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[casi] Turn a blind eye

      "... violence and the seductions of privilege have been used to drive
home to all Iraqis the rewards of conformity and the price of dissent." -
Charles Tripp, historian

      Iraq: Unsanctioned Voices
      By Cameron W. Barr| Staff writer of the Christian Science Monitor
      BAGHDAD – Over lamb chops in a busy Baghdad restaurant, Ahmed looks
around nervously, falling silent when anyone comes close enough to listen.
      Dining with a Westerner can raise suspicions. Even now, after decades
under the rule of President Saddam Hussein, Ahmed fears that he will make
the mistake that will bring the authorities to his door.

      "If you are arrested," Ahmed says, "your life is over."

      Ahmed is no subversive. "That is not my character," he says. But he
does resist quietly, carving out a small circle of freedom in which his
family and a few friends can say what they really think about Iraq's
"beloved leader."

      Within this circle, they mock Mr. Hussein, remember the dead and the
disappeared who have run afoul of the regime, and hope aloud for something
better to come along.

      "Ahmed" is a pseudonym for an Iraqi businessman and father of three
who lives in Baghdad. Even speaking to a foreign reporter about life here
entails risk. But at a time of international scrutiny of Iraq and its
regime, Ahmed agreed to provide an intimate picture of his life during the
reign of Hussein.

      Ahmed's candor reflects a growing willingness among some Iraqis to
speak out. For a few days earlier this month, following a general amnesty
for Iraqi prisoners, scores of Iraqis approached the Ministry of Information
in Baghdad and a police facility on the city's outskirts, demanding to know
why their relatives had not emerged from prison. The demonstrators mixed
their complaints with praise for Hussein, but such protests are
unprecedented in this city.

      During more than seven hours of interviews, Ahmed never mentions
Hussein's attempts to acquire biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons, but
he talks at length about life under Hussein's dictatorship.

      Some specifics of Ahmed's account cannot be confirmed, including
allegations that the regime has imprisoned and executed people known to him.
Attempts to verify such details would likely compromise Ahmed's anonymity
and safety. But his assertions are consistent with the accounts from exiled
dissidents, human rights organizations, and scholars.

      He was interviewed without the presence of Ministry of Information
"guides" with whom foreign journalists in Iraq are required to work.

      Ahmed seemed most at ease driving a reporter around Baghdad at night.
His vehicle offered privacy. He seemed certain that it wasn't bugged. On the
road, speaking his mind about the regime, he seemed to breathe more freely.

      A 'gray man' in Baghdad

      Ahmed has a narrow, oval-shaped face and close-set eyes. He combs his
thinning black hair over his balding head and wears a trim, slightly graying
mustache. He doesn't stand out. He wants to escape notice, to be an
innocuous 'gray man.'

      But he has lived this way a long time, maybe too long. "You can do
that for a temporary period, but what about your whole life?" he asks. "You
can't. You get fed up. You make mistakes."

      A few years ago he found that he was being searched intensively every
time he left or arrived in the country; his work demands frequent travel.
Security officials were leafing through every document in his possession,
unpacking his luggage item by item, and threatening to confiscate his laptop
in order to read the contents of its hard drive.

      A friend in the security services confirmed Ahmed's suspicion – his
security file contained an instruction to search him carefully, perhaps
because someone had submitted a negative report about him. Perhaps he had
said the wrong thing, seemed disloyal, made a mistake.

      This time a bribe cleaned up the file. But Ahmed worries that he has
moved one step closer to arrest. What happens next time? What if money won't
be enough?

      Ahmed was a teenager when the Iraqi Baath Party seized power in 1968,
ending a decade of frequent coups d'ιtat that followed the 1958 overthrow of
a British- imposed monarchy. The party touted socialist economic principles
and made broad appeals to Arab unity and renaissance.

      But the immediate goals of its leaders, which included the young
Saddam Hussein, were political vengeance and consolidation. The party
persecuted communists, those loyal to a competing pan-Arab leader, members
of the country's small Jewish community, and even dissident Baathists. Many
were accused of spying for Israel or Iran.

      Some were hanged in public, others shot dead and strung up. Ahmed
remembers that year because he went to Baghdad's Liberation Square to see
the bullet-ridden corpses for himself. He describes the scene
dispassionately; the regime's threat was still personally distant.

      But in the early 1970s, during his first year at university, Ahmed was
"in touch" – not "involved," he emphasizes – with an Islamic-oriented
political group.

