Imad Audi is still a proud member of President Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.
Twenty-eight years old and a Sunni Muslim, he is relatively well-off in a poverty-stricken city. He said he is not prepared to relinquish membership in the party he joined at 15. Nor is he willing to give up on Iraq's president. "The problem here is not Saddam," he said this afternoon in the air-conditioned comfort of the private hospital his family owns in electricity-starved Basra.
On the day that Baghdad fell to U.S. troops and three days into the British occupation of his city, Audi said many Baath Party members have remained in Basra and would have continued fighting the British if only they had been better equipped. He also declared his belief in Baath Party ideology, a mixture of Arab nationalism and socialism that first caught hold in Iraq after the 1958 uprising against the British-installed Hashemite monarchy. "What's going on right now is not an ending of the Baath Party," he lamented. "It is an ending of Iraq itself."
His viewpoint was hard to find articulated publicly on the streets of Basra today, where looters still roamed freely and Shiite Muslims, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's population, seemed to feel more free to vent their hatred of Hussein's Sunni-dominated government. For the most part, people in crowds smiled and waved at the British soldiers patrolling Basra, while at the burned-out, stripped-bare Baath Party offices around town, onlookers were quick to condemn everything associated with the party that has dominated social, economic and political life in Iraq and been a chief vehicle for Hussein's rule.
But even in Basra and other cities under the nominal control of U.S. and British forces, Baathists have hardly disappeared. The party has claimed that 10 percent of Iraq's people are members -- and they are "our husbands and uncles, neighbors and fathers," as one Basra resident put it today, warning of the difficulty of rooting out Baathists from a society in which they are entrenched.
According to residents here, only the senior Baath Party leaders in Basra have been captured or killed, or have fled, while thousands of other party officials have remained. Many are hiding in their homes, waiting to see what comes next. Others, like Audi, seem perfectly at ease in the midst of Basra's chaos; they are still the elite.
Audi, in a well-pressed blue shirt, spoke calmly to a visitor today while standing in front of a large oil painting in the marble-floored Sadoon Hospital owned by his family. The facility illustrates the relative luxury enjoyed by senior Baathists and rich merchants in a city where poverty is endemic and damage from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s has yet to be fully repaired.
The private hospital, for paying patients only, is housed in a huge villa in a wealthy section of town near the presidential palace. Its 21 rooms -- all empty now -- have television sets mounted on the walls. At a time when Basra residents are clamoring for water and electricity, the hospital's private generator is working overtime. The oil paintings, tastefully executed in muted tones, depict old Basra.
Audi's father owns half of another private hospital here as well, but the precise origins of the family wealth could not be learned.
But even in this citadel of privilege, the stirrings of change are present. Falih Hussein, the hospital's director and a Shiite, professed himself a convert to the idea of democracy. "It's our hope to see a democratic government," he said. "Every person would like to live in democratic circumstances, to say things without any supervision."
He was circumspect, however, reflecting the authoritarian mindset of the Hussein years. He never once uttered Hussein's name, never criticized what had come before. As for the looters rampaging through the streets around him, he blamed the "bad living conditions" and poverty caused by more than a decade of sanctions imposed on Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "Human beings have a certain limit of tolerance," he said.
Audi said he harbored few doubts about the Baathists and equally few qualms about the state of Iraq under Hussein. He said he believed that "85 percent in Iraq are for the Baath Party," and said he was convinced that "most of the people" in Iraq were happy under Hussein. Hussein, he said, was being misunderstood by the media. "Not everything about Saddam is 100 percent right," he said. "Poverty here is not from Saddam Hussein. It is from what Iraq went through -- from wars, from everything."
"In the Baath Party, everyone is equal," he said, with no apparent sense of irony about the contrast between his position and that of the poor on the streets. "We are only one people in Iraq, only one country." He also insisted that the main focus of the Baath Party was education. To enter a university, he said, there were two main criteria: how well a student performed academically and "how much he believes in the Baath Party."
"The Baath Party is everywhere," he said. "In universities, in offices, in hospitals."
Despite the evidence spilling out from liberated prisons and secret police offices of torture and political repression by the Baath Party, Audi denied that any persecution had taken place. And if there was torture, he said, it may have been justified. "The prisons are only for the people who are guilty," he said. "You can see that when there is no government, all the looters are coming out. So there has to be prison."
He did not answer directly when asked if prisoners had been physically abused. "It's like in any other country -- there has to be some punishment of what they did," he said.
Audi, a newlywed who celebrated his wedding last October at Basra's Sheraton Hotel -- now burned and stripped bare by looters -- insisted he was not afraid of any retribution against him by the city's Shiites. Despite the anti-Baath rhetoric in the streets during these days of turmoil, he had an air of quiet assurance about his future. And he said he had no fears at all that his family's plush private hospital would be attacked.
After all, he added, why should the angry crowds blame him just because he's a member of the Baath Party? "I am not Saddam, I'm an Iraqi person," he said. "What happens to them happens to me."