Over lamb chops in a busy Baghdad restaurant, Ahmed looks around nervously, falling silent when anyone comes close enough to listen.
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.
But the immediate goals of its leaders, which included the young Saddam Hussein, were political vengeance and consolidation. The party persecuted communists, those loyal to a competing pan-Arab leader, members of the country's small Jewish community, and even dissident Baathists. Many were accused of spying for Israel or Iran.
Some were hanged in public, others shot dead and strung up. Ahmed remembers that year because he went to Baghdad's Liberation Square to see the bullet-ridden corpses for himself. He describes the scene dispassionately; the regime's threat was still personally distant.
But in the early 1970s, during his first year at university, Ahmed was "in touch" not "involved," he emphasizes with an Islamic-oriented political group.
One day, members of the group began to disappear. Most were jailed for several months and then released. Some were killed. The hand of the regime, which by now had Hussein as its behind-the-scenes strongman, had nearly grasped Ahmed.
Ahmed's parents took steps to dodge the crackdown, seeking to protect their two sons from arrest. He and his family are Shiite Muslims, as are the majority of Iraqis. But as a result of the divide-and-rule policies of the country's Ottoman and then British overlords, the Sunni Arab minority has dominated the politics of modern Iraq. The secular Baath party has never tolerated Shiite political activity aimed at promoting an Islamic state.
The family moved away from their predominantly Shiite neighborhood. They also burned their books anything political, philosophical, or religious. "We shrunk ourselves back," he says.
During this time, just as he was deciding on a career, Ahmed realized that surviving the regime would be his life's most severe challenge. But he also saw that survival did not have to mean support.
While at university, Ahmed was advised to join the Baath party in order to win permission to study abroad. He refused and stayed in Iraq. "I didn't want to be used against my friends, my family," he says, referring to the intentions of party leaders. "They want to use you, they want you to be their eyes."
After earning a master's degree in 1976, Ahmed completed 18 months of compulsory military service. Then he found another way to reject the regime: He declined to work for the government and found a job in the Baghdad office of a foreign company. As in many developing countries, joining the bureaucracy in Iraq is considered a path to a secure and prestigious future. But Ahmed knew he would never advance to a senior position without becoming a Baathist. He also believed that working for a foreign company would allow him a greater measure of privacy and autonomy. It did, but not right away.
In 1979, Hussein became president and quickly led Iraq into a bloody, eight-year war of attrition with Iran. During the 1980s, Ahmed spent another 7 1/2 years in the Army.
Shortly after Ahmed was forcibly called up in 1982, an Army officer suggested that he join the party. If not, the officer said, Ahmed would be sent to the front. A small opportunity to defy the regime had presented itself. "What," replied Ahmed, "are all those people up there defending the country not party members?" The officer seemed nonplused at his impertinence and told him to shut up.
Ahmed says he spent five wasted years at the front, but never had to fight the Iranians. In 1988, when the cease-fire was announced, he and his comrades emptied their rifles into the air in celebration.
The conflict was pointless, he says. "The only effect of the war was dead bodies." Iran acknowledged that nearly 300,000 people died in the war; estimates of the Iraqi dead range from 160,000 to 240,000.
The suffering continued with Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing Gulf War. United Nations sanctions paralyzed the economy and the Iraqi branch of Ahmed's company until the government agreed in 1996 to a UN program that would allow it to use oil money to buy food and medicine, begin rebuilding the country, and pay war reparations.
Ahmed began to have more to do at the office.
Thanks to the UN oil-for-food program, business is good now. But survival demands accepting the intrusions of the regime.
Ahmed suspects his international phone calls are monitored; he knows his e-mails are read by the authorities. He once complained to the state-run Internet service provider that his messages were taking days to reach their recipients. An official advised him to write more simply, presumably to speed the work of the intelligence agents vetting Ahmed's e-mail.
In his office Ahmed keeps a picture of himself and a senior member of the regime. They met only once, but Ahmed made sure to have a photograph taken.
"We keep it here in case police or people from the security services visit, so they can see we have relations with people high in the regime," he says. "So they know we are not easy people."
Party officials visit him several times a year, both at home and in the office, and require him to fill out detailed questionnaires or submit to interviews. The interrogations are always the same about his background, his work, his travel; about whether he or anyone in his family has ever been involved in politics or been in trouble with the authorities. They are an unsubtle method of keeping tabs on Ahmed's life.
A couple of years ago, Ahmed bought a black-market satellite dish they are banned in Iraq and set it up where it could be seen only from the sky. He was interested mainly in better entertainment. Iraqi television presents a limited menu of Arab and Western programs and features hours of propaganda about Hussein every day.
