For rich and poor alike, uncertainty rules in Iraq

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The fluorescent light flicked off. The primitive air conditioner squealed to a halt. The 113-degree heat of late morning began pouring into the cinderblock house like water gushing into a damaged submarine.

Muhammed Abdul al Sudani, the night watchman who lives in the one-room house at the Fatima Elementary School, didn't find it worth complaining about.

"It's a hard situation," he said. "But now that Saddam has fallen, it's OK. We can wait for the future now."

A mile away, in a sand-colored mansion on the banks of the Tigris River, Omar Achmad al Ibrahim pointed to his 70,000-volt generator. He was pretty much immune, he said, to the shortages and hardships of postwar Iraq.

Yet he is gloomy.

"It is as if the Americans took over all these thousands of square miles of sand floating on oil, with no idea of what to do with the people living on top of this sand," he said.

One man is poor, the other rich. Sudani never finished high school. Ibrahim is a British-educated engineer. Sudani is a Shiite, part of Iraq's disenfranchised majority. Ibrahim is Sunni, part of Iraq's traditional ruling elite.

The defeat of Saddam Hussein's government has given both reason for hope. Yet neither man has seen his expectations fulfilled. The war that washed over them, and all other Iraqis, created a sense of uncertainty that seems unending.

Under Hussein, people at least understood the brutal rules. In a dreadful sense, his authoritarianism was predictable.

Under the American military occupation, freedom has been difficult to distinguish from chaos. There is no anchor, no security. Little seems familiar beyond the walls of one's home.

Members of these two very different households wonder when they will see the benefits of radical change. Given human nature, Muhammed Sudani and Omar Ibrahim, like many other Iraqis, find themselves having second thoughts and new fears.

In early April, a few days after U.S. troops entered Baghdad, Sudani returned to his day job as a bookkeeper at the Baraka wholesale food company, where he earned about $45 a month. His boss mourned Hussein's fall. Sudani was scornful.

"A dog cries for a dog," he told a co-worker.

Someone told the boss. Sudani resigned to spare himself the shame of being fired.

Idle, embarrassed

Since then, he has had little to do. He pads around in threadbare socks in his 12-by-18-foot masonry box of a house shared with his wife and four children - two boys and two girls, ages 12 to 20. They own a few cabinets, an avocado-green refrigerator and a wobbly wooden bench. A propane stove sits in a shed outside.

His children play video games on their television or watch martial arts films. But they never invite friends to visit. Their mother, Nidal, 38, says she doesn't know other women in the neighborhood. That reticence, however, is camouflage for her embarrassment about the family's poverty.

"My friends ask me to invite them to my house," says Samir, her eldest son, serious and soft-spoken with sleepy green eyes.

"But I always give excuses, like, 'Maybe another time.' I feel ashamed, because all my friends have houses. And we are living in only one room, at a school."

"Our society likes the upper classes and prestige," says his father. "They respect the rich man, even if he is not a good man. And they do not like the poor man, even if he is well-behaved and well-mannered."

Hopes for eldest son

As a father and husband, Sudani knows that more was expected of him. He is the son of a published Iraqi poet and the younger brother of a prominent stage actor.

But he dropped out of school at age 15. He and his wife have invested all their hopes in Samir, who just finished his second year in the College of Islamic Sciences at Baghdad University.

Unfortunately, because Sudani lost his job at the food company, the family can no longer afford to pay for Samir's studies. So the young man has decided to try to find work and, perhaps, finish his studies at night. He is looking for a job as a policeman.

"Maybe he can help punish those who are causing all the suffering," his father says.

The house suddenly shakes with the roar of a generator. The manager of the bank next door had agreed to let Sudani share the electricity, in exchange for keeping an eye on the bank. The generator has awakened.

Samir and his youngest sister, Uda, 12, jump up and flip on the electrical switches. The house's single fluorescent light glimmers. The big, boxy air conditioner, its fan shaped like the paddlewheel on a steamboat, rattles back to life.

