Tracing Iraq's Painful Arc, From the Past to the Future

Wamidh Nadhme, 64, a Sunni Arab, was an acquaintance of Saddam Hussein before his rise to power.
Wamidh Nadhme, 64, a Sunni Arab, was an acquaintance of Saddam Hussein before his rise to power. (By Anthony Shadid -- The Washington Post)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 12, 2005

BAGHDAD -- The doors of Wamidh Nadhme's stately house along the Tigris River open to the discord of today's Iraq. In his neighborhood of Adhamiyah, a campaign poster for Ahmed Chalabi, the often-reinvented U.S. ally, proclaims, "We liberated Iraq." Another slogan declares a vote in Thursday's election "a nail in the coffin of the occupation." Congesting the streets are the other promises for a country on a precipice: prosperity, security, stability or, in the simple words of one, "a better life."

"In the past, I used to see things more clearly," said Nadhme, a burly, 64-year-old professor of political science with short-cropped gray hair and a cough from a lifelong cigarette habit, as he sat at his home. "But now I'm getting confused."

Nadhme is a Sunni Muslim, though he would identify himself as such only after a series of insistent qualifications. He is an Arab, but he eschews the chauvinism that colors Arab culture's most nationalist currents. He is an Iraqi first and foremost, he likes to say. He utters the word with pride, as though it justifies a lifetime of sacrifices, challenges and compromises: the torture he endured as a young activist, years of sometimes lonely exile in Egypt, a precarious, admittedly odd protection under Saddam Hussein that allowed him to speak out at the height of the Baath Party's tyranny, and a determination since then to salvage his country's future.

In three years of conversations, beginning before the U.S. invasion of March 2003, Nadhme has gone from hope, underlined by suspicion, to anger, resignation and, often these days, despair. It would probably go too far to call his beliefs representative of all Sunnis' opinions ahead of this week's vote to choose a new parliament. His words are too careful -- sometimes soulful, always precise, delivered in the didactic cadence of a teacher. His feelings are too conflicted, often too nuanced. But in his sentiments is a tale of the fortunes, frustrations and sense of siege of his community, forced these days, sometimes reluctantly, to organize itself solely around the axis of sect, in a country whose borders between Shiite Arab, Sunni Arab and Kurd are ever hardening.

Nadhme laments that future. He still chafes at the U.S. occupation. He dismisses the prospect of the coming election as a force for reconciliation. And he cringes at the prospect, however remote, of an eventual victory by insurgents.

To make sense of it all, he recalls a line he has uttered often these years: "Wrong beginnings tend to lead to wrong ends." And he falls back on the hope that springs from his identity as an Iraqi: reconciliation that will create a homeland for all, rather than a country in name only. In his house, as the sound of occasional gunfire and the melancholy call to prayer drift through an open door, he pondered that fading hope. Even he wonders whether his words are a relic of the past or a voice for the future.

Nadhme paused, letting the silence accent his uncertainty. He sat back in his chair, his moustache melting into a beard of a few days. He was tired, recovering from a hospital stay this fall. His doctor had told him to quit smoking; he had cut down from two packs to 15 cigarettes a day. The doctor had told him to exercise -- a daily walk, perhaps -- but it was too dangerous to stroll through the streets.

In all, the professor admitted feeling glum. "It is partly because of the heart attack," he said, relishing one of the cigarettes that his children were rationing, "but more than that, I'm depressed because I can't find a way out, an exit, from this whole problem."

A Political Life

The son of a government official and member of parliament, Nadhme entered politics young. He was drawn to communism and nationalism, ideologies shaped less by sect and ethnicity than by the currents redefining the Third World at the time: class and colonialism. In 1956, at age 15, he joined the party that would one day become Hussein's, the Baath Party. The party was radical, secular and modernizing, and its platform stood on two pillars: Arab unity and socialism, seen by some as a way to redistribute the oil wealth transforming the Middle East. In those days, the party had yet to be corrupted by time in power.

Nadhme endured the consequences of his activism. At age 20, imprisoned on suspicion of subversion, he was tortured so badly that, on his release, he began carrying a gun. He vowed never to be taken alive again. He went underground. In time, he chose exile in Egypt, beginning an academic career that culminated with his dissertation on the 1920 revolt against the British, a revolt that has emerged as the modern country's founding myth. He returned permanently to Iraq in 1974.

In Egypt, he had made an acquaintance that shadowed his later years. In October 1959, a group of young Baathists -- Hussein among them -- ambushed the car of Iraq's leader. The assassination attempt in Baghdad failed, but some of the assailants escaped and eventually made their way to Cairo. Nadhme met their bus coming from the Cairo airport and brought Hussein and another conspirator to his modest apartment. Hussein stayed three nights, then went off on his own, but he and Nadhme remained acquaintances.

In 1960, when Hussein had his tonsils taken out at Cairo's Kasr al-Aini hospital, Nadhme thought it proper to pay his fellow Iraqi a visit. He was the only one to do so, and he stayed until Hussein awoke from the anesthesia. Nadhme's face was the first he saw. Hussein apparently remembered the gesture, even after Nadhme left the party, disillusioned, in 1961.

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