Death trap

Iraqis tell their American relatives of the daily horror of being caught between Saddam's death squads and the ferocious firepower of the U.S. military.

Published April 3, 2003 11:53PM (EST)

After a prayer meeting Friday at the Al-Khoei Islamic Center, a blocky gray building with a stubby minaret overlooking an expressway in Queens, N.Y., Sheikh Fadhel Al-Sahlani offered a visitor a piece of sticky sweet baklava before sitting down in his wood-paneled office lined with religious books. These days Al-Sahlani, a soft-spoken man with graceful manners, finds himself an unlikely pundit on the latest war in Iraq. For those willing to listen, Al-Sahlani has a sobering analysis on Operation Iraqi Freedom: The Iraqi people are Saddam's terrified hostages and America's unwilling enemies.

Al-Sahlani, imam of the Al-Khoei mosque since 1989, knows this because he grew up in Basra and has family and friends who still live in the Shiite-dominated southern city of 1.3 million. Over the years, the 50-year-old religious leader has heard how Saddam has gradually tightened his stranglehold over the populace, so no one dares rise up against him. That's why he isn't surprised civilians haven't rebelled and embraced American and British troops as their liberators. They can't.

Piecing together the situation in Basra from Arab news reports and dispatches from Iraqis, Al-Sahlani says conditions in the city are more dire than the lack of drinking water and electricity, and far darker than Americans were led to believe. The Saddam Fedayeen, an elite paramilitary force, and the Republican Guard have Basra's residents under house arrest. Each family is given one identification card. If anyone is caught in the streets without it after curfew, he or she is shot. The Fedayeen also forces men, some as young as 15 or 16, to join their ranks. If new recruits refuse to fight, they're shot. And if they do fight, they risk death at the hands of Anglo-American forces.

"Saddam doesn't care about the Iraqis -- maybe he's even glad when there are more causalities, so he can blame them on the coalition forces. And the coalition forces aren't intentionally trying to kill civilians, but when they fight the Fedayeen, who are between houses, mosques and schools, they will be hurt," Al-Sahlani says. "The Iraqi civilians are between the two fires."

A similar sentiment is heard over and over wherever Iraqi expatriates gather, and with allied troops now moving against the capital city of Baghdad, and transcontinental communications difficult or impossible, it is more acute than ever. In a series of interviews, Iraqi Americans who live in New York paint a disturbing picture of their family and friends at home: They are trapped between a Stalinist dictator willing to sacrifice his own people as he fights for his life and the Bush administration's unprecedented military might. The risks are enormous, and the future completely unknown.

"They are frustrated both ways: with the government and with the Americans," says Saad Al-Khafagi, who accompanied a delegation of religious leaders who visited Baghdad on a peace mission in the days before the first bombs fell. "They are in the middle."

After the end of the Gulf War in 1991, an estimated 4 million Iraqis left the country; 50,000 of them came to the United States and most of them found their way to Detroit, according to a recent New York Times article. A little more than 1,200 settled in New York, but there could be more, says Louis Abdellatif Cristillo, project coordinator for the Muslims in New York City Project, sponsored by the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. As nationalities go, "Iraqi" is a modern construct, he says, and many Iraqis choose to identify themselves through their ethnicity: Chaldean, Assyrian, Armenian, Turkmen or Kurdish. "Iraqis have integrated pretty well in the U.S. economy," Cristillo says. "They're working in offices and have white-collar jobs."

Though many Iraqis in this country left their homeland because of political and religious persecution, they still have strong ties and affection for Iraq and close relations with families and friends who are among the 24 million people still living there. Often bonds have been maintained through telephone calls, but in the first days of war, those calls were both reassuring and deeply frustrating. Words were warm and heartfelt, but somehow mundane. Iraqi Americans told their relatives to be safe. Stay inside. Stay away from windows. Store enough food and water. Iraqis at home reassured their American relatives that they will take precautions. Inshallah -- God willing -- they'll see each other after war.

As for the deeper questions of repression, bombs and liberation -- questions of life and death -- there was remarkably little in those conversations. There were variations on a familiar story: Those who have suffered so much under Saddam were braced for even more hardship. But after living in a violently repressive authoritarian state for more than 30 years, Iraqis fear saying anything about politics, much less speaking out against Saddam, especially on the phone. Sometimes Iraqis try to express their thoughts in code or metaphors, but it's difficult for loved ones on this side of the Atlantic to decipher them. Everyone is forced to read between the lines.

