A secret message of support from inside Iraq recently reached Entifadh Kanal Qanbar, who runs the Washington office of an opposition group hoping to oust Saddam Hussein. A high-ranking officer in the Iraqi army said to forget about finding an Arab Abraham Lincoln to shape a new Iraq: "Tell the Americans that even if they bring Michael Jackson to become the president, I will accept."
Qanbar breaks into a grin but quickly insists, "Yes, that's true!" Crushed under a dictator's boot for so long, the people just want to live freely, in peace: "It doesn't matter who's going to rule," Qanbar says.
From his desk in an airy row house office near Eastern Market, Qanbar monitors developments for the Iraqi National Congress, a U.S.-backed coalition of exiles and rebels established in 1992. He occasionally shifts his gaze upward to a black-and-white TV screen displaying feeds from security cameras. On one wall hangs a recent British magazine article, handsomely framed, headlined "Meet the Next Leader of Iraq."
It isn't the Gloved One. The story profiles Ahmed Chalabi, a perpetually smiling former banker who heads the Iraqi National Congress. His stature waxes and wanes depending on the mood of U.S. officials and jockeying among rival factions. Some criticize Chalabi and his London-based followers as out of touch with the people in Iraq.
Impeccably groomed, wearing a stylish pinstripe suit, speaking excellent English, Qanbar may come off at first impression like a clone of Chalabi. But unlike his boss, who left Iraq in 1958, Qanbar earned his rebel cred the hard way, in one of Hussein's prisons.
"At a certain point I was nobody, I was dead," he says, recalling the 47 days he squatted nearly naked and freezing in a military cell in Baghdad, in rags, sobbing and itching from scabies and lice.
It was the winter of 1987-88. An engineer who served in the Iraqi Air Force during the Iran-Iraq war, then worked on refurbishing Hussein's palaces, Qanbar was suspected of disloyalty. Eleven of his friends were executed, he says.
Qanbar was humiliated, interrogated and beaten. One of his older brothers, Wamidh, was tortured for nine months. Their crime: At drunken parties, the men batted around jokes about Hussein, and entertained the notion that his dictatorship wouldn't last forever.
After being released, Qanbar slept with his father's 9mm semiautomatic pistol under his pillow. "This time if they come and arrest me, I'm going to kill myself," he decided. "I'm not going to go through this again."
He recounts such memories with dark humor and surprisingly little malice in his voice. "Saddam's a personal thing to me," he says. He regards him "like a disease."
But Qanbar thinks he was destined to survive, perhaps favored by God for a high purpose, though he is not a devout man. He also realizes, "I was extremely lucky."
Qanbar left Iraq in 1990 when Hussein briefly allowed travel prior to invading Kuwait. Granted political asylum in America, he earned a master's degree in civil and environmental engineering. Two years ago he gave up that career to work full time for the Iraqi opposition.
"We want to see a revolution in human rights for the Middle East, starting with Iraq," he says. "I consider myself a revolutionary."
A photograph of Qanbar's late father, Kamal-a naval officer with a dapper mustache-stares from his bookshelf, near a text titled "Water Quality and Treatment" and studies of Machiavelli, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
Kamal Qanbar was a passionate nationalist, jailed for three years in the 1940s for participating in an unsuccessful coup against the British-supported monarchy. In 1959 his last son arrived, a late-in-life surprise.
The day the baby was born, Kamal Qanbar heard a speech by and Iraqi politician denouncing the country's continued alliance with the imperialist Brits. The struggle was not yet complete. Which is how the future revolutionary got his name. Entifadh-Arabic for uprising.