      'We shrunk ourselves back'

      One day, members of the group began to disappear. Most were jailed for
several months and then released. Some were killed. The hand of the regime,
which by now had Hussein as its behind-the-scenes strongman, had nearly
grasped Ahmed.

      Ahmed's parents took steps to dodge the crackdown, seeking to protect
their two sons from arrest. He and his family are Shiite Muslims, as are the
majority of Iraqis. But as a result of the divide-and-rule policies of the
country's Ottoman and then British overlords, the Sunni Arab minority has
dominated the politics of modern Iraq. The secular Baath party has never
tolerated Shiite political activity aimed at promoting an Islamic state.

      The family moved away from their predominantly Shiite neighborhood.
They also burned their books – anything political, philosophical, or
religious. "We shrunk ourselves back," he says.

      During this time, just as he was deciding on a career, Ahmed realized
that surviving the regime would be his life's most severe challenge. But he
also saw that survival did not have to mean support.

      Membership has its privileges

      While at university, Ahmed was advised to join the Baath party in
order to win permission to study abroad. He refused and stayed in Iraq. "I
didn't want to be used against my friends, my family," he says, referring to
the intentions of party leaders. "They want to use you, they want you to be
their eyes."

      After earning a master's degree in 1976, Ahmed completed 18 months of
compulsory military service. Then he found another way to reject the regime:
He declined to work for the government and found a job in the Baghdad office
of a foreign company. As in many developing countries, joining the
bureaucracy in Iraq is considered a path to a secure and prestigious future.
But Ahmed knew he would never advance to a senior position without becoming
a Baathist. He also believed that working for a foreign company would allow
him a greater measure of privacy and autonomy. It did, but not right away.

      In 1979, Hussein became president and quickly led Iraq into a bloody,
eight-year war of attrition with Iran. During the 1980s, Ahmed spent another
7 1/2 years in the Army.

      Shortly after Ahmed was forcibly called up in 1982, an Army officer
suggested that he join the party. If not, the officer said, Ahmed would be
sent to the front. A small opportunity to defy the regime had presented
itself. "What," replied Ahmed, "are all those people up there defending the
country not party members?" The officer seemed nonplused at his impertinence
and told him to shut up.

      Ahmed says he spent five wasted years at the front, but never had to
fight the Iranians. In 1988, when the cease-fire was announced, he and his
comrades emptied their rifles into the air in celebration.

      The conflict was pointless, he says. "The only effect of the war was
dead bodies." Iran acknowledged that nearly 300,000 people died in the war;
estimates of the Iraqi dead range from 160,000 to 240,000.

      The suffering continued with Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the
ensuing Gulf War. United Nations sanctions paralyzed the economy – and the
Iraqi branch of Ahmed's company – until the government agreed in 1996 to a
UN program that would allow it to use oil money to buy food and medicine,
begin rebuilding the country, and pay war reparations.

      Ahmed began to have more to do at the office.

      One leader, many eyes

      Thanks to the UN oil-for-food program, business is good now. But
survival demands accepting the intrusions of the regime.

      Ahmed suspects his international phone calls are monitored; he knows
his e-mails are read by the authorities. He once complained to the state-run
Internet service provider that his messages were taking days to reach their
recipients. An official advised him to write more simply, presumably to
speed the work of the intelligence agents vetting Ahmed's e-mail.

      In his office Ahmed keeps a picture of himself and a senior member of
the regime. They met only once, but Ahmed made sure to have a photograph

      "We keep it here in case police or people from the security services
visit, so they can see we have relations with people high in the regime," he
says. "So they know we are not easy people."

      Party officials visit him several times a year, both at home and in
the office, and require him to fill out detailed questionnaires or submit to
interviews. The interrogations are always the same – about his background,
his work, his travel; about whether he or anyone in his family has ever been
involved in politics or been in trouble with the authorities. They are an
unsubtle method of keeping tabs on Ahmed's life.

      A couple of years ago, Ahmed bought a black-market satellite dish –
they are banned in Iraq – and set it up where it could be seen only from the
sky. He was interested mainly in better entertainment. Iraqi television
presents a limited menu of Arab and Western programs and features hours of
propaganda about Hussein every day.

      After a month or so of enjoying his satellite television, Ahmed
learned that the government was in the midst of an unannounced crackdown.
Those found with dishes were being sentenced to six months in prison and
fined the cost of the dish. Worse, the government was promising half the
fine to informers.

      Such are the methods of the regime. "You begin to worry about your
neighbors," Ahmed says. "You never know when someone might overhear one of
your children talk about a satellite show."