Now that phone service has been disrupted, Iraqi Americans watch TV and read the newspaper for stories of their loved ones. And like them, other Americans are left to read between the lines of the disaster unfolding in ancient Mesopotamia. Do the Iraqis want the U.S. and the British to overthrow Saddam? Will civilian deaths turn Iraqis against the allied forces? Will other Arabs fight alongside the Iraqis? The human component of the story is squeezed between reports on military actions. We may not know the human story until the war is over. In the meantime, we can get a glimpse into the minds of ordinary Iraqis through their conversations with their American relatives.

Jennifer Ridha

Jennifer Ridha, a 26-year-old lawyer, has never visited her Iraqi relatives. Her father moved to the United States in the 1960s after receiving a scholarship to study engineering at the University of Illinois. Her mother moved here later to marry him. Their families knew each other in Karbala, a town Americans may now recognize because it's on the allied forces' northern route to Baghdad. While Jennifer was born in Ohio, most of her parents' families have stayed in Iraq. Her father, in fact, has never been back.

There was a brief time between the Iran-Iraq War in the early 1980s and the Kuwaiti invasion when travel was possible. But after the Gulf War, it was too much of a hassle. With no-fly zones around Baghdad, Ridha's mother had to fly to Amman, Jordan, and then drive 16 hours through the desert to the city. "It was a tedious and uncertain trip to take," she says.

Over the years, the family has stayed in touch by phone. Before the bombing began, Ridha spoke to two of her mother's sisters who live in Baghdad. Nawal, a gynecologist, lives with her husband and children in a house in a fairly affluent neighborhood. Iqbal, an engineering professor, and her family live in an apartment building. Nawal decided Iqbal's family would be safer in the house during the bombing, so everyone moved in with her.

Ridha asked her Aunt Nawal about the preparations she made to survive the impending siege. Nawal's husband, who owns a pharmaceutical company, bought a generator in case electricity is disrupted, but he complained that it wouldn't provide much power. Ridha's uncle also had helped neighbors dig a well. The aunts, Ridha says, were in better spirits than she. Nawal sounded as though their hardships would soon be over. "My aunt said, 'I can't wait to see you and your mother again.'"

Iqbal told her a story from the Quran about Ibrahim, or Abraham, as he is known in the Old Testament, being surrounded by fire and how God saved him by transforming the flames into water. But Ridha couldn't tell what her aunt was trying to convey. Was Saddam the conflagration? Or did the flames represent the U.S. troops?

Ridha also talked to her father's mother, who lives in a suburb outside of Baghdad with her other son and his family. Ridha's grandmother cried. "She's getting old," Ridha says. "She says she's had a good life, but she worries about her sons and daughters and grandkids. She's more worried about them than she is herself. She said, 'You know what we really want is peace.' But she couldn't articulate more than that without getting in trouble. I don't know if she meant, we want peace and we don't want war, or we want peace and we don't want Saddam."

Since the war started, Ridha hasn't been able to get through to her aunts in Baghdad or her grandmother. She's called dozens and dozens of times, but no one answered. But one of her cousins who lives in Amsterdam did reach a next-door neighbor. When her cousin spoke to Nawal, she told her that they could hear bomb explosions from their home. Her 3-year-old grandson asked her about the loud noise, but she decided to tell him that it was the TV. She didn't want her grandson to know that the U.S. "'with the strongest military in the world was dropping bombs on his family and his city. I don't think any 3-year-old has to know that.'"

Ridha is against the war. She wishes the U.S. and the British had tried to settle the matter through the United Nations, through diplomacy and pressure. She believes her family and the other Iraqis are paying the price, sometimes with their lives, for something beyond their control. "They talk about politics profusely among themselves," she says. "But ultimately it is politics that happen to them, not the politics they pick. It's almost as though politics are discussed in the abstract, almost as a completely independent bystander would talk about another country's politics."

No one is taking the Iraqis into consideration, she says -- not Bush, not Saddam, not the other Arab leaders. Ridha is especially disappointed to read that Arab radicals want to go to Iraq as suicide bombers to fight the American and British infidels. She fears that will only prolong the war and cost even more Iraqi lives. "Saddam is a tyrant and a dictator," she says. "It's trite, but it's true. And no one knows it better than the Iraqi people. Their interests have to be salient here and they're not. It's so frustrating. Sometimes I feel like screaming."

Saad Al-Khafagi

Saddam Hussein was rising through the ranks of the Baath party in 1975, still four years from seizing control; Al-Khafagi, then 23, left the country that same year to study and to escape the Baathist crackdown on political dissidents. Al-Khafagi's family stayed in Iraq. Two brothers would later die in the Iran-Iraq War. Two now live in Samara, near Nasiriya. Another, Sammy, lives in Baghdad. Sammy and his wife, their four grown children and two young grandchildren live in the same house in a neighborhood called Jihad not far from the city's center.

