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Iraqi Exiles See No Hope for Nation

Refugees say their homeland will be riven by bloodshed even if Hussein is toppled.

January 12, 2003|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

AMMAN, Jordan — A smile of recognition touched Salma's lined face as the Iraqi refugee watched footage of U.N. weapons inspectors pulling into a dusty industrial site.

"That's where I used to work," she said, nodding at the television screen, which was showing the vast complex that includes the Al Hatteen factory. "The U.N. has been there twice already this time, but they will not find anything. They came eight times before they left in 1998. They never found anything."

But not because there wasn't anything there, said Salma, who asked that her real name not be used.

"We made bombs there, big bombs with chemicals on their heads," she said of the factory where she worked through much of 1998.

Interviews with Salma and about two dozen other Iraqis now living in Jordan offer a disturbing portrait of life under Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime -- sometimes secretive and fear-filled, increasingly impoverished and, above all, with little hope.

But perhaps more strikingly, they offer a bleak view of the future, even if Hussein is toppled.

Many of these Iraqis believe that he still has chemical and biological weapons that in a last gasp he would use -- not necessarily against U.S. forces but on Iraqis who sided with the Americans, especially minority Kurds and Shiite Muslims.

And they fear that in the aftermath of Hussein's regime, the country would be torn by revenge killings and perhaps civil war as ethnic and religious groups vied for power.

With such prospects, most say they cannot imagine returning to their homeland. This is in contrast to emigres from Afghanistan, which is even poorer than Iraq yet has seen a historic level of returning refugees since the Taliban fell in late 2001.

"We would rather begin from zero again," said Najat, 36, a mother of four. The family members sold every valuable, including her husband's truck, to pay smugglers to get them out of Iraq after they received threats from the government because of her exiled brother's involvement in politics.

Although life is miserable for Najat in Jordan -- her husband is jobless and her older children shun school for fear the police will follow them home and deport the family -- there is too little left for her in Iraq.

"It would be better to begin again in a new country, to educate our children properly. It would be a shame for them to grow up in Iraq," she said.

For years, Jordan has offered one of the easiest routes out of Hussein's nation because no visa is required for Iraqis. Now it is home to about 300,000 Iraqi immigrants, according to estimates by humanitarian groups. Many refugees live a shadowy half-life in rundown apartment buildings on the steep back streets of Amman, the capital.

They work illegally, smuggle letters and money to relatives still in Iraq and are constantly on the lookout for the Iraqi secret police, who have a significant presence here, and for Jordanian police, who often deport busloads of Iraqis to the border.

Numbers are hard to come by, but the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees ranks Iraqis third among people who have fled their homelands, behind Afghans and Burundians.

Iraqi refugees interviewed recently in Amman included erstwhile cogs in Hussein's vast machine: a former bodyguard to the dictator, ex-soldiers, a palace electrician, a soccer player on the team run by the Iraqi leader's elder son, Uday, and a number of middle-class Christians. But the exiles also include shopkeepers unable to make ends meet, impoverished taxi drivers, farmhands, factory workers, and homemakers who now make a thin living by selling cigarettes on the streets.

Munir Othman's story is typical. The apolitical 30-year-old never imagined he would be on the run from the secret police. Now, he is always looking over his shoulder.

During mandatory military service, Othman worked as an electrician in a complex of seven palaces. After completing his national service, he was ordered to stay on to install and maintain the air-conditioning system. He was well paid and initially felt a certain awe at working in the palaces.

"Saddam Hussein lives in a different world," he recalled. "Even kings could not dream of sleeping in a bed like there is in his bedroom. This bed was like the sultan's from the Ottoman period. It had columns and a solid gold dome on top and silk curtains all around."

But he and other workers were accompanied to and from work by secret police and, once a month, were questioned intensively about what they had seen in the palaces. Othman grew increasingly nervous that he would make a mistake for which he would be punished.

Among the things he recalls seeing was a sudden rush by soldiers to move valuable weapons and weapons system components out of the palace complex. That happened in the early winter of 1998, shortly before Operation Desert Fox -- airstrikes by the Americans and British in retaliation for Iraq's resistance to inspections.

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