Iraqi Exiles See No Hope for Nation

Times Staff Writer

A smile of recognition touched Salma's lined face as the Iraqi refugee watched footage of U.N. weapons inspectors pulling into a dusty industrial site.

"That's where I used to work," she said, nodding at the television screen, which was showing the vast complex that includes the Al Hatteen factory. "The U.N. has been there twice already this time, but they will not find anything. They came eight times before they left in 1998. They never found anything."

But not because there wasn't anything there, said Salma, who asked that her real name not be used.

"We made bombs there, big bombs with chemicals on their heads," she said of the factory where she worked through much of 1998.

Interviews with Salma and about two dozen other Iraqis now living in Jordan offer a disturbing portrait of life under Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime -- sometimes secretive and fear-filled, increasingly impoverished and, above all, with little hope.

But perhaps more strikingly, they offer a bleak view of the future, even if Hussein is toppled.

Many of these Iraqis believe that he still has chemical and biological weapons that in a last gasp he would use -- not necessarily against U.S. forces but on Iraqis who sided with the Americans, especially minority Kurds and Shiite Muslims.

And they fear that in the aftermath of Hussein's regime, the country would be torn by revenge killings and perhaps civil war as ethnic and religious groups vied for power.

With such prospects, most say they cannot imagine returning to their homeland. This is in contrast to emigres from Afghanistan, which is even poorer than Iraq yet has seen a historic level of returning refugees since the Taliban fell in late 2001.

"We would rather begin from zero again," said Najat, 36, a mother of four. The family members sold every valuable, including her husband's truck, to pay smugglers to get them out of Iraq after they received threats from the government because of her exiled brother's involvement in politics.

Although life is miserable for Najat in Jordan -- her husband is jobless and her older children shun school for fear the police will follow them home and deport the family -- there is too little left for her in Iraq.

"It would be better to begin again in a new country, to educate our children properly. It would be a shame for them to grow up in Iraq," she said.

For years, Jordan has offered one of the easiest routes out of Hussein's nation because no visa is required for Iraqis. Now it is home to about 300,000 Iraqi immigrants, according to estimates by humanitarian groups. Many refugees live a shadowy half-life in rundown apartment buildings on the steep back streets of Amman, the capital.

They work illegally, smuggle letters and money to relatives still in Iraq and are constantly on the lookout for the Iraqi secret police, who have a significant presence here, and for Jordanian police, who often deport busloads of Iraqis to the border.

Numbers are hard to come by, but the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees ranks Iraqis third among people who have fled their homelands, behind Afghans and Burundians.

Iraqi refugees interviewed recently in Amman included erstwhile cogs in Hussein's vast machine: a former bodyguard to the dictator, ex-soldiers, a palace electrician, a soccer player on the team run by the Iraqi leader's elder son, Uday, and a number of middle-class Christians. But the exiles also include shopkeepers unable to make ends meet, impoverished taxi drivers, farmhands, factory workers, and homemakers who now make a thin living by selling cigarettes on the streets.

Munir Othman's story is typical. The apolitical 30-year-old never imagined he would be on the run from the secret police. Now, he is always looking over his shoulder.

During mandatory military service, Othman worked as an electrician in a complex of seven palaces. After completing his national service, he was ordered to stay on to install and maintain the air-conditioning system. He was well paid and initially felt a certain awe at working in the palaces.

"Saddam Hussein lives in a different world," he recalled. "Even kings could not dream of sleeping in a bed like there is in his bedroom. This bed was like the sultan's from the Ottoman period. It had columns and a solid gold dome on top and silk curtains all around."

But he and other workers were accompanied to and from work by secret police and, once a month, were questioned intensively about what they had seen in the palaces. Othman grew increasingly nervous that he would make a mistake for which he would be punished.

Among the things he recalls seeing was a sudden rush by soldiers to move valuable weapons and weapons system components out of the palace complex. That happened in the early winter of 1998, shortly before Operation Desert Fox -- airstrikes by the Americans and British in retaliation for Iraq's resistance to inspections.

On a recent winter day, Othman -- shivering as if he was still inside the palaces' cavernous halls -- said he is afraid to say what weapons he saw being moved.

