Hussein finally fades for Iraqis

The Methboub family's portrait of Saddam Hussein survived two months after the dictator's fall - tucked away in a back room as if daring them to destroy it - before they were finally able to take it out of its frame and tear it up.

But that act hardly brought an end to the Hussein era for this poor Baghdad family of nine that the Monitor first began following in late 2002.

Instead, removing images of Mr. Hussein is just one moment of a much longer transformation that is felt as viscerally today as ever, as Iraqi families continue to grapple with the emotional legacy of Hussein's rule, and to redefine themselves. Even though the US occupation began nine months ago, it's taking time to bring true closure to a generation of tyrannical rule, and the Orwellian double-speak mind games that were required to survive.

"We have been burning his picture, and his money, but Saddam is still in our minds," says daughter Fatima, 17, who says she cried when Hussein was captured by US troops last month. "Nobody will feel happy when their president falls. Even if he is bad, he was brave and strong."

"That's her view - not everyone believes that," says her younger sister Amal dismissively, sparking an argument. Amal kept a diary during the war, which was strongly critical of the US invasion of Iraq due to its impact on her family. Excerpts were published in the Monitor.

"I realized everything after the fall of Saddam," says Amal, sitting barefoot in a living room devoid of furniture that was sold to pay bills. "Saddam betrayed the love of the people. He only cared about keeping power. If he put half the oil resources into this country, it would be better than America itself. But he built his palaces and bought weapons, while hospitals were short of medicine."

Those are strong words for a 14-year-old, who before the war was a member of her school's Baath Youth Party, and warned that "if God wants America to be burned, it will be burned."

The public loyalty that Hussein once commanded is hard to overstate. Iraqis used to name newborns "Saddam" at a rate of one a week, "to guarantee the future, because it would give the sons power," says Mohamed al-Chabek, head of the Alwiya Hospital. Since April, the doctor says, "thank God no one has named his son Saddam."

And some that did so are now regretting their choice. Iraqi officials at Baghdad's central identification department say that 15 "Saddams" have changed their name, the most recent on Wednesday.

The issues of the US occupation, unemployment, and insecurity still dominate daily thoughts; the Methboubs' electricity has actually diminished in recent months, to two hours on and four hours off. But at the same time, Iraqis are being forced to confront the ghosts of Hussein.

"Saddam didn't do anything good for us, but there was fear, so there was security," says Karima Selman Methboub, who has been raising her eight children alone, since the 1996 death in a car crash of her husband.

She admits she was "a little sad" when Hussein was arrested, because "he's still a Muslim, and he was humiliated."

The arrest seems a footnote compared to the daily grind in this household. After weeks of searching for work, Ms. Methboub is now working as a cleaner in a local hotel to earn precisely her monthly rent of $60. While she works from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. every day, she has to leave Fatima in charge of the family. She won't be able to bake bread at home again, her usual work, until the price of propane drops.

"For others, life may be improving, but not for us," says Methboub. "It's impossible for the poor to live."

For Shiites like the Methboubs, the end of the Hussein era has at least meant the end of certain kinds of fear. As the head of a somewhat conservative Shiite family - the daughters often wear head scarves when they go out - Methboub was aware of how Hussein clamped down on fellow Shiites, especially after failed uprisings in 1991 and 1999.

"A lot of people died, families," Methboub says, her usually bright face darkening for a moment. "We used to know that Saddam was bad, but we were scared, and people couldn't talk."

Like other Iraqis, this family's awareness of the magnitude of Hussein's crimes deepened when a handful of films began circulating on CD-ROM last April. "I was affected - something was wrong," Methboub remembers, after a neighbor brought the CDs over. "There were many mass graves."

Indeed, Amal's diary entry of April 25 describes the showing of such forbidden fruit in this household for the first time.

"It was about Saddam's crimes and his family, and my family and I saw the history of Saddam's life.... They even said on the CD that Saddam when he was 17 killed his cousin, and we saw how he hits and tortures the people," the diary reads.

A second CD showed more than 25 palaces built in the 1990s, "all filled with gold and silver while the people were suffering from [UN] sanctions," the diary continues. "His oldest son Uday was the most corrupted in the universe, he shot his uncle with four bullets.... No one knows, they are gone forever."

