In Bahrain, a distrust of Baghdad and Bush alike


MANAMA, Bahrain - On one of the winding streets of this city's old market, where merchants sell everything from caged birds to exotic silks, a gold dealer named Said A. Razaq speaks both of his distaste for Saddam Hussein and his fear of what America's war might do to the Iraqi people.

"We want Saddam to go," says Razaq, an Iraqi expatriate, whose store has shelf upon shelf of sparkling bracelets, necklaces and rings. "He wants to take all the wealth, and he likes to kill people, and he thinks Iraq is all for himself. America must beat Iraq, but we're afraid that many people, civilians - women and children - will die."

Suddenly, the telephone rings, and he begins listening to a relative who heard a report on Arabic television that Razaq instantly knows to be false. "He says Saddam fled to South Africa," the merchant says with a laugh after hanging up. "Whatever. America will get him, and they will take care of Bahrain."

It is with varying degrees of ambivalence that people of this island nation, home to the Navy's 5th Fleet and one of the Persian Gulf region's richest economies, view America's war with Iraq. Though many on the street say they hate and fear the Iraqi dictator, most say the United States should have resolved its differences without resorting to war. There is widespread suspicion that the conflict is just the opening chapter of an American plan to take over the gulf region.

Officially, the government is a strong ally of the United States. This nation - which has about the same population as Baltimore but three times the land mass - thrives on banking and the refining of oil that flows in a pipeline across a neck of the gulf from Saudi Arabia. Bahrain also benefits from the large Navy base; residents seem to have a grudging acceptance of the 7,000 American sailors and the aircraft carriers off the coast.

Floating among the vessels is the USNS Comfort, the Baltimore-based hospital ship, which took on its first casualties yesterday. Lt. Cmdr. David Werner, a Navy spokesman, said the crew was treating U.S. military personnel, civilians and Iraqi prisoners of war.

About three-quarters of the population was born here, though many Bahraini families once lived in Iraq and other gulf nations. The rest are recent immigrants from other Middle East nations and from such far-flung countries as India, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Those from East Asia and Africa came here as laborers.

Among the native-born residents is Ataqia Almhross, 38, a beautician and mother of three who considers Hussein "an animal" and is only too glad to see the United States trying to oust him. "For more than 30 years, it is like the Iraqi people just died," said Almhross, whose mother's family emigrated from Iraq a generation ago to start a construction business here. "He wants everything for himself. He will kill anyone he doesn't like, including members of his own family. If Saddam dies, we will be happy."

Almhross, who favors Western-style clothing and covers her shoulder-length hair only when entering a mosque, says she has additional reason to hate Hussein. Sixty members of her brother-in-law's family were killed in Iraq during the country's long war with Iran in the 1980s. They lived near the border and perished in the bombings, she says.

Almhross says the hundreds of people who demonstrated recently outside the United States and British embassies here don't like Hussein, either, but are worried about civilians dying in the crossfire. She says they are politically naive and is sure many were simply drawn into the excitement.

On Saturday, a protest outside the British Embassy turned violent when some in the crowd overturned a car and set it afire, then tossed six gasoline canisters into the flames. The explosion could be heard for blocks around. Yesterday, the embassy was ringed with military vehicles and steel barricades. Though the U.S. Embassy has been quiet for the past few days, Almhross could only shake her head in disgust when she saw that a few trash bins outside the gates were overturned, their contents smoldering.

Najmah Perera, a 27-year-old woman who wears a black burqa while conducting tours of Manama's largest mosque, doesn't endorse violent protests but expresses a common view when she says: "One should not interfere in someone's internal affairs. It is Iraq's decision to have Saddam."

She questions how the United States can take a humanitarian stand on Iraq while supporting Israel, which she says was "unjustly created."

"America is just after the oil fields," she said.

In Manama, faceless office towers line streets where nothing seems to grow that wasn't deliberately put there. Buildings are separated by sand wasteland that suggests what the island must have looked like before oil enriched the region about 35 years ago. Now, impressive mosques sit alongside office buildings and fast-food restaurants such as Fuddruckers, McDonald's and Dairy Queen. Just outside the city, past vast cemeteries where the dead are buried beneath mounds of gravel, a causeway takes travelers to and from Saudi Arabia.

Yesterday, as many people seemed caught up in the televised coverage of the world cricket championship as in the coverage of the war. In a market run by Indian immigrants beneath a steel awning the size of a football field, about 200 workers huddled by a television set, cheering India's play against Australia.

Here, there was no ambivalence about the war. When a visitor engaged one of the workers about the subject, scores crowded around and took an impromptu vote: thumbs up for Iraq, thumbs down for Bush.

"Saddam's fighting for himself and his country, and America wants to conquer Iraq for power," said one worker.

Bijoy Choubhura, a 39-year-old fruit vendor, said: "The American people and Saddam together make trouble for the Iraqi people. But America is attacking because of September 11, not because Saddam is a bad guy. They think Saddam is supporting the terrorists, but there is no proof."

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