In 1999, after nine years in the job, he couldn't bear the constant scrutiny any longer. Othman, a Shiite Muslim -- Hussein and his allies are Sunnis -- was especially afraid that he and his family would face retribution if he quit his job and remained in the country. He decided to leave to give his family the ability to deny any knowledge of his whereabouts.

He begged a well-off uncle for money to pay smugglers to take him over the border. A bus driver agreed to do the job for about $1,700. Othman crossed the border hiding in the luggage compartment of the man's bus, wedged between suitcases and duffel bags.

Almost immediately, his family was hauled in for questioning -- and then brought in two more times. The most recent arrest, a few months ago, ended after eight days when his parents signed documents saying they knew nothing of their son's activities and then promised to report any news of him.

The effect, he said, has been to ensure that he never communicates with his family, for fear that it would put them in danger.

Will he go back? No, he said.

"After Saddam Hussein, the country will face terrible anarchy, political and religious," he said. "America doesn't have to find a solution. America cannot solve the problems between the ethnic and sectarian communities in Iraq."

Mohammed Hassan, a Shiite Muslim friend of Othman and a former soccer player for Uday Hussein's team, sees a similar future.

"If the Americans leave, there will be civil war. If they stay, there will be civil war," Hassan said.

As to what might prevent that, he said: "I don't trust any politicians. It has to be through Islamic imams like in Iran. That's the only way."

Hassan's only experience with politicians was not encouraging. He was imprisoned briefly as punishment for criticizing Uday Hussein's efforts to recruit an Olympic soccer team that left out professional players like Hassan. Later, he was ordered to come to a meeting with the younger Hussein.

Convinced that such an audience could mean only that he was slated for torture, imprisonment or possibly death, he went underground, obtained a fake passport and fled to Jordan in 1999.

Civil war in the wake of an overthrow of Saddam Hussein is also a frequent topic of conversation among Jordanians. It is widely believed that revenge killings would be inevitable. The only questions are whether they would turn into full-fledged warfare and how widespread the fighting would be.

"What is clear is that there has been a failure to find a replacement for the existing regime -- and that means a civil war is a great risk because Iraqis feel they need to settle scores," said Labib Kamhawi, a Jordanian political analyst and businessman who often visits Iraq.

It will be worse than that, said Farouk, 29, a Kurdish refugee who shares a dilapidated two-room apartment here with four other Iraqis, including a former guard at one of Hussein's palaces.

"If the Americans attack, the last option is that Saddam will attack the Shiites and Kurds with chemical and biological weapons," Farouk predicted. "We are afraid for our families, but we don't know what to do. We live too far away."

Particularly with respect to chemical weapons, few seem to doubt that those weapons would be used, and they believe that this is a scenario the U.S. must consider. Hussein has used chemical weapons both against the Iraqi Kurds and during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

Adnan abu Odeh, a former advisor to the late King Hussein of Jordan who was for some years the country's permanent representative to the United Nations, has little doubt that such weapons would be part of any war.

"If he has them, he will use them," Odeh said. "Because for Saddam, it's the last battle."

One person who is sure that chemical weapons would be part of any war in Iraq is Salma, the former weapons factory worker. She did not work with chemicals. Her job was to put TNT into bombs. But she says that many of the women with whom she took the bus to work were dealing with chemical substances -- the same ones, she was told, that were used in the Iran-Iraq war.

"Their hands and legs were always yellow when they came to take the bus, and they stayed yellow," said Salma, who recalled that her friends would scrub over and over in an unsuccessful effort to wash off the substance, an extremely toxic form of mustard gas.

"Most women had children with deformities," she recalled, looking with relief at her entirely normal 10-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, quietly studying their English workbooks on the other side of the room.

Whether chemical weapons are used by Hussein, the larger worry is that there will a long period of upheaval in Iraq in which ethnic and religious hatreds will come to the fore.

"What is important is the extent of the element of vengeance," said Odeh, the former advisor to Jordan's late king. "Iraq is a country of extremes. If fundamentalism arises, it will cause a civil war."

That is certainly the outcome that refugees dread most, said Jamal Hattar, who is the head of the Jordan office of Caritas, a Roman Catholic charity.

"Iraqis used to have so much pride and confidence in their future," he said. "Now they are becoming the outsiders of the whole world."

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Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman contributed to this report.

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