Iraqis adjust to new freedoms
Saddam Hussein's collapsed regime still casts a shadow over Mosul's future-weary residents.
| MOSUL, IRAQ
Clutching a handful of flowers he has plundered for his mother, university student Zaid Yousef stands dumbstruck in front of Saddam Hussein's northernmost residence.
Hordes of people stream into the palace, stripping away bathtubs, balustrades, marble inlay. They gape at the ceilings - one made of a delicate wooden lattice that mimics the folds of a tent, others decorated with elaborate plaster filigree, intricate carvings, stained glass.
"All this land, these palaces, these gardens - the people have never seen this," says Mr. Yousef. Once they have, they are disgusted. "This is my money. It's shameful," says a middle-aged man.
The odd thing is that this presidential palace was never entirely obscured from public view. The main villa, topped with a giant sculpted eagle endowed with over-large talons and a fearsome beak, is visible from outside the walls of the compound. It would have been hard to miss the signs of ego and ostentation within; the compound's 10-foot-high green metal gates are emblazoned with the initials "SH."
During Mr. Hussein's rule many Iraqis may have opted not to see the excesses of their dictator. It may have seemed wiser to avoid thinking about those in power.
But Hussein's disappearance has not suddenly made it easy for Iraqis to practice politics. Perhaps because his overthrow was the result of a foreign intervention rather than popular revolt, perhaps because the 35-year-rule of Hussein's Baath Party lobotomized their democratic sensibilities, perhaps because Hussein is the only leader Iraq's young have ever known, Iraqis still seem hobbled by his regime.
What comes across in conversations with a dozen Iraqis in Mosul - long a center of Arab nationalism and support for the Baath - is that they are a state of political "shock and awe."
Some are still afraid, some too angry to think clearly. Others say they have spent their lives in a world where the determinant of success was membership in the Baath Party. For those who kept themselves away from the regime, their experience with government is one where even obedience sometimes meant being treated with contempt.
In a working-class neighborhood in downtown Mosul, an area of narrow lanes that wind past thick-walled Arab houses with courtyards and domed rooms, a taxi driver named Massoud Abdullahad states his manifesto: "We do not have any political ideas. We don't have views. We are just a peaceful people and anyone who comes to lead us and give us a future - this is enough."
Mr. Abdullahad is asked if has been a supporter of the Baath Party. "Me?" he replies. Then he adds: "There is a proverb. If someone marries my mother, I will call him 'father.'"
Akhil Ismail Hamed hoists up his dark brown jalabiya, an ankle-length tunic worn by Arab men. His left thigh is an undulating mass of scars and lumps - the result of an artillery shell blast during the Iran-Iraq war.
He points out the sites of his other injuries - left heel, right leg, left eye, left arm. After the shell blast, say the family members gathered around him in their lime-green sitting room, he was like "a pile of meat."
Following an 18-month recovery, Mr. Hamed started receiving a monthly disability pension of 250 Iraqi dinars. During the late 1980s, the sum was worth about $750, but the dinar's value evaporated after the 1991 Gulf War, so his entire monthly payment would buy only one pack of cigarettes. It wasn't until a few years ago that the regime increased the pension.
Across the room, Akhil's brother Fariz speaks up. He says he still sees double out of one eye because of a car accident that occurred during his military service, but the regime has never granted him any disability payments.
Thus begins a torrent of tales about the injustices of Hussein's rule from several of the 20 or so assembled members of the Hamed family - the youngest a baby, the oldest in late middle age. The eldest brother, Haqi, explains that the regime did more than treat its veterans badly. Instead of the usual trajectory of social development, with generations rising above their forebears, "we have retreated," he says.
Haqi's father had no higher education, but Haqi himself earned a technical degree and had hoped to send his eldest son, Ibrahim, to university. Haqi tells Ibrahim, a polite teenager, to go fetch the reason why he dropped out of high school.
Ibrahim returns with a stack of bundled bank notes totalling 600,000 dinars. He was due to be drafted early next year; the money is what he has saved from working as an automobile upholsterer toward a 1.5-million-dinar bribe he planned to pay to get out of the bulk of his service. Neither Ibrahim nor the other members of the family seem to have realized that the changes under way in Iraq will almost certainly mean that young men will not have to pay their way out of the military.
In Mosul's House of Justice, Iraqis are loading couches, filing cabinets, and a safe onto the back of a pickup. The building is hazy with smoke, marriage licenses and other official documents carpet the floor of the portico, and it is hard to take a step inside without crunching glass. But one young man offers a display that has little to do with looting. Wearing khakis, a dark green T-shirt, and a look of wild-eyed hatred, he confronts the life-size portrait of Hussein that presides over the main courtroom.
First the young man throws things at the glass-covered picture, which hangs over the judges' dais in the wood-paneled room. Then he stands on the bench and strikes the portrait with a five-foot length of wood, again and again, smashing the remaining glass until he can finally tear the portrait down and throw it to the floor. He stamps on the picture, separating it from the gilded frame, stamps on it some more, and rips it in half. Then he leaves the room, as angry as he entered it, perhaps more so.
In the Hamed sitting room, more stories spill out. One relative disappeared forever, perhaps because he spoke against Hussein in public. One brother's car was arbitrarily seized by members of a Baath Party militia and returned only after it had been stripped of everything sellable. Haqi, the family patriarch, lists the various intelligence agencies, party and government militias, and security services of the Hussein era. "These forces were supposed to protect the country but in fact they were forces to protect him from the people of Iraq," he says. "So people couldn't speak."
That was then; some sense of the new reality has dawned. "I am a free man," Haqi says. "I walk in the middle of the street and I am not scared of anyone. But if you knock on the door of a Baath Party member, he will be scared. The balance now has changed."
But even this recognition does not translate to any real political optimism. "There are days to come when we will say we wish for Saddam Hussein's reign," Haqi says. As an example of a country where a brutal dictatorship was replaced by something worse, he mentions Iran. "There is no hope for real liberation," he concludes. "The weight of the lid of the pot is more than the pressure of the steam."
The main police station in Mosul is smoldering. Like any official space in Hussein's Iraq, the station's briefing room has a photograph of the leader. Judging from Hussein's youthful appearance and the width of his lapels, the picture was taken in the early 1980s. Someone has scratched out the dictator's right eye. Out back, looters have pried open a safe, which apparently contained little of obvious value. A young man paces around, at first warning a reporter not to take a picture of the safecrackers.
Then he begins to talk, explaining how he couldn't work in his profession - accounting - because he was not a party member. He rails against the Iraqi educational system, which he says undermined innovation and free thinking because the only key to success was party membership.
In Hussein's Iraq, he says, as if it still exists, "they don't assess people according to their ideas." He rambles on, reluctant to answer direct questions about his opinion on the US-led invasion and its intentions, but clearly eager to talk. "I have a lot of words because I am an independent person," he explains, giving his name only as Raed. Inside the briefing room, something catches fire. Orange-red flames billow through the room. Hussein's picture is consumed.