      He dismantled the dish.

      Ahmed's personal prosperity – the foreign company pays well,
especially by the standards of Iraq's atrophied economy – brings certain
liberties many Iraqis do not have, such as the freedom to travel, to own a
car, to eat well. When Ahmed shops in the market, and sees people buying an
egg or two as he buys 30, he knows he has it good.

      But by rejecting the party and denying any voluntary support to the
government, he has also created a priceless space in which he can resist the
regime. This circle of freedom extends only as far as the people he trusts:
his family and perhaps a dozen friends he has known since childhood.

      Among these people, he can discuss the dictatorship in frank terms,
even deride it. He tells a joke that ridicules the dictator. It goes like

      Hussein hears that many people are emigrating. He can't understand why
and goes the airport to investigate. He sees large numbers of people waiting
to proceed through immigration and takes a place at the back of a line.

      The people in line recognize him and invite him to the front. Then he
realizes that the vast crowds of departing Iraqis have suddenly disappeared.
He catches one man leaving the area and asks him where he is going. "Well,"
the man replies, "if you're leaving the country, we're staying."

      Telling this story as he drives through Baghdad's darkened streets,
Ahmed breaks into laughter even before the punch line. He tells another
joke, one that imagines a deposed Hussein fleeing a mob of Iraqis. But it is
too crude for a family newspaper.

      'We want change, but...'

      Ahmed's dissent only goes so far. Over the years he has watched the
regime silence its enemies with death, imprisonment and fear. He concluded
long ago that any sort of organized, violent struggle against Hussein and
the Baath party was futile. What he has seen and heard helps explain his
enduring fear of arrest.

      In the early 1980s, the authorities detained one of Ahmed's cousins,
and the man's wife, and accused the couple of spreading rumors about the
regime. The cousin disappeared. Eventually the government sent his family a
death certificate. "We consider him dead, but there is no coffin, nothing,"
Ahmed says quietly. The wife spent 15 years in prison and was released in
the late 1990s. She has moved abroad.

      A few years ago, a friend of Ahmed's disappeared for a week. When the
friend resurfaced, he explained that he had been detained by the authorities
and then released after they realized they had mistaken him for someone
else. The man was clearly in shock from the experience, but refused to
discuss the treatment he had received. After several months, he and his
family emigrated to Canada.

      Charles Tripp, a British historian of Iraq, has written: "[T]he
selective, exemplary, and often terrible use of violence and the seductions
of privilege have been used to drive home to all Iraqis the rewards of
conformity and the price of dissent." Ahmed is living testament to Dr.
Tripp's observation.

      In the early 1990s, Ahmed says, he heard that Raji Tikriti, a
prominent military doctor from Hussein's own Tikrit region, had been
arrested for not revealing the existence of a plot against the regime. He
was reportedly killed by hungry dogs as Hussein and several cabinet
ministers watched. "It shocked everyone," says Ahmed.

      True or untrue, it is exactly the sort of story that the regime
promulgates, says Tripp, who teaches at the School of Oriental and African
Studies in London, because the fear it instills helps Hussein maintain
control. If Hussein could brutally kill someone from his own clan, many
Iraqis would conclude that he could do the same to anyone. "We are
hopeless," Ahmed sighs, speaking of the Iraqi people as a whole. "We are
controlled." And later: "Maybe we are defeated within ourselves."

      He wrestles constantly with the temptation to leave, but worry about
those he would leave behind keeps him home. That is not all. "It's my
country; I feel comfortable here. Why should I have to leave?" Referring to
the regime, he adds: "They should have to go."

      The American way?

      With President Bush threatening to depose Hussein, Ahmed has begun to
consider an American intervention in Iraq's affairs, one that might end the
regime. Would he support the US in such a war?

      The quandary pains him. "This is the critical question," he says,
rubbing his eyes and forehead. "We want change but we want it a different
way." He is skeptical about the aftermath – the prospect of a US occupation
followed by the imposition of a leadership made up of members of the exiled
Iraqi opposition, many of whom are regarded as cowards and opportunists by
those inside the country.

      The problem is that change the American way seems to be the only
option available. "They always say, let the Iraqi people decide," he says.
"That's like telling a man in jail to free himself. He can't."

      The only thing Iraqis can do, Ahmed says, is wait. They have no
influence over the US. They can't change their government themselves. "We
are like cockroaches feeding on sewage," he says. "We survive."

      • Part 2 – Out of official earshot, words of dissent – appears in
tomorrow's edition.

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