Hana Asadi heard the war from her bathroom. She spent a week of sleepless nights there, convinced that the bathtub was the safest place for her four children. Outside, British troops battled Iraqi paramilitary forces for control of her city. Seven days ago, a firefight sent dozens of bullets and shells flying into her house.
At the hospital, where she is the head of the gynecology service, there were dozens of civilian casualties, including an entire family. "Not only dead, in pieces," she said. "I saw them myself."
But Asadi does not oppose the war she had eagerly awaited; she fears that it has not yet succeeded in delivering the liberation she imagined to Iraq or to her own family. "We have eyes looking for us and watching everything," Asadi whispered this afternoon. "We still may be hunted by them."
Asadi spoke while sitting in the office of her husband, Abdul Hussein, a physician who runs Zubair's hospital. She talked of fear; he has not yet taken down the portrait of Saddam Hussein from a wall. The fear will not go away, she said, until the Iraqi president is toppled. Then and only then, "after they get rid of the chief head, all of us will help you."
Theirs is the ambivalence of southeastern Iraq, a place teetering uncertainly between the Baath Party past and the British occupation present. Just 10 miles down the road, Iraqi government forces hold out in the major southern city of Basra, locked in a military standoff with British forces surrounding them. Here in Zubair, Basra's main suburb, the fighting has subsided in recent days, but the battle of the postwar has just begun.
Zubair's Baath Party leaders have vanished -- many of them either killed or captured during a British commando raid last week -- but a new civil administration has not been put in place by the British soldiers who are still an occasional presence at best in the city. There is worry that the old regime is not really gone. And there are new problems, too, such as the anarchy and looting that residents complain have accompanied the Baath Party's tentative fall.
At such a tense time, when no one knows who is really in charge, Zubair is hard to read, a place where things are not always as they seem. At the hospital, Hussein complained about the British missile that streaked through his office during the fighting. The holes remain uncovered. He said there had been more than 250 civilian casualties in Zubair -- and about 60 civilians had died.
He didn't mention what British officers claim: that the hospital had been used as a military position by the Iraqi forces, with a tank hidden in the courtyard.
On Thursday, a British officer with a camera crew in tow had ceremoniously taken down Saddam Hussein's portrait at the hospital; on Friday, it was back up.
Such displays of ambivalence are not uncommon in Zubair, a sprawling desert city of more than 100,000 with few distinguishing features beyond the defaced monuments to Hussein that the British are demolishing. On the streets, children wave and smile at passing British troops. At the now-empty police station, a banner hangs. "Shame on America," it says.
Just off the city's central square, the crowd that gathered in a tea shop around a group of foreign reporters this afternoon turned from friendly to hostile in a few minutes. "Mr. English help people Iraq," a smiling man smoking a water pipe said in halting English. The tone changed when one man complained: "It's an invasion. They just want to take our country."
Soon another man, better dressed than the rest, burst out with a loud, angry speech. "You are not welcome here. You are not welcome even to stand on the dust of Iraq," he shouted, picking up a piece of dirt from the floor for emphasis. As the other men nodded agreement, he added, "If Saddam goes, there are thousands of Saddams" to take his place.
The British soldiers patrolling Zubair insist that the city is becoming more friendly to their occupation by the day. At first, said 2nd Lt. Tom McDermott, residents "wouldn't talk to us. They were scared of the militia." But over the last week, British officers believe they have routed the Iraqi irregulars from Zubair. "Now they are much more receptive to us," McDermott said.
He had just pulled up to the Zubair hospital in an armored personnel carrier, escorting the first delivery here of British-donated medical supplies. The delivery consisted of 20 oxygen cylinders. The British have also supplied water to the hospital, part of the 160,000 liters a day they have started trucking to Zubair and the surrounding area.
But Hussein offered a much less upbeat assessment of British-held Zubair. Electricity in the city, cut off when the war started, has yet to return. The water supply, even with the British help, is sufficient to meet only 20 to 30 percent of the population's needs, according to the doctor. Emergency stocks of food and medicine at the hospital have almost run out. "We are feeding the patients first," Hussein said, "and only then ourselves."
The 7 p.m. curfew in the city has done nothing to stop the looting. At the hospital, he said, the staff has been on 24-hour duty since the war began, guarding the building and defending it "with our own fists." He said he asked the British for help with security but was told that they would not assist in such police work. "We are occupied by the English," he said tersely, "and they are present here." But, he added, "We have no safety, no governmental control."
Hussein, with a gray-flecked moustache and wearing a white physician's coat, did not explicitly say he backed the Baath Party rule under which he has held the important position of hospital director for the past 10 years, supervising a staff of 14 doctors. But Hussein, who said he served as a medical officer in the Iraq army in the 1980s, returned again and again to the theme of what has been lost in Zubair during the two-week war. Before, he said, "there is government, there is control, there is safety."
He also had no criticism for the Iraqi militia members who wore civilian clothes and who, according to the British, misused the protected status of the hospital to launch attacks. Those militia who were wounded, Hussein said, "are our civilians. Militia are civilian persons, and we treat them as our civilian persons. We didn't ask them why you are injured."
But his wife was quick to question the militia who took the fight into civilian Zubair. The civilian deaths caused by the British were a "mistake," she said, that occurred after "some of the militia jump into people's houses at the time of the shooting."
As for the war, Asadi said she had long anticipated the start of what she called Zubair's -- and Iraq's -- liberation. "We were waiting for war," she said. "We were waiting for you."
Throughout her conversation were hints of the privation that Iraq has suffered in recent years -- not only through political repression but also because of the economic sanctions imposed on the country after the Persian Gulf War. Salaries at the hospital are so low -- the equivalent of $1.50 a month for a doctor at prevailing exchange rates -- that doctors had to supplement their income by caring for private patients. Food is available, but too expensive for most people to buy.
When the war started, she had been an optimist. "We hope that after the fighting, people will be different," she said. Now she saw that would not be so easy. "Not yet," she said, "not yet."
Her nephew, who had come to Zubair today from Basra in hopes of escaping the fighting, was a little more upbeat. Smiling broadly, he said goodbye this afternoon at the Zubair hospital. "I hope to meet you again in a new Iraq," he said.