In Jordan, worried Iraqis want to go home

Many express fears for families, resentment toward U.S. and Hussein

War In Iraq

April 11, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AMMAN, Jordan - It is no more than a sandy lot on the outskirts of downtown, and it has a small taxi stand, a bus terminal and a milling crowd divided into two groups: those desperate to get to Iraq and others willing to take them for a price.

The would-be passengers did not have enough money to bargain seriously with the drivers, whose prices have jumped six-fold in the past week. Buses stopped running days ago, and one sat yesterday with its doors open but the driver nowhere to be found.

Ali Mohammed, a 21-year-old laborer, paced nervously. His parents live in a poor neighborhood of Baghdad that he thinks was struck by two American missiles. He hasn't been able to talk to his mother or father since the war began.

He dug deep into the pockets of his jeans and pulled out a fistful of crumpled bills totaling less than $30. A cab driver lounging in the front seat of his car shook his head. The daylong trip to Baghdad, across a lawless desert, now costs $700 and up.

"I'm very worried," said Mohammed, quickly adding that he grew up fearing the reign of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and is happy that it appears to be over. "I need to get there, any way I can."

About 400,000 Iraqis live in Jordan. Many, like Mohammed, arrived after the Persian Gulf war in 1991 to escape economic devastation only to find menial jobs. Iraqis and Jordanians used to travel relatively freely between the two countries, and about 4,300 Iraqis went home during the first two weeks of the war, some to fight against the Americans.

Most left from this lot, on buses with passage paid by the Iraqi Embassy or in taxis, whose drivers were charging $100.

Yesterday, Mohammed shared the shock of many here at seeing U.S. troops defeat an Arab army. They say they were stunned that the Iraqi army apparently ran away from the fight.

"I thought there at least would be a defense of Baghdad," Mohammed said. "I thought there were going to be martyrs. But the Iraqis didn't believe in the regime, so they left their weapons and went home."

Mohammed said he has no idea how his father, 77, and mother, 65, are doing now. But under Hussein, he said, "they lived in fear."

These sometimes-contradictory views perhaps foreshadow the difficulties that lie ahead for the American military as it turns to rebuilding a country starving for freedom and food.

"Iraqis and Jordanians are feeling not only angry but desperate," said Labib Kamhawi, a political analyst here who heads a chemical company that until the war did business with Iraq. "They had expected the Iraqis to mount a defense. Instead, the Iraqis were left without proper leadership to take them into battle."

People are stunned by the images of Iraqis celebrating, and incensed by the looting.

"Your troops are allowing the people to destroy their own country," he said. "Is this what it means to be under American occupation?"

But there is little consensus. At the taxi lot, men argued the pros and cons of the war. Samer Obaidi, 40, was one of the few Iraqis who professed to be not only against the war but pro-Hussein.

He described himself as a businessman who lives in Dubai and garnered considerable attention when he parked his shiny black BMW next to dented taxis with exhaust pipes dragging on the ground.

"We will kick the Americans out," said Obaidi, even as he acknowledged that Hussein's rule is over. "The only opposition leaders I would support are those who did not side with the scumbag Americans."

That was too much for most of the other people in the lot, who shouted him down with bitter insults.

One person angry with Obaidi was Ahmed Abdel Kathem, 33, who was seeking transportation to Baghdad. He'd left after the first gulf war to find work in Jordan. He has no love for Hussein, but called the war "a crime."

"The Americans need to leave and leave now," he said. "We don't need them. We hope that Saddam is still alive. It's not that we liked him. We didn't. But this is not about Saddam.

"I don't want Iraq to be insulted like this, and that is what the Americans have done."

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