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Many Iraqis Fear Hussein Is Plotting Return to Power

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___ The War As It Happened ___

Washington Post coverage from March-April 2003, including articles, videos, photos and opinion.

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By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 7, 2003; Page A01

BAGHDAD, July 6 -- The graffiti extolling former president Saddam Hussein went up a few nights ago, scrawled in black and red paint throughout Baghdad's Adhamiyah neighborhood. The wall of a girls' school promised that "Saddam the hero will be back." The side of a shop proclaimed that "Saddam is still our leader."

Although residents eagerly painted over slogans praising Hussein in the days after his government fell, they said no one dared to remove the latest messages. "His people have come back," said Sarmed Ahmed, the owner of a music shop in the neighborhood. "Everyone is too scared."

After weeks of jubilation over Hussein's ouster -- during which people here blithely lampooned him, toppled his statues and seized offices of his once-ruling Baath Party -- many Iraqis have become increasingly spooked that the former dictator and his loyalists are plotting a return to power. That concern has escalated in recent days with the release of a recorded message purportedly from Hussein as well as a surge in violent attacks against both U.S. troops and Iraqis who have cooperated with U.S. forces.

The recording and the attacks have unnerved not just U.S. soldiers but also ordinary Iraqis. The incidents, particularly the killing on Saturday of seven Iraqi police cadets who had participated in a U.S. training program, have led some here to start changing their behavior -- and their assumptions about the future.

"When the American soldiers first came to Baghdad, we thought we would never hear from Saddam again. We thought he would be killed or he would flee the country," said Abdelrahim Warid, the owner of a small shop selling canned drinks and packaged foods. Now we know he is in our midst -- and that is very dangerous for us."

The belief that Hussein's supporters are gaining ground has revived some of the fear that paralyzed discourse in this country for the 24 years he was president. Instead of lambasting Hussein to strangers as they did just a few weeks ago, Iraqis have become more reluctant to criticize him in public, out of concern that he might return or that his supporters might overhear and seek revenge.

In conversations with a score of merchants, students, former government workers and other ordinary Iraqis over the past two days, almost all said they were pleased that Hussein was toppled. But most refused to allow their full names to be associated with any comments critical of the former president.

"You can't speak now, just like you couldn't speak during Saddam's time," said a math teacher who would identify himself by only his first name, Rami, which "would not be enough for them to catch me."

Another man, a student named Khalid, refused to speak about Hussein in front of his friends. "Things are getting worse, not better," he said. "Everyone is afraid."

Some Iraqis said recent attacks against people who have been working with U.S. troops and the U.S.-led civilian occupation authority have further stoked public anxieties and prompted some to question whether they should continue cooperating with Americans.

The bomb explosion Saturday that killed the seven police officers in the town of Ramadi, about 60 miles west of Baghdad, also wounded 40 people. Two weeks ago, the director of electricity distribution for the western half of Baghdad -- a woman who had worked extensively with U.S. officials trying to increase Iraq's power supply -- was killed in her home. A day later, two electric workers were killed by a bomb placed on a highway median near Baghdad.

"We're now in a very dangerous position," said an Iraqi police officer standing guard outside a police station in central Baghdad today. The officer, who asked that his name not be used, was posted in front of a row of razor wire, dirt-filled barricades and large metal objects intended to prevent cars from crashing through the front gate -- all of which were installed to protect U.S. military police officers inside.

"If somebody comes by and shoots at the station, like they have done elsewhere, the Americans will be protected, but we are exposed," the officer said. "We don't even have [bulletproof] vests."

Some electric workers are afraid to leave their offices, said Ghalib Bakr, the manager of electricity distribution for western Baghdad. "The Baathists view us as collaborators with the Americans," he said. "I tell my staff that's not true, that we're working for the Iraqi people, not the Americans. But what can you do? They're afraid."

The growing number of attacks on U.S. forces has also disquieted some Iraqis, who worry that rising casualty figures will prompt President Bush to start withdrawing troops before Hussein is caught and fighters loyal to him are rounded up.

"Inside every one of us there is the fear of what will happen if the American people start pushing their government because they are losing so many soldiers every day," said Fadhil Majid, an employee at a bridal shop in the Adhamiyah neighborhood. "If they decide to withdraw, what will happen to us? Saddam is still free. With all the [militiamen] around, what kind of life will we have?"

L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, said over the weekend that "every [piece of] evidence" U.S. officials possessed suggested that Hussein was not in charge of the armed resistance. He called Iraqis attacking U.S. forces "a small group of desperate men" who "do not pose a strategic threat to the Iraqi people or to the coalition." But Bremer said in a recent interview that the capture of Hussein, or confirmation of his death, is essential to squelching the resistance and generating confidence among Iraqis.

"It certainly would be helpful to know that he was dead or to capture him, because there is this kind of evil suspicion that is certainly being promoted by Baathists that 'we're going to come back someday,' " he said. "This obviously puts a damper on people cooperating with us. It makes people nervous about their general security. If we can once and for all confirm he's dead, or capture him, it takes the air out of that balloon."

With Hussein's fate uncertain, many Iraqis said they were not sure whether to count him out -- or to wait for his reemergence. "Saddam is like a ghost in the heart of the country," said Tariq Mohammed, an unemployed former soldier. "We thought he was gone, but now he's back."

Majid, the bridal shop employee, said many people in his neighborhood had become more enamored of Hussein as their expectations of the U.S. occupation -- particularly the restoration of electricity, the creation of jobs and the formation of a new government -- went unfulfilled. "Everyone is very frustrated now," he said as he paced between mannequins clad in sequined white dresses. "To them, Saddam is the solution. They don't think about all the evil things he has done."

Even so, he and others maintained that despite scenes of Iraqi crowds stoning U.S. military vehicles and cheering after soldiers are attacked, most Baghdad residents do not want Hussein to return to power. The animosity toward U.S. forces, they said, reflects displeasure with the U.S. occupation, not a desire for a return to dictatorial rule.

But each day that Hussein remains on the run, Majid said, is another day for him to rebuild support and scare the Iraqi people. "We hope the Americans catch him soon," he said. "Only then will there be stability."

Then, after walking around the store to make sure no one was listening, he ventured another thought: "You know, if he comes back, he won't just be the old Saddam," he said. "He'll be 10 times the Saddam we knew."

© 2003 The Washington Post Company