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Small Town Caught Between Two Armies

Times Staff Writer

This town, little more than a collection of dirt houses, sits astride the boundary between British forces and Iraqi hard-liners defending the nation’s second-largest city of Basra. And these days, its residents are struggling to decide on which side to stake their future.

Three decades under Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime have taught people valuable lessons of survival. For many, it’s not clear which side will prevail militarily, whether Americans have the stomach for a protracted guerrilla war, just how vulnerable average people are to retribution by the ruling Baath Party, and whether foreign soldiers in their country is ever a good idea.

“Civilians are caught between two armies,” said a village leader named Hamdani who, like many, asked that his full name not be used. “Where can we go? What will the Americans and British do and for how long? They said it would take 48 hours to reach Baghdad, but it’s already been 10 days. People are scared. Bush stays in America, Saddam in Baghdad, we’re in between.”

At least as significant is what villagers don’t say. Questions about Hussein meet with evasive answers, sidelong glances, silence, lowered voices, pleas for anonymity.

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Villagers fear spies lurk around every corner. A rumor racing through the region Saturday held that an unnamed Iraqi man whose image was broadcast around the world whacking a portrait of Hussein with a shoe has since been executed by Hussein loyalists.

Aid has become another front in the battle for villager loyalty. Saturday in Shuaybah, British and American forces tried to give Iraqis more control over food and water distribution as a first step toward promised civilian control. But after an orderly start, the giveaway, like those run by foreigners earlier in the week, deteriorated into a free-for-all.

As people grabbed at the boxes and some children emerged bloodied, suspicions were fueled among many. Villagers worried that Hussein’s henchmen might find out they had taken food and water from his avowed enemies. Coalition civil affairs officers expressed concern they were inadvertently allowing Baath loyalists to gain control over food distribution.

The constant unease was punctuated by sporadic mortar fire, reinforcing the villagers’ tenuous position between the two armies. Iraqi mortar shells landed in Shuaybah before dawn, destroying two houses. British artillery guns roared throughout the day, firing rounds into neighboring Basra. The British First Fusiliers army unit overseeing the area has embraced symbolism in its bid to win over the locals by appropriating the local Baath headquarters.

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Villagers complain, however, that they get evasive answers when they ask the soldiers how long they intend to stay. Unbeknownst to the British inside, the outer wall of their complex reads in Arabic:

“Iraqis will unite to fight the evil oppression of the American Zionists.”

Fresh in their minds, many residents say, are memories of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when southern Iraqis rebelled thinking Hussein’s regime was finished, only to see him reassert control and exact a bloody revenge.

“The biggest thing exercising people is whether we’re here to stay or not,” said Capt. Joe Butterfill of the First Fusiliers. “If they’re seen to collaborate with us and the regime comes back, they fear being executed.”

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Villagers see oil at the center of their current woes. Almost everyone has at least one family member working at the Shuaybah refinery, a massive, neglected complex of rusted pipes that dominates the town.

Several said Hussein has squandered the national wealth for his personal use, but they also believe that the Bush administration would not have attacked Iraq if not for the oil. “There are dictators everywhere,” one man said. “Why us?”

At the heart of many people’s worries is the Baath Party.

“People have enormous fear,” said Ayat Jabar Farag, a former soldier and Baath member. “Hussein doesn’t even have to be here, just his ghost makes them afraid.”

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Many people join the Baath Party to enter a university or obtain a good job, he said. Only Baath loyalists are allowed to work in strategic industries, including broadcasting. They’re often recruited while young, initially at military camps couched as student centers, he said.

At the top, he added, are a cadre of hard-core believers who intimidate critics, organize domestic spy networks and fire off reports to Baghdad on “undesirables.” It’s this group, he said, that offers the most resistance to British and American forces, fearing that they’ll be punished under any new regime.

Farag predicted there will never be peace among average Iraqis as long as Hussein is alive.

“People will only stop feeling trapped in the middle when Saddam is taken out,” he said. “He’s been in power 30 years, that’s all people know. My whole life, I’ve seen Saddam on the wall, on television, at the call to prayer. There’s a joke that even television static is the sound of Saddam snoring.”

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As a shipment of aid arrived in one Shuaybah neighborhood, several hundred villagers waited patiently behind white tape as a local leader held a wad of ration cards used under the U.N. oil-for-food program.

Civil affairs officers with the British military said they planned to employ the U.N. infrastructure as an early step in returning control to Iraqis and to allow for a fair and more orderly distribution system.

“We want to see equitable ownership and have them take over,” said Maj. Doug Stellmack with the 402nd Civil Affairs unit. “We tried to put a lot of thought into this. We want it to be a template.”

For several hours, villagers waited in line for their names to be called. But as the day wore on, some surged forward, worried that the food would run out.

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The British soldiers shouted at the villagers to back up, and then brought in tanks to act as barriers before using troops to shove the crowd back. Finally, in frustration, the army walked away.

“We did our best,” said Capt. Mark Ellwood of the 1st Cheshire Battalion. “But at the end of the day we’re not getting support from the locals. They don’t like to stand in line.”


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