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Basra's Elite Daunted by a City in Disarray

Some professionals are considering leaving Iraq until stability returns. Many bemoan the destruction of war and the uncertainties ahead.

May 16, 2003|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

BASRA, Iraq — When Ali Saad, 6, returned to school, the children in his class tore out the front-page picture of Saddam Hussein from their schoolbooks.

Just a few days earlier, showing off his schoolbooks to guests at home, he had kissed the picture and declared that he loved Saddam Hussein, "because he's my president."

His mother, a well-known Basra journalist, Aruba Hamodi Saad, said other Iraqis were doing similar emotional somersaults over the former president. Once his image was ubiquitous. Now it is gone.

"We used to see him everywhere -- on our TV, in our home. We changed from a very strong government to nothing. After all those years it's not easy to get used to it," she said.

Before the U.S.-led invasion, she said, many in Iraq loved Hussein, "and now we hate him. We can't live this kind of duality."

Saad and her microbiologist husband, Shallal, are professionals who did not support the regime but lived comfortably, the kind of people upon whom the task of rebuilding the country will eventually fall.

But surrounded by destruction and continued looting here in Iraq's second-largest city, the Saads are thinking of immigrating, at least temporarily, to Sudan, where the doctor can find a position.

Many members of Basra's intelligentsia, confronting the ruin of the infrastructure caused by looting, and recognizing that the rebuilding of the universities and government ministries will take years, not months, are ambivalent about the regime's fall and angry at British and U.S. forces over the disorder in the city.

Although most of them are glad Hussein is gone, they feel deeply pessimistic about rebuilding Basra. Coupled with their despair are their fear and insecurity over the thieves and bandits, whom they believe will turn to stealing private property because all the public buildings have been stripped bare.

Fueling the fears is the fact that some professionals are losing leadership positions at universities and ministries as new managements are voted in, replacing those accused of being too close to Hussein's Baath Party.

And the mushrooming numbers of political parties have left many concerned that it will take a long time to achieve a stable government.

At the Basra Institute of Technology, where Shallal Saad worked, shelling and looting have caused extensive damage. In shattered and smashed lecture rooms, the notes for students are still on the blackboards, the only things left intact. In Saad's former office, nothing remained but papers, scattered everywhere.

"When I saw all this destruction, I felt such deep sorrow," Saad said.

At Basra University's fine arts department, destroyed by looters, two teenagers made their way along a corridor, one aimlessly hitting the wall with a hammer, the other carrying a large wrench. The tools seemed ideally suited to pulling out any pieces of metal not yet stolen, and the teenagers' claim to be foraging for firewood seemed to strain credibility.

Mohammed Ali, 19, carrying the wrench, said he believed that Western companies would pay to rebuild the university, and he hoped to attend next year.

Outside the university, a British tank droned by slowly, as thieves continued to drag away what was left.

"Look at the thieves in the college, and this is the British army," Riadh Asady of the Center for Arab Gulf Studies at Basra University fumed. "The thieves walk under the tanks."

The British military says it has limited resources for policing the city and no real punishment facilities. It can detain the worst offenders for just a week.

"There is no future," Asady said. "I don't think there's anything left to rebuild. It's not my opinion, it's everybody's opinion. All the masters feel they have no future here. There is no point in students coming with no books and no library."

The sense of vulnerability and fear across the south seems connected to the sudden vacuum of power after years of dictatorial rule that reached into every office and destroyed the lives and homes of many regime opponents.

Like Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, Hussein used the conflict and mistrust between different ethnic and religious groups to cement his power as the only force strong enough to prevent civil strife. The legacy of that is fear, dislike, even hatred.

"Sometimes we wake up in the morning and we doubt that Saddam has disappeared," said Mohammed Saleh, 29, a political science graduate working as a taxi driver in the southern city of Nasiriyah. "It's something ingrained in Iraqis -- fear of the regime and fear of Saddam -- and until now people still can't shake it off. Iraqis are still always afraid. Because Saddam had no law, just executions on the spot."

Ali Hamed, 40, a Basra journalist who was jailed for 50 days in the early 1990s for writing an article critical of the regime, said many people are afraid of what will happen once British forces leave.

"No one knows where Saddam Hussein is, but he's somewhere in Iraq, and we all feel uneasy," he said.

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