Iraqi Exiles Eagerly Await Chance to Go Home

Times Staff Writer

Mohammed Darghashan plans to walk several hundred miles across the desert in a fit of celebration. Kassem Ali vows to eat and drink his way to Baghdad in one giant, extended party, while Mahdi Kazzaz said he'll fast for a week in an expression of thanks to the heavens.

With Saddam Hussein's days in power possibly numbered, about 40,000 Iraqi exiles in Kuwait can hardly contain their excitement at the prospect of a deposed Hussein and a chance to return to their homeland after decades abroad.

"The very Earth and sky will celebrate such a joyous event," Abdul Rasoul Ali, a sheik, said Tuesday.

At the Shiite Hussainia Karbala shrine here, an unofficial town hall for many exiled Iraqis, men gather nightly for prayers, gossip and a late meal. During Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, several hundred Iraqi exiles hid in the building's giant hall, which is now decorated with chandeliers, carpets and banners with sayings from the Koran.

Conversation soon turns to the fate the exiles expect to befall Hussein, who they said decimated Iraq, a cradle of civilization that was among the Middle East's most fertile lands until he took over.

If the Americans get lucky and catch the Iraqi president, one exile said, a trial in The Hague on war crimes charges would be fitting.

Others preferred to see Hussein fester in an American prison cell at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Kassem Ali, a jewelry dealer, thought he had an even better idea.

"I want Saddam Hussein to be put in a moving cage and wheeled around Iraq," he said. "Iraqis would probably tear him apart though."

Despite growing expectations of a short war and Hussein being deposed within days, paranoia after years of life abroad is second nature in this community.

Abd el Rasoul Ali lowers his voice and hesitates before identifying the Iraqi city of Karbala as his birthplace -- wary even now of the extended reach of Hussein's spies and the ever-present danger to his relatives back home.

"Most Iraqis outside Iraq hide what town they're from, or make up something different every year," Rasoul Ali said. "That fear will disappear only when Saddam disappears."

Many exiles were forced out of Iraq as far back as 30 years ago -- for their faith, for crossing the wrong petty official, for showing less than blind devotion to the regime or for any of a number of minor transgressions against Hussein's Arab Baath Socialist Party.

Opinions differed among the Iraqis here on how long it would take their country to get back on its feet.

Some said a rapid influx of well-educated Iraqis from around the world would jump-start the country's tattered society and economy within two years.

Others said the damage is far deeper, as Hussein has systematically killed individual initiative and promoted thuggery, and they predicted that the country might stagnate for a decade or more.

Everyone has a horror story.

Mohamed Darghashan was forced to abandon a thriving pharmacy, his family plot of many generations and all his belongings in a matter of hours about 30 years ago simply because he was a Shiite Muslim. The majority of Iraqis are Shiites, but control of the nation rests with minority Sunnis, who belong to another branch of Islam.

Darghashan claims that, a few years later, his cousin was seized by Iraqi soldiers while on a walk and never seen again.

Kassem Ali left Iraq voluntarily 24 years ago, amid signs that things were getting worse, by arranging a temporary business visa to Kuwait and eventually applying for asylum.

Within a few years, he said, the Iraqi regime killed his brothers, one for listening to an Iranian radio station, the other for exchanging local currency for U.S. dollars.

"All those Iraqi people on TV protesting the war are being forced to by Saddam Hussein," he said. "In truth, they prefer anyone but Saddam, almost even" Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

As the evening comes to a close, the men throw out one last opinion before scarfing down a few final bites of mutton and beans over rice and making a move for the door.

"I just want to die in Iraq," said the 85-year-old Darghashan, scratching his patchy white beard. "God willing, I'll see you there."

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