Ali Hamaadi, a bookkeeper from the southern Iraqi town of Kufah, remembers being caught not long ago in a rain of little leaflets dropped from on high by an unseen U.S. plane. Uniformed members of a militia called Saddam's Fedayeen quickly cordoned off the neighborhood, he recalled, and began collecting the papers as if they were winning lottery tickets.
"I didn't dare pick one up," Hamaadi said at the home of a friend in Damascus. "I didn't even glance up or down. It would mean execution for sure."
Hamaadi was sipping tea with a half-dozen Iraqi visitors and refugees who have trickled across the border in recent weeks. Some came to avoid a war they think is inevitable. Others came for medical care, and a few to see relatives among the estimated 400,000 Iraqis, including Kurds, who have taken up residence in Syria over the past two decades.
They brought tales of increased vigilance by President Saddam Hussein's multi-layered Baath Party observation corps, militia members and police officers, all tasked to keep an eye on the restive Shiite Muslim population in Iraq's southland. The Shiites, many of them poor and dissatisfied, make up the majority of Iraq's 24 million inhabitants. Beyond the thousands of U.S. troops poised for a possible invasion, the Shiites constitute the greatest potential threat to Hussein's grip on power.
Shiites rose up against the government in 1991. They were encouraged by Iraq's swift defeat in Kuwait and the call of President George Bush to rebel. But the United States, with jets, helicopters and troops within striking distance, declined to support the revolt. Hussein's loyal military units assaulted Shiite towns and villages, hunted rebels down and crushed the revolt.
Memories of American timidity 12 years ago were strong among the visitors from Kufah. This time, they said, Shiites will think twice before exposing themselves. "When we are sure that Saddam's security apparatus has collapsed, we will arise," Hamaadi said, "but not before."
The visitors were wary of speaking to a reporter. Those who said they might return to Iraq before war breaks out feared reprisals. Others had relatives inside the country and did not want their names in print. Their accounts of life in Kufah are difficult to verify. But in Damascus, they spoke about subjects that their compatriots in Iraq would steer clear of when speaking with reporters in the habitual company of government guides.
Even in the seclusion of an anonymous cinder-block house on the outskirts of Damascus, they were cautious. Why these detailed questions? Why the desire to know about security matters? Aren't our opinions enough? "The Syrians don't ask these questions when we come to the border. Why do you?" asked one.
Kufah lies 10 miles northeast of Najaf, a major Shiite religious center. Najaf is the burial place of Ali, the Shiite martyr whose battle with Sunnism precipitated the major Islamic schism, and Kufah is where he was killed. The Shiite-Sunni split is one of Iraq's defining divisions. Sunni Muslims have traditionally formed the core of Iraq's ruling elite. Many Iraqis regard Hussein as a defender of Sunni prerogatives.
One traveler from Kufah, a retired government employee, ventured that "Saddam is finished." However, he added, the Iraqi leader is trying hard "to ingratiate himself with the people." Fees on permits to leave the country have been slashed and rations of flour, beans, lard, sugar and rice increased in recent months.
A prisoner amnesty last fall was regarded by the Kufah residents as a travesty. They said the government released only common criminals. Relatives of political inmates, they said, continue to line up at government offices to inquire about the fate of their kin. Officials from Human Rights Watch have received similar reports.
In Kufah, Baathist officials routinely visit private homes to count heads, the visitors here said, carrying notebooks full of names and asking where everyone is. They occasionally draft at least one male member of a family for two months' service in the Jerusalem Army, a militia created two years ago.
"They put us there just to make us think we are fighting for Palestine," said a bookstore owner. Recovery of Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state is a pan-Arab rallying cry. "Everyone will run when the bombs fall," the bookseller continued. "This is just a way Saddam tries to keep us busy."
The recruits are taught to use a gun, but no one gets to take a weapon home. Uniformed, salaried members of Saddam's Fedayeen patrol the streets. Residents volunteer, "but only to get something to eat," the bookseller said.
The visitors from Kufah said they listen to foreign radio broadcasts at night -- either the BBC Arabic service or Radio Sawa, the U.S.-funded news and music station. "The rhetoric on Sawa is not bad, but it won't make us American," Hamaadi said.
He and the others are loyal to Dawa, a Shiite resistance organization inside Iraq. It is reputed to have a large, clandestine following.
Dawa boycotted the recent exile conference in London on grounds that many of the exile leaders were American puppets. The U.S. government has been leery of Dawa because of its association with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement that the State Department has listed as a terrorist organization.
A Dawa official in Damascus said his organization has no "working relationship" with Hezbollah. In any case, Dawa is lying low in advance of the expected U.S. invasion, the official said. The invasion is unnecessary, he argued, because Iraqis could overthrow Hussein if U.S. bombers would pin his troops in their barracks for a time. He rejected the prospect of U.S. military rule in Iraq.
"This idea shows a misunderstanding of Iraqi feelings," he said. "We don't want anyone's occupation."
The Dawa official said about 60 of his relatives are jailed in Iraq. He expects many Iraqis will be tempted to carry out vendettas against pro-Hussein activists should the government collapse.
"Only against criminals, of course" he took pains to say. "Many people only cooperate with Saddam in order to get by. No one wants killing for killing's sake."
The retired government employee piped in with an exception. "There was a Baathist who hit me on the head with a rifle butt because I didn't know where my brother was. He, I will kill."