After a month or so of enjoying his satellite television, Ahmed learned that the government was in the midst of an unannounced crackdown. Those found with dishes were being sentenced to six months in prison and fined the cost of the dish. Worse, the government was promising half the fine to informers.
Such are the methods of the regime. "You begin to worry about your neighbors," Ahmed says. "You never know when someone might overhear one of your children talk about a satellite show."
He dismantled the dish.
Ahmed's personal prosperity the foreign company pays well, especially by the standards of Iraq's atrophied economy brings certain liberties many Iraqis do not have, such as the freedom to travel, to own a car, to eat well. When Ahmed shops in the market, and sees people buying an egg or two as he buys 30, he knows he has it good.
But by rejecting the party and denying any voluntary support to the government, he has also created a priceless space in which he can resist the regime. This circle of freedom extends only as far as the people he trusts: his family and perhaps a dozen friends he has known since childhood.
Among these people, he can discuss the dictatorship in frank terms, even deride it. He tells a joke that ridicules the dictator. It goes like this:
Hussein hears that many people are emigrating. He can't understand why and goes the airport to investigate. He sees large numbers of people waiting to proceed through immigration and takes a place at the back of a line.
The people in line recognize him and invite him to the front. Then he realizes that the vast crowds of departing Iraqis have suddenly disappeared. He catches one man leaving the area and asks him where he is going. "Well," the man replies, "if you're leaving the country, we're staying."
Telling this story as he drives through Baghdad's darkened streets, Ahmed breaks into laughter even before the punch line. He tells another joke, one that imagines a deposed Hussein fleeing a mob of Iraqis. But it is too crude for a family newspaper.
Ahmed's dissent only goes so far. Over the years he has watched the regime silence its enemies with death, imprisonment and fear. He concluded long ago that any sort of organized, violent struggle against Hussein and the Baath party was futile. What he has seen and heard helps explain his enduring fear of arrest.
In the early 1980s, the authorities detained one of Ahmed's cousins, and the man's wife, and accused the couple of spreading rumors about the regime. The cousin disappeared. Eventually the government sent his family a death certificate. "We consider him dead, but there is no coffin, nothing," Ahmed says quietly. The wife spent 15 years in prison and was released in the late 1990s. She has moved abroad.
A few years ago, a friend of Ahmed's disappeared for a week. When the friend resurfaced, he explained that he had been detained by the authorities and then released after they realized they had mistaken him for someone else. The man was clearly in shock from the experience, but refused to discuss the treatment he had received. After several months, he and his family emigrated to Canada.
Charles Tripp, a British historian of Iraq, has written: "[T]he selective, exemplary, and often terrible use of violence and the seductions of privilege have been used to drive home to all Iraqis the rewards of conformity and the price of dissent." Ahmed is living testament to Dr. Tripp's observation.
In the early 1990s, Ahmed says, he heard that Raji Tikriti, a prominent military doctor from Hussein's own Tikrit region, had been arrested for not revealing the existence of a plot against the regime. He was reportedly killed by hungry dogs as Hussein and several cabinet ministers watched. "It shocked everyone," says Ahmed.
True or untrue, it is exactly the sort of story that the regime promulgates, says Tripp, who teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, because the fear it instills helps Hussein maintain control. If Hussein could brutally kill someone from his own clan, many Iraqis would conclude that he could do the same to anyone. "We are hopeless," Ahmed sighs, speaking of the Iraqi people as a whole. "We are controlled." And later: "Maybe we are defeated within ourselves."
He wrestles constantly with the temptation to leave, but worry about those he would leave behind keeps him home. That is not all. "It's my country; I feel comfortable here. Why should I have to leave?" Referring to the regime, he adds: "They should have to go."
With President Bush threatening to depose Hussein, Ahmed has begun to consider an American intervention in Iraq's affairs, one that might end the regime. Would he support the US in such a war?
The quandary pains him. "This is the critical question," he says, rubbing his eyes and forehead. "We want change but we want it a different way." He is skeptical about the aftermath the prospect of a US occupation followed by the imposition of a leadership made up of members of the exiled Iraqi opposition, many of whom are regarded as cowards and opportunists by those inside the country.
The problem is that change the American way seems to be the only option available. "They always say, let the Iraqi people decide," he says. "That's like telling a man in jail to free himself. He can't."
The only thing Iraqis can do, Ahmed says, is wait. They have no influence over the US. They can't change their government themselves. "We are like cockroaches feeding on sewage," he says. "We survive."