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Phone Calls in Code Keeping Iraqi Americans in Touch

From brief exchanges crafted to evade possible eavesdroppers, immigrants glean news of the troubles their families face back home.

March 28, 2003|Steve Hymon, Teresa Watanabe and Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writers

In rushed, anxious conversations -- many in informal codes to evade possible eavesdroppers -- Iraqis in Baghdad, Basra and other major cities are providing relatives in the United States with glimpses of life in the midst of war.

Elderly family members in Baghdad tell one Iraqi American of using a backyard well for water when the supply in their neighborhood was cut off by a power failure. Another family talks of friends fleeing their homes when military equipment was moved into their neighborhood.

From Basra, the brother of San Diego resident Najem Al Ekabi, 51, described a town under siege, with water and electricity cut off, schools and shops closed and constant explosions from missiles and artillery.

"They are getting hit from everywhere," Al Ekabi said. "The people don't know what to do. People are afraid to leave their homes."

Earlier in the week, relatives told him of uprisings against Saddam Hussein's regime in at least some parts of the city, but those now appear to have been quelled, Al Ekabi said.

The regime has stationed tanks, soldiers and their weapons throughout the city -- especially in the Shiite Muslim neighborhoods that fostered the earlier uprising, Al Ekabi said.

"He has planted people everywhere, using schools, hospitals, spiritual and religious sites," Al Ekabi said. "That's why it's very hard to rise up."

Similar accounts come from other Iraqi Americans with relatives in the city. Relatives of Salam Al Basra, a 36-year-old car salesman in San Jose, told him of uprisings in parts of the city and added that Western forces appeared to have taken control of some neighborhoods, including Sahat Said in central Basra.

But whatever uprisings took place appear to have been limited to portions of the city, which is Iraq's second-largest. Aziz Al Taee, a member of the Iraqi-American Council who lives in Philadelphia, said a relative had told him there were no uprisings in his neighborhood, Al Jumhoria, which Al Taee described as an upper-class section of Basra.

Like Al Ekabi, Al Basra and Al Taee, many Iraqi Americans fled from Hussein's regime. Whether their deep, often passionate longing for his overthrow has colored their accounts of telephone conversations with their relatives cannot be determined.

Moreover, as did other Iraqi Americans, Al Ekabi said his conversations have been brief and guarded.

"My brother can only pass on a few sentences when we talk," he said. "He can't really say anything because the phones are monitored by Saddam."

That fear of being overheard leads Iraqis to conduct their conversations with relatives in coded language.

"Even during normal times, we do not speak very openly," said Imam Moustafa al-Qazwini of the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County. "In the past, some families were attacked and prosecuted because they said something on the telephone to someone outside Iraq. It's easy to be accused of espionage."

When Al-Qazwini wanted to know whether his cousin was still in prison, or had managed to escape during the chaos, his aunt in Iraq said he was "still in the hospital."

For Abbas Naama, 53, a pharmacist in San Diego, a relative saying "the sky is still clouded" means that Hussein's regime continues to control his city.

"A big wedding is coming to you soon" is a reference to the expected celebration of the downfall of Hussein's regime, Al Taee said.

Ahmed Al Hayderi of Ottawa said his relatives in Baghdad used code to tell him that Iraqi government officials had moved military equipment such as mobile radar stations into their residential neighborhood.

But Al Hayderi, an executive for a telecommunications company, believes the government monitoring of overseas calls has begun to break down, a conclusion he draws from the fact that his calls are now going through much more quickly than in the past.

"It used to take me about four hours to get through," said Al Hayderi, who also is a member of the Iraq Forum for Democracy, a group working for human rights in Iraq. "Now I'm getting through in a few tries. It tells me the security apparatus has dissolved and the intelligence service is not listening anymore."

Sometimes the relatives offer happy news. The day after the bombing began, the daughter-in-law of Al Hayderi's brother gave birth in Baghdad. The family was happy, and "the hospitals are still operating," he said.

Most of the calls, however, are dominated by fear and worry, accounts of shattered windows, sleepless nights and vain attempts to turn up the volume on the radio to drown out the explosion of bombs.

Sue Yousif, a 71-year-old Irvine resident, called her younger sister, Sura, in Baghdad on Wednesday and could hear the booming sound of bombs in the background. The house was shaking, her sister said, and all the windows in the neighborhood, close to Baghdad's airport, had been blown out.

As they both began to cry, Yousif said, her sister pleaded: "Pray for us. Pray for us." Then she lamented, "Why are we in war? Why are we in war?"

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