During the Gulf War, Al-Khafagi's father took his family to a home in the desert to escape the bombing. But their father is dead and Sammy, now 58, doesn't have enough money to take his family there.

In New York, Al-Khafagi helps Iraqi immigrants get the proper documents for their green cards; he also heads the Iraqi-American Antiwar Coalition. In early March, he accompanied a delegation of American Muslim and Christian religious leaders to Iraq. The group visited schools, hospitals, mosques and churches in Baghdad. They asked for a meeting with Saddam, but he didn't have time. They did, however, meet Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. Nothing came of it.

Before he left, he visited Sammy and his family. Sammy told his brother that he wouldn't want to leave Baghdad even if he could. He wants to stay and defend his country -- not Saddam's rule, but his country. To prepare for the battle in Baghdad, Sammy dug a well in his backyard for water and bought enough canned food, sugar and flour to last his family two months.

"They are frustrated both ways: with the government and with the Americans," Al-Khafagi says. "They are in the middle."

Saad Al-Khafagi left Iraq on March 11, eight days before the start of war. It was a bittersweet return to New York. "I feel guilty to be here, knowing that they are going to be bombed," he says, looking off in the distance. "You know what is coming. You know the capabilities of the United States Army. But, on the other hand, I have my children here, I have three boys, and my job."

Al-Khafagi spoke out against the war at a recent peace convocation at Riverside Church in Manhattan. He wrote a speech on a legal pad for his presentation before 2,400 gathered at the church to commemorate Martin Luther King's famous speech linking civil rights with the peace movement during the Vietnam War. There was so much he wanted to say. He wanted to talk about a clipping from the New York Post that quoted an American soldier, 28-year-old Sgt. Mike Brady, saying that all Iraqis should be killed. "What we should do is go in there and kill every last soul," Brady said in the Post report. "If they realize that we are going to kill them like that, they'll be like 'OK, OK, we surrender.'"

But Al-Khafagi never delivered that speech. After dozens of speakers and several musical performances that lasted four and a half hours, he decided that he should leave the audience with a simple message: Stop the war and save the lives of Iraqis and the lives of his young nieces and nephews in Baghdad. "They hope you to say no to war, not just be marches and rallies, but with actions," he said. "We need actions. If we are going to stop the war, we need to stop it now."

Al-Khafagi is now working for a cease-fire. He's trying to meet with U.S. congressmen, Iraqi diplomats and U.N. officials to negotiate a plan calling for the exchange of prisoners, the withdrawal of U.S. and British troops from Iraq, the U.N. presence to work out a more free and democratic Iraqi government and the lifting of sanctions. "It's the only thing that makes sense to save Iraqi lives and American and British lives," he says. "It'll save Iraq from major destruction and from being divided into pieces."

The brothers have not spoken since since two days before the war began.

Haeder Muhammed

Haeder Muhammed is 32, and dates are important to him. He has lived in the United States since 1997 -- Nov. 17, 1997 to be exact. He emigrated from Syria where he lived after fleeing Iraq on April 17, 1992. He had to leave his homeland because he refused to participate in the military's invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990. He spent a year and eight months in hiding before escaping to Syria. "I have a history of resisting in me," he says. "Before the war, I decided I wasn't going to serve Saddam Hussein. I knew the army serves Saddam Hussein and not the country."

Muhammed is in charge of transportation at the Al-Khoei Islamic Center, which includes a school with several hundred students, but he'd like to go back to school to become a teacher. He's married, but he doesn't have any children, not yet anyway. He has his green card and hopes to become a U.S. citizen soon.

Muhammed has mistrusted Saddam since 1981. That's the year his oldest brother, then 31, was shot in the Iran-Iraq War and left paralyzed from the waist down. And that's the same year his second-oldest brother, then 18, was executed after he deserted his regiment on the front lines, saying he didn't want to kill anyone. A few years later, his third brother was jailed for five years -- for no apparent reason.

Muhammed also has eight sisters in Iraq. He hasn't been able to talk to his four sisters who live outside of Baghdad since the war started because they don't have phone service. But he was able to get through to his 34-year-old sister, Zanab, who lives in a neighborhood on the eastern end of Baghdad, a week ago. The siblings didn't talk about much. They can't.

"I just asked how they were. Told them to be careful, please. Told them to stay in a room with fewer windows and make sure they have enough food and water. That's what I talk to them about. That's what we can talk about. We can't touch on other things, because it's dangerous."