Conflicting emotions

Omar Ibrahim's home on the banks of the Tigris is filled with carved wooden furniture, cut glass and heavy drapes. His 18-year-old daughter, Noor, serves sparkling water and Turkish coffee, with its sharp taste and bitter grounds.

The day Baghdad fell, Ibrahim sat by the eucalyptus trees outside his house and watched 200 American armored vehicles rumble past.

"To tell the truth, I didn't know how to feel," he recalls. "It's my first occupation. I have never been occupied before. I felt sad. Happy. Relieved that there would be no more bombing. It was a complete set of emotions."

He owns residential property in Baghdad, two shipyards and a dry dock in Basra, plus more than 10,000 acres of farmland along Iraq's southeastern border with Iran. He is above all a practical man. He wants the Americans to succeed because that would be good for business.

"I am not a Baathist, a Communist or an Islamist," he says. "I am a capitalist."

But he is exasperated by the lack of progress. Americans blame it in part on damage by looters, part on well-organized sabotage by Baathists.

"As educated Iraqis, we are willing to accept a colonial power, provided it accepts its responsibilities," Ibrahim says. "Instead, half the population is unemployed, with no work, no safety in the streets.

"Give them jobs. Give them enough money to feed their families at the end of the month, or the end of the week."

The United States, with its faith in the free market, wants Iraq to stand on its own feet, quickly. That can't happen until at least minimal security is restored.

There is also the problem that Iraq's economy for decades was centrally planned and run. Its state-owned enterprises and government ministries, designed to provide jobs for the party faithful, are in ruins. The whole system was propped up by oil revenues - and they, too, are gone.

Stake in the future

Ibrahim has a big stake in Iraq's future. He remained in Iraq because his wealth consisted of his properties. His home sits across the Tigris from 11 palaces owned by members of Hussein's family.

A few days before the war, Ibrahim, his wife, Faeza, and daughter Noor bricked up the windows of their home, stocked up on kerosene lamps and laid bedding in the stairwell. In the early morning hours of March 18, he awoke to the sound of an airplane.

It bombed an anti-aircraft rocket battery near his home. The damaged rockets spiraled crazily into the water. Over the next 20 days, all the windows in Ibrahim's house shattered. The family listened to the radio by lamplight in the 6-by-10-foot space at the bottom of the stairs. The bricked-up windows kept the house dark, even at midday.

Grave U.S. mistake

On a hot summer day, Ibrahim stood in his living room, his hands jammed in the pockets of his khaki pants. The waters of the Tigris glittered in the floodlights of the Americans stationed in the palaces across the water.

Purging the Baathists from government, as American authorities are attempting to do, is a grave mistake, he remarked. The Baath Party had attracted technicians and professionals who wanted to help run Iraq and who took no part in the repression, and without their help, Ibrahim says, Iraq can't function.

"There are Baathists who did bad things," he says. "OK, prove they did bad things and punish them, in a court of law. This is how I was always told democracy works. But don't punish 2 million Iraqis because they were Baathists."

Coup harmed family

Ibrahim joined the Baath Party in 1966, while attending a Jesuit-run high school. "I was very young," he says, "very gullible." Two years later, while Ibrahim was at Bromsgrove Technical College in Britain, the Baathists seized power in a coup.

It was a disaster for his family. In the mid-1970s, the government redistributed half the family's vast land holdings to the poor. During the Iran-Iraq war, in the 1980s, the government decided that the 3 million date palm trees on Ibrahim's plantations were providing cover for Iranian infiltrators. It burned his groves.

Ibrahim survived, thanks to his technical training and business skills. He served as an engineer for state-owned military industries and, when the United Nations imposed a trade embargo after Iraq invaded Kuwait, he became an oil smuggler for the regime.

"To deal with these people you had to pay them off," he says. "And the payments were huge."

Deep fear of Iran

Cleansing the Iraqi government of Baathists has created confusion and anger among potential American allies, he maintains, and it might have strengthened the hand of Iran in Iraq - the outcome that Sunni Arabs here seem to fear most of all.

He cited a department of the Ministry of Oil. "Before the war, there were 10 employees of the department - two Christian, three Sunnis and five Shia," he says. All were members of the Baath.

