Quietly Surviving in A Not-So-New Iraq

By Cameron W. Barr
Sunday, May 11, 2008

In the last years of Saddam Hussein's rule, eager for some relief from Iraq's dreary state-run television, a businessman named Emad T. Yousif bought an illegal satellite dish. He set it up on his Baghdad rooftop, making sure that it couldn't be seen from the street or his neighbors' houses. Only then did he realize that he had gone too far.

There was no way to prevent his young children from letting slip a reference to the new entertainment they were suddenly enjoying, which might get back to their friends' parents, which might get back to the regime. Such was life during what Iraqis call "the Saddam time": the very real possibility that the parents of your kids' friends would rat you out.

He dismantled the dish.

Yousif enjoyed some personal prosperity and a whispered, furtive liberty under the Baathist regime, always striving to avoid any undue attention from the vast intelligence apparatus that helped keep Hussein in power. Balding, oval-faced, eyes slightly downcast, Yousif played the gray man well.

Five years into the U.S. effort to remake his country, Yousif, now 53, plays that role still. If the essence of freedom is the opportunity to assert oneself, Iraq has a long way to go. Now as then, Iraqis who want to survive shrink back into themselves, lie low, let attention find someone else.

Satellite dishes are no longer a problem; everyone has them. And the Stasi-like repression of the dictatorship is over: Government agents no longer visit Yousif once a week to ask after his well-being and whether -- polite smile -- the intelligence service might be of some help. He is certain no one is vetting his e-mails or recording his overseas phone calls.

But in this post-Saddam time, other threats impose themselves. Material ostentation draws kidnappers, political engagement invites assassination, and time spent outside the seeming safety of four walls carries the risk of being caught in the middle of horrific violence. In 2006, Yousif's cousin, an engineer, "was driving in the street, and they shot him," Yousif recalled when I met with him in Baghdad in March. The family has no idea who killed the man, or why, or even if there was a reason.

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told Congress last month that levels of violence had significantly diminished. But Yousif is still afraid to live in the high-end Baghdad neighborhood where he has built his dream home, because from time to time there are "accidents" in the area. Accidents? "I mean killing," he explained in his clear but sometimes imperfect English. "We don't know the reason behind this killing, but it still tells you that it's not under control."

The chaotic aftermath of an invasion intended, in part, to promote democracy has convinced Yousif to stay as far away as possible from power: "We are people not involved in hot issues, which is politics or religion or whatever it is. We are normal, neutral people. I believe most of Iraq is like this. And we got experience from the old regime how we can manage ourselves."

In October 2002, Iraq beckoned the international media to cover a referendum on Hussein's rule. The scores of foreign reporters visiting Baghdad overwhelmed the Ministry of Information, enabling me to slip away from my government "minder" and take a taxi to Yousif's office. I arrived alone and unannounced, bearing an introduction from a mutual friend in Jordan. Yousif took me into his confidence.

We spent many hours together over the next few days, mainly in his SUV, driving around Baghdad at night. He told me that he felt safest in the car, which he was certain was not bugged. Meeting anyplace else -- his home or office, my hotel, a restaurant -- attracted undue attention.

Then the country manager for a Swiss-based agricultural products company, Yousif enjoyed an enviably productive life in an atrophied economy. He was proud of his nation, his family, his career. He despised Hussein for the Iran-Iraq War and the U.N. sanctions the dictator had provoked by maintaining the illusion that he was hiding weapons of mass destruction.

The regime's grip was both brutal and banal. Yousif told me about relatives and friends who had come under suspicion. Some had disappeared, some were dead, some were in exile.

He also described what had happened after he established an e-mail account with the state-run Internet service provider: His messages were taking days to reach their recipients abroad. When he complained, officials told him to write more simply to make it easier for the intelligence service to read his e-mail.

As we talked, U.S. forces were beginning to arrive in Kuwait, and an invasion seemed likely. I waited until the end of our time together to ask Yousif whether it was a good idea for President Bush to topple Hussein. I remember how trapped he looked by the question. "We want change," he said, "but we want it a different way."

The rest of his answer became the ending to the profile of Yousif -- whose identity I shielded by using the pseudonym Ahmed -- I wrote for the Christian Science Monitor, my employer at the time:

" 'They always say, let the Iraqi people decide,' he says. 'That's like telling a man in jail to free himself. He can't.'

"The only thing Iraqis can do, Ahmed says, is wait. They have no influence over the US. They can't change their government themselves. 'We are like cockroaches feeding on sewage,' he says. 'We survive.' "

I saw Yousif briefly in August 2003, after the U.S.-led invasion. He showed off his newly built house, a stylish villa with a circular atrium decorated with a stained-glass window. He described how his sons had explored two ransacked houses in his posh Baghdad neighborhood. The intelligence service had used one building to store weapons and the other as a repository for files, including cassette tapes of international phone calls to or from Iraq.

Like many Iraqis, Yousif was still giddy that the Saddam time was over. Baghdad's mood was lighter; the anti-American insurgency was just gaining momentum.

I was happy to visit Yousif again this past March. He is now the general manager of his own firm, which imports and sells seeds, fertilizers and other agricultural and industrial goods. His company's sales to the private sector were $1.1 million in 2006, he told me; he expects them to reach $2 million this year. "I have an optimistic feeling," he said.

But the post-invasion conduct of the Americans continued to dismay him. When militaries topple governments, they usually maintain order, he observed. "But the Americans, they came here, and they break all the walls for the people, and all the laws fall down, and they let the people like this, so the people live like in a jungle."

When a client fails to pay for goods or services, Yousif asks mutual friends or members of the client's family or tribe to intercede. In the absence of a viable court system, shame-by-network generally makes people pay up. "You can close the book after a while," he said.

Yousif had once been pained at the thought of U.S. intervention; he now appeals for its continuation. If there is a rapid U.S. pullout, he said, "the scenario is very clear: The Kurds immediately will spin out. In the south, the Shia will spin out immediately, from eastern Baghdad to the south." The splintering could be avoided, he argued, if the Americans continue shepherding Iraqi politicians toward new elections and help them to build better security forces. "If you decide to come to this, you have to continue it; this is a commitment," he concluded.

Yousif's immediate family remains in Jordan, where they have lived since mid-2004. He hopes that they will be able to return in the summer of 2009, perhaps to resume life in their Baghdad villa. He brought me once again to the house, which he now uses to store goods for his company. We walked through the dusty atrium, the formal living room filled with gilded furniture draped in sheets, the overgrown garden.

As we parted, we stood in the driveway. He pointed to other houses in the neighborhood. "This is an empty house, this is empty house, this is empty house, this is empty house, this is empty house," he said. "You cannot live alone, in an empty area."

The main threat is kidnapping, and Yousif's response is discretion. He stays in his brother's house in a middle-class part of Baghdad. He keeps his SUVs on cement blocks so they can't be stolen and drives a decrepit Volkswagen Golf.

He could afford to hire bodyguards, but they attract attention. And just as he did during the Hussein regime, he doesn't use a part of his name that would identify him as a Shiite from the south. Emad T. Yousif could be Shiite or Sunni or Christian. He could be nobody.


Cameron W. Barr is The Washington Post's Middle East editor.

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