Baghdad.

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