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In Iraq, remembering a safer life

A Baghdad mechanic's family reflects the split in feelings about the presence of U.S. troops: fear that they'll go, and fear that they'll stay.

September 14, 2007|Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Hadi Rubaie sat in the living room of his air-conditioned home, with its sofas covered in delicate linen doilies, colorful rugs hanging on the wall and the sound of roosters crowing out back.

He was talking about President Bush preparing Americans on Thursday for another year of war.

Rubaie has strong opinions. But what you notice first are his hands: the thick, knotted mitts of a car mechanic. He's been working on Mercedes-Benz engines since the 1960s, and his knuckles chronicle every slip of the wrench.

"It's good for the Americans to stay," he said. "Otherwise people will kill each other. Sure, they're doing that now, but it could be worse."

His wife, Umhaider, was in the kitchen preparing a special dinner she would serve later, to break the fast for the first night of Ramadan: lentil soup, rice, lamb kebabs, yogurt and juices.

She too has strong opinions.

"I support the idea of having the foreign troops leave," she said. "Before they came to Baghdad, all the different factions were living peacefully together. Now, there are problems everywhere."

Rubaie, 58, heads a traditional Shiite Muslim family. He wears a dishdasha, and his wife's gown covers all but her face. Their differing opinions reflect a national divide among Iraqis: those who fear that U.S. troops will leave and those afraid that they'll stay.

What they share is a longing for the workaday lives they lost with the arrival of U.S. forces more than four years ago, when they could visit friends, work and travel safely.

Before the war, Rubaie enjoyed life on top of the mechanics' heap, servicing the most expensive cars in Iraq and welcoming clients of every religious persuasion. Now, nobody wants to drive a Mercedes for fear of kidnapping or carjacking. Most of them, like his 16-year-old 190 sedan, have joined a phantom fleet, exiled to garages, driveways or backyards.

He figures he has lost half of his business, and a commute that used to take 10 minutes now takes more than an hour, with checkpoints and other dangers. Rubaie doesn't keep his shop open past 1 p.m. because a full workday means more chances that harm could come to his employees: his oldest son, a brother and two nephews.

For parts, he has to scrounge in salvage yards or resort to Chinese knockoffs.

His wife's loss is more personal. She dresses in black to show her grief over the loss of a brother, a medical school teacher who was slain by gunmen three years ago.

Do they ever feel it would have been better if the United States had never come?

"Yes, sometimes we think that," Rubaie said, answering for the couple.

"In 2003, we didn't expect this," he added. "We thought Americans would get rid of Saddam and things would get better. Before, we didn't have a real government, but we didn't have these mass killings. I don't argue with the U.S. entrance, but with their performance."

Rubaie said he would never join the estimated 2 million Iraqis who've fled the country. He has three grown children, a 16-year-old son and four grandchildren. His family has lived in Baghdad since the 19th century, he said.

If he had a chance to speak to President Bush, what would he say?

"First I would tell him, 'Take care of us,' " Rubaie said. "We were expecting Iraq to be an imaginary place, with the economy growing and everything. We were expecting a lot because the United States is a superpower. But look what's happening. Help us."

Until then, Rubaie knows, he must make his own breaks. As he was saying goodbye to guests, he said, "I want to show you something."

In his backyard, perched on blocks like a display in a car museum, was a Mercedes-Benz motor. Six cylinders of German-engineered efficiency purred away, driving a generator.

The small triumph made him smile. Times have been worse, and times will get better, he said.

"The Iraq-Iran war lasted eight years and I was desperate," he said. "When it was over, I couldn't believe it. We didn't expect Saddam to be gone, but, look, he's gone. So I'm optimistic. You can't live without hope."


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