Muhammed says Zanab told her brother she had stocked rice and beans and other foodstuffs that don't need refrigeration and can keep for a long time. He doesn't think Zanab is frightened about the approaching battle of Baghdad as much as she is resigned to it. During the Gulf War, he says, the U.S. dropped thousands of bombs on the city in 42 days of bombing. So, she's familiar with the sound of cruise missiles flying through the air and the blast and concussion of explosions. But, he says, it's different this time because U.S. troops will enter the city.

"This time it'll be harder," he says. "I'm not sure why. That's what I feel. There are troops coming, so Saddam has recruited the people to be ready. They're really nervous. They don't know how to receive the coalition forces. What will Saddam do to the people? He might do anything. He might hurt them first because they are not army. The people are not ready for anything. They are not prepared."

Muhammed doesn't talk to his sister about the Fedayeen, or Martyrs of Saddam. They can't talk of such things. But he says he has heard that there are more Fedayeen in Baghdad than there are in southern Iraq. "Saddam is more prepared to fight the civilians than he is to fight the Americans. If there is an uprising, he's very ready to kill anybody and everybody, if necessary. He's much more ready to face any uprising than he is to fight American troops."

"They are between a rock and a hard place," he says. "If they fight Americans, they will be killed. If they don't, Saddam will kill them. What do you call that situation?"

Fadhel Al-Sahlani

Al-Sahlani left Iraq in 1978. He was 25 and had recently finished studying Shi'itism in Najaf. He decided to leave his country because the Baath party was pressuring Shiite religious leaders to show support for the government. "I don't believe in it, so I couldn't do that," he says. He went to Egypt to get his master's in Islamic studies at the University of Cairo. Then he went to Kuwait, Pakistan, England, Lebanon and then Syria. In 1989, the late Ayatulla Ul-Uzma, the marja of the Shiite sect, appointed Al-Sahlani imam of the mosque in Queens and he's been here ever since. The marja's position in the Shiite sect is similar to the Pope's in the Roman Catholic Church.

His family is still in Iraq: his mother, two brothers, three sisters and several nieces and nephews. His tribe is also there, the Al-Sahlani tribe in Nasiriya. When he called his brother Kamal last Tuesday, most of his family was in Basra. His mother moved from Najaf to Basra in the last several weeks to be with her family. Kamal told Al-Sahlani about not having any water, but he didn't say a word about the Fedayeen and the Republican Guard patrolling Basra's streets. He couldn't.

Al-Sahlani says Saddam has been preparing for more than a decade to suppress any thought of insurrection among the Shiites in southern Iraq. After the Gulf War in 1991, the Shiites in the south and the Kurds in the north rebelled, overtaking 14 of the country's 18 provinces. The first President Bush had encouraged opposition groups to rebel, but once they did, the U.S. abandoned them, and Saddam crushed their revolt. Thousands were killed and Saddam retained control of the country. But he learned a vital lesson: Never let Iraqi dissidents gather enough force to be a threat.

Since then, Sheikh Al-Sahlani says, Saddam has concentrated on stamping out any opposition, especially in Basra, the revolt's epicenter. Saddam's Baath party extended its reach and influence in the city. If someone wanted a good job, or wanted to attend a sought-after university, he or she would have to join the Baath party. And no one knows who is a Baathist, but they suspect everyone.

"Saddam controls the country in a very strange way," Al-Sahlani says. "Sometimes it reaches a level when a brother can't trust his brother. He will feel that he may be working with the government as a spy in the intelligence forces. By losing that trust even between family members and neighbors, there is no way a movement can rise up against him."

Al-Sahlani has spoken out against Saddam for years and it hasn't gone unnoticed. Saddam's intelligence forces call his family in Iraq and tell them to warn him to stop. His relatives then call Al-Sahlani and ask him to be less strident, to be more careful. But he never stopped. Sure, he fears Saddam's regime may harm his family, but he believes someone has to condemn the government. "Yes, I'm afraid, but somebody has to sacrifice," he says. "Somebody has to say the truth."

Ultimately, it may be the Iraqis, and the American and British who make the sacrifice to topple Saddam. The sheik doesn't want war, but he hopes that this bloodshed may finally rid Iraq of Saddam. "Nobody wants the war, nobody likes war," he says. "I share that with the peace movement. But as a last solution to remove this cancer from the Iraq body, it is justified. Saddam cannot be removed without this war. Not only Saddam, but also his system. For the last 30 years there have been three wars and millions and millions of people have been killed and still he hasn't been evicted. When will it end?"

By Louise Witt

Louise Witt is a writer who lives in Hoboken, N.J.

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