"After the war, eight went back to work. The two Christians found jobs with the coalition. The five Shiites made a petition saying the three Sunnis were senior Baathists. So the Americans came and kicked all the Sunnis out. It became a Shiite department, controlled by Iran."

Ibrahim knows the Oil Ministry well. For years his Basra shipyards have been building fishing vessels fitted with hidden tanks for smuggling oil. They could carry up to 350 tons of diesel fuel. The regime sold oil to Ibrahim for $80 a ton, and he sold it in the United Arab Emirates for $180 a ton.

Now the smuggling is far more lucrative. Ibrahim's ships are still used by traders who buy diesel at $7 to $10 a ton from corrupt officials at the Oil Ministry. The bureaucrats divert tanker-loads of the product, otherwise destined for Iraq's state-owned service stations. The smugglers then sell the oil in United Arab Emirates for $180 a ton.

"You know who buys this diesel fuel?" Ibrahim asks, amused. "The American naval fleet."

Slump in stamp making

On another steaming morning, Muhammed Sudani walked along the arcades and surging crowds of Rashid Street. Men bent over, hands clasped behind their backs, to read newspapers spread on the sidewalk.

Off one alley, in the corner of a gloomy courtyard, was the tiny stamp-making shop owned by Sudani's best friend, Raad Saleh.

To make rubber stamps, Saleh begins with slugs of lead type locked into forms and pressed into clay. He fires the clay, forming a mold, then pours a rubber-like plastic into the mold. Most other stamp makers use photo-offset equipment that eliminates much of the labor, but he prefers the traditional ways.

Sudani met Saleh in 1978, when both were obliged to join the army. Army service was a casual affair, and Saleh ran the stamp shop in his spare time. He hired Sudani as his assistant.

The 1970s were a boom time for the stamp business. The Baath Party was expanding government ministries, and each official needed a stamp to make his mark on the growing tide of paper.

Saleh and Sudani served in the army for 13 years. In uniform, the two friends avoided talking about politics; in the shop, they spent their idle hours drinking tea, and when the subject turned to the Baath or Hussein, they would lower their voices and shut the sliding glass door.

Saleh has offered to give Sudani his job back, although he can't afford to pay much. With government ministries in ruins, the rubber stamp business has collapsed. Sudani, not wanting to leave his wife and daughters at home alone when there is so much violence, is reluctant to return.

Baking bread

Nidal, Sudani's wife, is flattening a floury ingot of dough, tossing it between her hands.

When it grows to the size of a serving plate, she reaches into a chimney-shaped oven and throws the dough against the smooth round wall. Licked by the flames, the dough bubbles and browns. Finally, she peels away the fresh, flat bread and tosses it with a half-dozen others onto newspapers spread on the ground.

She built the oven herself with a few cents' worth of bricks and mortar. Baking saves her family 6 cents for each piece of bread. She loves the work: the smell of the dough, the bubbling bread, the pleasure it gives her family.

The happiest time of her life, she says, was when her first child, Samir, was born. The most difficult came in the late 1990s, when escalating rents drove the family from central Baghdad.

They moved to a mud-brick home in the outskirts of the city, far from their relatives. "There were bugs, rats and many, many snakes," Nidal says.

Three years ago, Muhammed managed to land a job as night watchman at the Fatima Elementary School, a cluster of boxy one-story buildings that sits off one of Baghdad's main shopping streets. It came with a $3-a-month salary, the tiny house and a Kalashnikov rifle.

Their youngest child, 14-year-old Duah, is perhaps the best student in the family; her parents want her to become a schoolteacher because all teachers are women and do not mix in the society of men.

Her brother Asharaf, 19, dropped out of school four years ago to work full time making rubber stamps on Rashid Street. His family says he was eager to leave school. He says he had to leave to help support his family.

Desperate for a job

All her hopes, Nidal says, are pinned on the eldest, Samir.

Samir is increasingly desperate to find a job. And not, it turns out, just because his father lost his.

