In liberated Iraqi towns, former ruling party nervous

Some Baathists have fled; many say they were coerced into supporting Hussein.

President Saddam Hussein's portraits in this eastern Iraqi city are smeared with mud, pockmarked with bullet holes, defaced by graffiti. The local headquarters of the once-ruling Baath Party is a smoldering, deserted hulk. Kurdish and American soldiers occupy the streets.

But some Iraqis - both those who were oppressed by and those who supported Mr. Hussein's regime - are afraid.

"Please," he says one Iraqi here, looking with alarm at a reporter's notebook, where his name has just been written down. "Cross it out."

The man is paying a return visit to the detention room of the Khanaqin police station, where he says he was held and beaten late last year. The cement room has two tiny windows, so high on the wall that one can only see the sky. The walls are covered with the scrawlings of prisoners. "My life is torture," reads one.

It is a warm, sunny day outside. "I am shivering," says the man, who alternates between expressing the fear that the Baath regime will somehow return and a hope for something better. "I only have one wish," he says, "that God will protect [President] Bush for us. I will hang ten of his pictures in my house if Saddam is no longer there."

At least two kinds of anxiety belie the jubilation on display throughout Iraq. One is this man's fear - that somehow all the evidence of Hussein's downfall shouldn't be trusted. The other is the worry of those associated with the regime about what their future might hold.

Local headman stays put

In one neighborhood of Khanaqin, residents say that the local headman has fled because he is a Baathist. But he has not. Azzad Ahmed is in his house, insisting that his feelings are the same as everyone else's. And what are those? "Joy and gladness and a feeling of liberation," he says, his face grim, two Kalashnikov rifles propped up against the wall of his sitting room.

Mr. Ahmed's salvation may be that he is a Kurd, and so can claim by virtue of his ethnicity to have been as oppressed as any of the Baath's victims. Membership in the party was a matter of circumstance, he explains. "I am not in a liberated place - the conditions forced me to do this."

The atmosphere in Khanaqin and its surrounding villages - "liberated" yesterday by Kurdish troops and some US Special Forces who filled the vacuum left by fleeing Iraqi soldiers and officials - was a mixture of celebration and lawlessness. In the city, busloads of revelers roared through the largely shuttered bazaar, honking horns and waving flags. In the surrounding countryside, looters picked through military camps, making off with everything from weaponry to construction materials.

Many people stayed in their homes, enjoying the day. "I am 65 and I feel today is the day of my birth," said Mohammed Ali, a tailor. Unlike the man interviewed in the detention room, who said he had seen no coverage of the fall of Baghdad because Iraqi television has not been on the air for many days, Mr. Ali and his family have a shortwave radio and access to independent sources of news.

Hussein Barzilan, Ali's son-in-law, understands the fears of other Iraqis.

"For 30 or 35 years they have been so terrified that they don't easily believe that the regime has gone," he explains. As for himself, he says, relaxing in his living room in a ankle-length blue tunic, he knew the regime was finished on the day of the first airstrike in Baghdad.

A retired English teacher strolls through the downtown bazaar, well-turned out in a sportcoat and a tie, fingering his worry beads. He tries to deflect a question about the jubilation in the streets. "You know the reason," he smiles. In the end he spells it out: "The nation was suffering and now everyone feel that he is free." But he declines to give his name.

'I am finished'

A half-hour outside Khanaqin, in a village called Jabara, which the Iraqi authorities ceded on Wednesday morning, an elderly couple sit outside the mudpack walls of their compound and ponder the new realities.

Thin and grizzled, missing his front teeth and his right eye, farmer Ali Hussein Alawi bemoans the fate of his five sons - all members of the Baath Party. "I am finished," Mr. Alawi says.

But he sees nothing wrong in his sons' having served a dictatorship.

"Was there anyone who did not support the Baath regime until now?" he asks, his palms upward. Adds his nephew Walid Mohammed, referring to Alawi's sons: "They joined because there was nothing else and people considered this a way to earn a living and feed their children."

Looking across the street, Alawi and his wife Mahadiya Saleh can see where Kurdish fighters have occupied the government house their son used to live in. Like the other Baathists in Jabara, a small town of about 3,000 residents near the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq, Alawi's son has fled.

"The Baath Party told him that if [the Kurdish fighters] arrest you, they will slaughter you," Alawi says.

Ibrahim Qadir, the Kurdish commander whose fighters have taken over the three-room concrete dwelling, says Baathists such as Alawi's son, Mohammed Ali Hussein, will be offered an amnesty and allowed to return to his home. But Mr. Qadir also adds of the departed Baathist: "He's a bad man; otherwise he wouldn't have left his house."

On the street in Khanaqin, a construction worker named Karim Mohammed considers what should become of the Baathists who backed the regime. "According to my opinion," he offers, "the oppressor - his destiny is death. Anyone who hurts people, he will be hurt."

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