Iraqis are braced for violence on Hussein birthday

Uncertainty about fate of dictator prompts fears of vengeful return today

Postwar Iraq

April 28, 2003|By Michael Slackman | Michael Slackman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Today is Saddam Hussein's birthday.

Although the deposed Iraqi dictator might find it difficult to celebrate from where he is hiding, if he is alive, the nation he left behind also is struggling to come to terms with his fall.

April 28 has been a national holiday in Iraq for many years. And although most people are now willing to acknowledge their dislike, or worse, for the man, that doesn't mean they didn't look forward to the celebration.

"The Iraqi people were in urgent need of happiness," said Salam Abdullah, 35, who described himself as a military deserter who worked as a driver. "When we celebrated the president's birthday, we could go outside singing, shouting, honking horns. It was cathartic for us to purge what was in our hearts."

There won't be any parades today. There won't be any schoolchildren marching in the streets chanting "Yes, Yes, Saddam Hussein." This capital city won't be decorated in paper flowers or pictures of hearts with SH written in the middle, and it won't shut down for a big party.

Instead, it will be a day of heightened anxiety, even in these anxious times. The now-defunct national holiday has prompted many people to ask a question that is at once infuriating as well as disturbing to Iraqis: Where exactly is Hussein?

Many say they are worried that Hussein will return and that he has picked his birthday to make himself known. Some are afraid that his followers will set off poison gas in the city as revenge for their fallen president.

Rumors abound. He is hiding in Russia. America. Underneath Baghdad. Some say they have seen leaflets with messages from Hussein distributed around town. For others, April 28 has concentrated their fear that the loss of their leader, no matter how despicable he may have been, may unleash forces that will make their lives even worse.

For those who benefited from the regime, there is a bit of wishful thinking, a hope that Hussein has a plan and will unleash it on his birthday.

"He is thinking of a scheme," said Mohammed Hussein Alwan, 30. "There will, by God's will, be something that happens on the 28th of April. I know it."

His brother, Karim, agreed: "Everybody expects there will be massive destruction, that chemical weapons will be used tomorrow. ... I expect there will be a big surprise."

Last year on this day the Baath Party was in control. Dressed in green uniforms and often carrying weapons, party members reminded store owners and schoolteachers, professors and students that this was not just a holiday but a day of adulation. Those were orders, to be disregarded at one's peril.

Perhaps it was coincidence, perhaps the pending birthday, but suddenly much of what has become of Iraq - much of what Iraqis will confront on the day that was a holiday - converged at a busy intersection in the upscale Mansour neighborhood, underneath a towering, light-studded arch that rose above the street. Hanging from the apex of the arch was a huge round photograph of Hussein praying - a portrait that had stared down on the birthday celebration year after year.

Suddenly, a red double-decker bus commandeered by a Shiite Muslim group pulled up underneath the portrait yesterday afternoon. Some of the passengers climbed onto the roof and tried to knock the sign down with a long pole.

"He can go to hell," screamed Khazan Hassan, 35, a clothing merchant who was part of the group. "Bye-bye, no more Saddam."

They struggled, unsuccessfully. Then someone pulled out an AK-47 and fired into the president's likeness. That failed, too.

"Everyone says that the president will be back tomorrow," Hassan shouted over the gunfire. "We don't know. He escaped like a mouse."

A moment later, a black jeep pulled up. A Shiite religious leader stepped out, and a band of men carrying automatic weapons jumped from the back of the vehicle and surrounded him. The leader, Sheik Raid al Kadhimi, sent someone to fetch a cherry picker, and soon one of his followers was up in the air slicing the portrait out of its frame. Hussein came tumbling down, and in a moment his face was trampled by jeering and cheering men.

"This is the will of the creator and the will of the people," al Kadhimi said, having returned to Iraq after the fall of Baghdad and years of exile in Syria.

Michael Slackman writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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