Samir says he spotted Sarah, an 18-year-old high school student, while riding the bus to classes his first semester in college. "We looked at each other," he says. "So I gave her a note with the place of my job, the print shop. And she came to see me."

If their tradition-minded parents find out, they might never be able to see each other again. So Samir and Sarah seldom risk meeting face to face. "When I want to see her, I go to her school, to a corner and watch her leave," he says.

Does she know he is poor? "She knows only that I live in the Karrada neighborhood," an upper-middle-class area. "And that I am a student in college. But she doesn't know the details of my life."

He will tell her, he says. But only after he finds a job.

He showed up at the eastern Baghdad police headquarters early one morning to apply for a position. Several hundred other unemployed men had arrived ahead of him. And they were furious.

Like Samir, they had paid 2,000 dinar, about $1.30, for a barely legible photocopy of a single-page letter, addressed to the general manager of Baghdad's eastern district police.

"Dear Sir," the letter began in Arabic. "Please give me permission to be hired as a policeman, noticing that I have a degree from ______ and was born on ______. The decision is up to you, sir." There was a place for the applicant's name and signature.

Jobless were tricked

American soldiers from the 204th Military Police Battalion were guarding the police headquarters. They said they couldn't accept the forms. No one was hiring, they said.

"They lied!" screamed a man in line. "They let us pay money. And we don't have any money. Now every time we come, they tell us to come tomorrow!"

The men pressed forward, shouted and threw rocks. The MPs confronted them with a 50-caliber machine gun and bayonets fixed on their rifles.

An officer with the 204th blamed Baghdad's police chief. "He promised to consider applications, and sold letters to these people," the officer said. "But the Iraqi police are not in a position to hire."

Bewildered, Samir retreated to a spot a block away.

The protesters, meanwhile, blocked a car carrying Iraqi police. Rocks flew, striking the rear windshield. Four Iraqi policeman scrambled out. One fired his pistol in the air.

A Humvee carrying U.S. soldiers tried to push through the crowd. Rocks flew again. About two dozen American MPs ran forward to rescue the vehicle. Iraqi police followed them, firing their guns in the air, like cowboys in a Hollywood western.

Finally, the Americans forced the crowd back. Retreating, the job applicants began chanting, calling for the return of Saddam Hussein.

Warning from Hussein

On the Fourth of July, Al-Jazeera television broadcast a recording of Hussein's voice, urging support for attacks on American troops. Anyone working with the Americans should "talk with himself again," Hussein said.

The day after the broadcast, a bomb killed seven Iraqi police recruits in the town of Ramadi. In Baghdad, an American soldier in an armored vehicle was shot by a sniper. A second soldier, at Baghdad University, was shot to death by a gunman who vanished into a crowd.

When they heard about the broadcast, the Sudanis seemed stunned.

"We are not worried that Saddam will return," Muhammed Sudani said. "We are worried about what is happening in the streets."

Samir was still determined to join the police force. He heard the police would be hiring 100 recruits next month. He planned to be among them.

On the banks of the Tigris, Ibrahim had been inviting U.S. officials into his home. He tried to persuade them to stop the de-Baathification drive and to worry more about the influence of Iran.

His attitude toward the Americans has changed. He can almost date it. On June 25, three gunmen in a truck confronted an engineer in charge of electricity distribution in northern Baghdad and shot her dead.

"Saddam used to use electricity to punish some areas and reward others," Ibrahim explained. "Everybody working in the electricity sector is a Saddam crony. It's not just the first-level people, but the second- and third- and so on, all the way down."

Dangers of talking

And now there were the rumors circulating among Iraq's intellectuals and well-to-do: Cooperate with the Americans and become a target of supporters of Hussein.

Ibrahim survived three decades of Hussein's rule, and as a soldier he was wounded by a sniper and by rocket fire. He lived through the bombing of Baghdad by the United States, twice. But he decided that talking with foreigners was a risk he was no longer willing to take.

"I don't want any contacts with Americans anymore," he said, anxiously. "They are watching people who meet with them."

And he closed the big steel gate to his family's home.

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