A legacy of fear

Robberies, kidnappings and car bombs have created such a climate of violence that the handover of power, just days away, means little to Iraqis like Ahmed Kamil. 'I don't care about democracy any more,' says the computer expert from Baghdad, 'the main thing is security. The terrorists and occupation forces make life hell.'

Special report by Patrick Cockburn in Iraq

The Independent

27 June 2004

These days, Suad Jabar Kamil, a housewife in her fifties, hides a pistol in her kitchen and her son, a former colonel in the disbanded Iraqi army, is teaching her how to use it. She seldom leaves her house to go out into the streets of Yarmuk, the middle class neighbourhood in Baghdad where she lives, and only answers the door to people she knows.

Whatever freedoms the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein brought to Iraqis, freedom from fear is not one of them. Even those members of the Kamil family who are better off financially than they were before the invasion say the extra money is outweighed by the pervasive insecurity of life.

Sabah Kamil, 64, the father of the family, looks back with nostalgia to a time "when I was not worried when I left my house". He agrees that under the old regime he was scared of the secret police and avoided talking about politics, but "security was 100 per cent".

Fear comes in many forms in Baghdad. Ever since the great looting of the city after the fall of Saddam Hussein, there has been a pervasive fear of thieves who will not hesitate to kill. Shopkeepers such as Mr Kamil take their most valuable stock home. Among the better-off, there is terror of being kidnapped. Hussein Kubba, a businessman, said: "I have never used a gun in my life, but I am going to buy one and learn how to fire it."

The car bombs and suicide bombs means that anybody walking or driving in Baghdad's crowded streets is playing Russian roulette. Drivers try to keep their distance from US vehicles, Iraqi police stations and American bases, but it is not always possible. The car bombers do not care how many Iraqis they kill, and US soldiers are notorious for responding to any threat, either a shot or a bomb, by spraying fire in all directions. None of this is likely to change when sovereignty is officially handed over to the interim government of Iyad Allawi in three days' time.

After working as a civil servant Mr Kamil, a slim balding man with piercing eyes, retired on a small pension and opened a photocopying shop. "I used to keep it open until after midnight if there was work to be done," he says.

These days, business is down by half because an American base closes one end of the main road past his shop. Drivers do not like to stop to use his photocopiers, because the proximity of US soldiers means that his district is considered dangerous.

"I don't care about democracy any more," says Mr Kamil, whose family is from the majority Shia community. "The main thing is security. The terrorists and the occupation forces make life hell."

As a colonel in an engineering battalion in the old army, Ahmed Sabah Kamil, 36, the eldest son of the family, was always opposed to the occupation. He was upset that the Iraqi army had not resisted for longer, believing it could have made a last stand in northern Iraq. Instead, he had to return home partly on foot.

The Kamil family is better off than many in Baghdad because they are well-educated. With a science degree and experience in dealing with computers, Col Kamil was able to find a job when the army was dissolved. But many of the 400,000 other soldiers, suddenly humiliated and unemployed, had no marketable skills.

He does not think Iraq has become more democratic. "Under the old regime you could talk about anybody except Saddam and his family," he says. "Now you don't dare talk about any politician, because they all have militiamen who might kill you."

It is not just political killings or robberies which frighten Iraqis. Violence and the threat of violence are everywhere. Luma Sabah Kamil, 28, is a teacher, one of the professions to benefit most from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein because of a big increase in their salaries. Even so, she says that if she had to choose between the previous regime and the present one, "I would choose the previous one".

This could just be rhetoric, since Luma knows the old regime is not coming back, but she tells a story that illustrates the fear of violence. She detected, when marking exam papers from another province, that there had been mass cheating at one school. She told the supervisor, who nervously replied that she should write a report on this. She pointed out that it was his responsibility. "I saw that he was scared because he thought that if he wrote a report he might be killed by the students who had cheated," she says.

Because of the same fears, the teachers try not to talk about politics or any other controversial topics with their students. Pictures of Saddam Hussein have gone, but one day the staff were surprised to hear students chanting old Baath party slogans. When asked to stop, they responded: "Would you prefer us to sing American patriotic songs?" The teachers told them to keep silent.

The younger daughter of the Kamil family is Shereen, 22, who is studying engineering. After the invasion the students often debated whether they had been occupied or liberated. "I didn't like the old regime, but I hate the idea of being occupied," she says, adding that these days the number of students who support the occupation "is zero". They are consciously patriotic, and go out of their way not to discuss differences between Sunni and Shia Islam, or Arab and Kurd.

One reason for the shift in students' opinions was that three of the most popular and ablest professors at her university were sacked because they had been members of the Baath party. The de-Baathification policy has now been watered down, and the three professors were offered their jobs back. They refused, however, accusing the university authorities of not supporting them when they were fired.

Salah, 33, Ahmed's younger brother and a computer engineer, says he always hated the old regime, and was warned by his father to keep his mouth shut. The war put him in a dilemma: "It was a foreign invasion of my country, but how could I defend Saddam's regime?" Shocked by the looting of Baghdad after the US captured the city, he recalls going with friends to American soldiers to ask them to stop the mass thefts, but they always said the same thing: "We are soldiers, not policemen."

Early in the occupation, Salah witnessed a dramatic example of the refusal of Americans in Baghdad to listen to advice from Iraqis. There was a large pile of abandoned ordinance in one neighbourhood. US troops prepared to blow it up, but local people warned the explosion would destroy their houses. "The Americans went ahead anyway and blew up up four houses, injured 27 Iraqis and killed one of their own men."

Salah has hopes for the new government of Mr Allawi, as long as it can restore security. Like most Iraqis outside Kurdistan he supports attacks on the Americans, but is angered by the killing of Iraqi policemen in attacks by insurgents across central Iraq last week. The suicide bombers have almost invariably killed Iraqis, frequently passers-by, rather than American troops. This has damaged the overall patriotic image of armed resistance, since those killing the police are believed to be foreigners or directed by foreigners.

The opinions of the Kamil family mirror those of most Iraqis, a mood also reflected by Friday sermons in the mosques. After Thursday's slaughter of 100 Iraqis, Shia and Sunni preachers condemned the killings. Sheikh Abdul-Ghafour al-Samarai, a member of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, said: "This is a conspiracy against the people of Iraq and Iraqi resistance. We must unite and be heedful of those who want to drive a wedge among us under the cover of Islam."

While the US occupation is generally detested, the suicide bombing is seen as anti-Iraqi. There is even a convenient conspiracy theory that the Americans are somehow supporting the bombings to justify the occupation. The problem for Mr Allawi is that to win the support of families such as the Kamils he will have to restore order and end the occupation of Iraq - but to stay in power he is dependent on the US.