But as the family starts to reconsider and reject much of Hussein's legacy, it must face bedrock assumptions formed during the dictator's reign.

While Amal was in the Baath Youth, younger sister Zeinab learned to march and use weapons during training with Hussein's Al Quds "Jerusalem" militia. A year ago, the youngest children - twin girls Duha and Hibba, now 12 - and their youngest brother Mahmoud, often broke into pro-Hussein chants when they heard the president's name, as they had been taught at school.

But today, education couldn't be more different for the twins. In a school renovated by US forces and fitted out with new air conditioners and chairs, students have been told to put tape over Hussein's face on notebooks still printed with his image.

"The headmaster told us: 'This is the Saddam that everyone used to fear. He didn't even [have courage to] kill himself. He's trash,' " says Duha, fighting to get a word in among the rush of comments of her older siblings. "Before the war, the same headmaster used to hang up Saddam's picture!"

The headmaster now has a photo of an apprehended, bearded Hussein on his office wall that was circulated among students.

Teachers have promised a tour of palaces, and the twins can't wait. They say they "love" American soldiers, and were photographed by journalists a couple weeks ago, shaking hands with US troops at the site of a explosion nearby.

In the cramped apartment, Hibba draws a picture for a visitor of Hussein with a beard, and writes: "Saddam the tyrant. The one who killed half of Iraq." Then she added the words to a song: "Welcome, welcome Americans; You honor us and brought light to Baghdad, and liberated us from Saddam."

"Yeah, they brought light, but still no electricity," jokes Amal, prompting a surge of laughter.

Such debates over Hussein today will determine his legacy as leader of Iraq. Amal says she loves history, and asked her teacher: "What will they read about Saddam in the future?" Her teacher answered: "History shows the good and the bad. It shows the facts."

Afterward, a fellow student was more succinct, and told Amal: "[History] will curse him."

An invitation to S. Korea opens a new world to Amal

"Just look at all these love letters!" beams Amal, opening a red and white box marked with hearts. It is stuffed full of cards an d letters declaring friendship with the Iraqi student - and it comes from South Korean students Amal met during a visit to Seoul last month.

Amal can barely describe her journey because she is smiling so much at the memory of a monthlong December trip that was launched when Korean parliamentarians read excerpts of Amal's diary of the war in Iraq that were printed in the Monitor.

"I saw things I never imagined," Amal says, showing a card decorated with Iraqi and Korean flags and calls for peace. She wipes away tears as she recalls her warm reception at Korean churches and schools. "I only left Baghdad once in my life, for a 1 1/2-hour drive to visit relatives," she says. "I didn't know where Korea was."

In fact, the daughter from a poor family of nine, followed by the Monitor since late 2002, had never seen a world map - a privilege she says was reserved for high-schoolers.

The troika of Iraqis invited to travel included Riyadh Hadi Aziz, dean of the college of political science at Baghdad University, and an Iraqi journalist from a newspaper created by a US peace group. Both of them were asked their views on the need for Korean troops in Iraq.

Amal spoke about what she knows best: her life and the war. She says the group visited a Korean war cemetery and laid flowers.

Over tea, Amal shared the student "love" letters, two clippings from Korean newspapers, and a pile of photographs that show a mature-looking teen speaking like a goodwill ambassador about her country and its conflict.

She says she carried a mixed message about the US occupation, and was surprised at the vitriolic anti-US views she often heard.

Amal was astonished that the president's "palace" was far smaller than those of Saddam Hussein, and "guarded by only two policemen." And she took note of the impact on her oil-rich nation of a decade of sanctions and three wars. "Look how they are living in Korea," she says. "We have experience and brains too, and more money. It's all Saddam's fault."

Perhaps the biggest surprise was finding that there were American troops in faraway Korea, too.

Amal says she was homesick "a little." She ate only rice, avoiding the unfamiliar foods. Her snapshots show her in front of the National Assembly with some members, and at a theme park - experiences that the rest of her family can hardly comprehend.

When she returned, just before New Year, Amal had a wealth of stories to tell her family. And "love letters" to read. "Cheer up!" reads one. "Someday this war will finish."

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