Exiled

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APRIL 26, 2004

Exiled

"Today is the day of celebration! Today is the day of victory! Today
is a day of brightness in Iraq!" Just four months ago, Imam Husham
Al Husainy stood outside the Karbalaa Islamic Education Center in
Dearborn, Michigan, shouting these words upon hearing that
coalition forces had captured Saddam Hussein. The news had sent
revelers pouring onto Warren Avenue, the thoroughfare that serves
as Main Street for Michigan's Arab community, where they banged
drums and honked car horns, their voices, according to The Detroit
News, "hoarse from shouting 'halhoola,' the joyous yelp reserved for
the best of times." They waved flags, too, both Iraqi and U.S., as
if to celebrate simultaneously the American soldiers'
accomplishment and the partnership that American leaders were
establishing with a new, free Iraq.Certainly, they were entitled to their enthusiasm. Most of the
Dearborn celebrants were Shia, an ethnic group Saddam's regime
famously brutalized over the years. And, although Husainy was an
adviser to Mohammed Bakr Al Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council
for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (an Iran- backed group with
which the United States has long had an uneasy relationship), he
was nonetheless among the war's most ardent supporters, going so far
as to organize two pro-war demonstrations: one in Dearborn, to
cheer President Bush when he spoke at a local hotel; and one in
Washington, to counter an antiwar rally on the eve of hostilities.
"We've got to get rid of [Saddam]," Husainy told the News in
October 2002. "He's a bloodsucker, a devil, a thug." Sentiments
like these made headlines around the country and were cited
regularly by the administration and its supporters as proof that the
Iraqi people--who could not speak for themselves at the time--would
welcome the Americans as liberators.

By this week, however, the revelry at the Karbalaa Center had given
way to disappointment, despair, and, increasingly, disgust. Where a
year ago worshipers shared with me stories of Saddam's brutality,
now they shared stories of postwar deprivation and violence, much
of it witnessed firsthand on recent visits back to their homeland.
At one point during our conversation, Husainy pulled a photo album
from his file cabinet--an odd place for a photo album, except that
this wasn't the sort of album one keeps on a coffee table. One
picture showed a head severed from its body, its eyes still
partially open, lying in a small pool of blood on the street.
Another displayed a stray lower leg, bloodied at the knee where it
was blown off, with a boot still tied tightly around the foot. The
album had two full pages of photos like these, taken in Karbala,
Iraq, shortly after bombs killed more than 100 Shia gathered there
for a religious festival on March 2. "In Saddam's time, some people
were prevented from going there," he told me, "but the people who
went there, at least there was no explosions." And, while the
bombing was conducted by terrorists sympathetic to Saddam or tied
to Al Qaeda, for Husainy it raises the question, "What's the
coalition doing if they can't protect us?"

Husainy is not the only one asking such questions. Over the weekend,
a News story quoted Imam Sayed Hassan Al Qazwini, Dearborn's other
leading Iraqi cleric: "The Bush administration spoke about Iraq
becoming a beacon of democracy. But I am afraid Iraq is becoming a
beacon of instability." Zayd Allebban, a Shia who's studying law at
Wayne State University, echoed the sentiment: "The basic
necessities of life are lacking--safety, jobs, water, electricity."
Back at the Karbalaa Center, Dearborn's Hussain Al Muslimawi
complained to me that American forces are increasingly withdrawing
into their compounds--protecting themselves from terrorists but, in
the process, cutting themselves off from the Iraqi people whom they
are supposed to protect: "The [U. S.] Army doesn't talk to the
people. They're scared of the people."

Nor does anyone at the Karbalaa Center seem reassured by the current
U.S. effort to crack down on radical cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, whose
militia took over government buildings in cities across southern
Iraq last week. Although the whole point of the U.S. response is to
restore order to Iraq, the response strikes many Dearborn Shia as
disproportionate, particularly when the coalition is hiring back
many former Baath security officials and when Saddam himself has
still not stood trial. Mohammed Albdyri, a 38-year-old math teacher
I met at the Center who recently returned from Iraq, said the
United States seems much more serious about confronting its Iraqi
enemies than helping the Iraqi masses. He added that Sadr's
popularity among Shia has a lot to do with the fact that his
militia fulfills precisely those needs that the coalition and its
nascent Iraqi police force cannot: "My brother-in-law, his car was
stolen. He goes to the police, but they say they have no authority.
... So he goes to Al Sadr's militia, and they bring him the truck
back after three days."

Albdyri and the others at the Karbalaa Center would likely be more
patient if they believed these were merely bumps on the road to a
functional democracy. But they don't believe the occupation is
leading to democracy--at least, democracy as they understand it.
Over and over again, I heard about the proposed Iraqi constitution,
which they interpret as reserving veto power for two rival ethnic
groups--the Kurds and the Sunnis--who each represent less than
one-quarter of Iraq's people. The Dearborn Shia I met see this as an
attempt to again refuse their Iraqi brethren the power Saddam (a
Sunni) long denied them. "If you're not going to give us the power,
what is the democracy?" asked Albdyri.

It's not hard to fathom why Dearborn's Shia have grown suspicious of
U.S. motives. After all, many of them experienced U.S. betrayal
back in 1991, when President George H.W. Bush allowed Saddam to
crush the post-Gulf war insurgency. Albdyri still bears the
shrapnel scars from an attack by Saddam's helicopters, and he
remembers the U.S. F-16 fighters circling high above as the attack
occurred. "They've been stabbed in the back once already," says
Husainy. "They don't want to be stabbed again." Of course, for all
their disillusionment, they have not given up hope. "It is
fixable," Husainy says. "We trusted President Bush. We would like
to keep trusting him." But just because they'd like to doesn't mean
they do.

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