Iraq: Unsanctioned Voices
Over lamb chops in a busy Baghdad restaurant, Ahmed looks around nervously, falling silent when anyone comes close enough to listen.Skip to next paragraph
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Dining with a Westerner can raise suspicions. Even now, after decades under the rule of President Saddam Hussein, Ahmed fears that he will make the mistake that will bring the authorities to his door.
"If you are arrested," Ahmed says, "your life is over."
Ahmed is no subversive. "That is not my character," he says. But he does resist quietly, carving out a small circle of freedom in which his family and a few friends can say what they really think about Iraq's "beloved leader."
Within this circle, they mock Mr. Hussein, remember the dead and the disappeared who have run afoul of the regime, and hope aloud for something better to come along.
"Ahmed" is a pseudonym for an Iraqi businessman and father of three who lives in Baghdad. Even speaking to a foreign reporter about life here entails risk. But at a time of international scrutiny of Iraq and its regime, Ahmed agreed to provide an intimate picture of his life during the reign of Hussein.
Ahmed's candor reflects a growing willingness among some Iraqis to speak out. For a few days earlier this month, following a general amnesty for Iraqi prisoners, scores of Iraqis approached the Ministry of Information in Baghdad and a police facility on the city's outskirts, demanding to know why their relatives had not emerged from prison. The demonstrators mixed their complaints with praise for Hussein, but such protests are unprecedented in this city.
During more than seven hours of interviews, Ahmed never mentions Hussein's attempts to acquire biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons, but he talks at length about life under Hussein's dictatorship.
Some specifics of Ahmed's account cannot be confirmed, including allegations that the regime has imprisoned and executed people known to him. Attempts to verify such details would likely compromise Ahmed's anonymity and safety. But his assertions are consistent with the accounts from exiled dissidents, human rights organizations, and scholars.
He was interviewed without the presence of Ministry of Information "guides" with whom foreign journalists in Iraq are required to work.
Ahmed seemed most at ease driving a reporter around Baghdad at night. His vehicle offered privacy. He seemed certain that it wasn't bugged. On the road, speaking his mind about the regime, he seemed to breathe more freely.
Ahmed has a narrow, oval-shaped face and close-set eyes. He combs his thinning black hair over his balding head and wears a trim, slightly graying mustache. He doesn't stand out. He wants to escape notice, to be an innocuous 'gray man.'
But he has lived this way a long time, maybe too long. "You can do that for a temporary period, but what about your whole life?" he asks. "You can't. You get fed up. You make mistakes."
A few years ago he found that he was being searched intensively every time he left or arrived in the country; his work demands frequent travel. Security officials were leafing through every document in his possession, unpacking his luggage item by item, and threatening to confiscate his laptop in order to read the contents of its hard drive.
A friend in the security services confirmed Ahmed's suspicion his security file contained an instruction to search him carefully, perhaps because someone had submitted a negative report about him. Perhaps he had said the wrong thing, seemed disloyal, made a mistake.
This time a bribe cleaned up the file. But Ahmed worries that he has moved one step closer to arrest. What happens next time? What if money won't be enough?
Ahmed was a teenager when the Iraqi Baath Party seized power in 1968, ending a decade of frequent coups d'état that followed the 1958 overthrow of a British- imposed monarchy. The party touted socialist economic principles and made broad appeals to Arab unity and renaissance.