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Desperate to leave, Iraqi family finds solace in new baby

The Methboubs are delighted at the arrival of their new son, but a cloud of poverty and violence remains over the Baghdad family.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 7, 2006


To a poor Iraqi family like the Methboubs, the birth of a baby boy is a joyous light of hope in an era of darkness, a diversion from the nation that is disintegrating around them, an answer to prayers for a glimpse of normal life.

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Little Fahad carries the burden with grace, smiling his way through the cuddles of a family virtually imprisoned in their threadbare apartment by the sectarian violence.

Fahad means "cougar." "We should call the next one 'Lion,'" jokes the boy's oldest aunt, Fatima, holding him high and kissing his lips. "Then we can start a zoo."

The trials of this Iraqi family – of widow Karima Selman Methboub and her eight children – provide a window on how dramatically daily life has changed since US forces toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

There is resilience and laughter here. But there is also mounting frustration, even a flash of desperation, as Karima tells – her eyes moistening – how she lost her cleaning job at a local hotel, because it has no more customers.

Dramas large and small sweep play out in this Shiite household, as they almost certainly do behind every front door in Iraq. Fatima has been turning down suitors again; son Mahmoud, 12, has happily added a rear basket and a number of Iraqi flag stickers to his bicycle.

But daughter Duha was lightly injured in a recent nearby explosion. A son and now a son-in-law have joined the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which is believed to be behind many sectarian killings.

At the secondary school of twins Duha and Hibba, students are thinning out, as parents keep them home or move to safe countries, or safer cities. Teachers are retiring early.

And there is daughter Zainab's new baby, a first grandchild for Karima – and a bundle of hope for all. Everyone laughs over tea at home, when the story of Fahad's birth is told. But it wasn't funny at the time. Three weeks before the baby was due, Zainab was experiencing sharp pain and was rushed to a nearby hospital.

Zainab and husband Ali, a security guard who also recently joined the Mahdi Army, both cried with worry. Karima says she prayed so hard she couldn't cry. But Fahad was born perfectly, by Caesarian section. Today he is the entire family's play toy of choice, or rocked gently in his stroller while the family watches television in the cramped living room.

Outside in the dark hallway, their small generator is in need of a tuneup, spluttering as though giving up its last ampere.

"The generator repairman always takes the money, but when we turn it on again, it's not good," says Karima, adding one more lament. "We are suffering! There are so many things..."

Half the residents of the apartment building have moved out. Karima lists the most recent evacuees: Next morning, a long-standing neighbor, Umm Haidar, and her family are moving to Najaf; another family has gone to Syria; yet another just departed.

The family witnessed a similar, but more complete exodus of neighbors when this reporter visited two days before the launch of the 2003 US invasion.

"If I had enough money, I would sell everything and sleep on a sidewalk in Syria or Jordan – the situation is so bad," says Karima. Then she motions toward her daughters, son, and grandson, indicating that there are too many roots that bind them to Iraq. "Besides explosions, I am afraid of kidnapping, when they go to school."

But unlike the 3,000 Iraqis who flee every day to Syria and Jordan – a figure the UN last week said amounted to 100,000 refugees each month – this large family has little hope of getting out.

Iraq's fate will be theirs, they say, as it has been since before US forces brought down Saddam Hussein. Back then, in typical shows of allegiance, they hung a portrait of the Iraqi dictator on their wall, along with a certificate Zainab received after training in marching and first aid in the "volunteer" Al Qods, or Jerusalem Force, a popular militia created by the regime. Daughter Amal was a member of the Baath Party youth group at her school.

The family found itself in the center of the news as the holy month of Ramadan came to an end in late October, when an American military translator of Iraqi descent was kidnapped, reportedly, from their neighborhood.

The hunt for a US soldier

US and Iraqi troops suspected members of the Mahdi Army, and locked down and searched the Karrada neighborhood for days, as they did the Shiite slum of Sadr City. The result was a US-Shiite standoff, in which Mr. Sadr called for a general strike. The strike was observed in every Shiite neighborhood, but not the more mixed area of Karrada.