Fear still reigns in Iraq, even after Saddam

Associated Press
FILE - In this Dec. 6, 2006 file photo an Iraqi woman grieves over the death of her relative who was killed in violence in Baghdad, Iraq. As the country enters a post-U.S. era, many Iraqis who had welcomed the 2003 invasion and hoped for better lives feel they remain in even more danger than before Saddam's fall. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)
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BAGHDAD (AP) — As a Shiite Muslim who was interrogated by Iraq's secret police and lost her job because she would not join the regime's Baath Party, Fawzia al-Attia should feel safer now that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power. She does not.

Death threats and Baghdad's daily bombings have made al-Attia more afraid than she was during Saddam's reign of terror, she says.

"Before, I couldn't say anything in my own home," said al-Attia. "But at least I was safe. I was only afraid of Saddam. It is not like now. Now, you open the door to your home and you could get killed."

American troops are preparing to pull out of Iraqi completely by the end of December, more than eight years after the invasion that ousted Saddam and promised a better life for Iraqis. As the country enters a post-U.S. era, many Iraqis who had welcomed the 2003 invasion feel they remain in even more danger than before Saddam's fall.

Security is a key indicator of Iraq's future — it drives business investment, government policy decisions and the psyche of the war-torn nation.

In interviews across Baghdad, Iraqis cited the random daily bombings and shootings that continue to kill people here. At least under Saddam, they say, they knew they could avoid being targeted by violence by simply staying quiet.

Al-Attia doesn't make the comparison lightly. She remembers the fear when, under Saddam's rule, she was called to a police station for questioning. Her husband followed her because he didn't know if he'd ever see her again.

Now that same uncertainty looms in the background every day. Because of sectarian violence, she and her family moved from a Shiite neighborhood to the heavily fortified Green Zone. A sociology professor at Baghdad University, she can't drive herself to work, relying instead on bodyguards to take her.

"Under Saddam, there was fear, but in a different way," she said.

Sectarian violence, which drove Iraq to the brink of civil war just a few years ago, was almost nonexistent under Saddam.

In May 2003, two months after the invasion, there were fewer than a handful of daily attacks on Iraqis, national security forces and foreign troops. That number spiked in May 2007, with an average of 180 attacks a day, according to the U.S. military data released by congressional investigators at the General Accounting Office. Between 2005 and 2008, an average of 60 Iraqis was killed daily.

Since then, violence has dropped dramatically, but attacks continue.

Several people a day die, and a bombing in a residential area or on a street of shops that causes no casualties still spreads fear among everyone who hears about it. This past July, U.S. forces in Iraq reported an average of 20 daily bombings, rocket attacks and shootings — including some that were thwarted before they were carried out.

Sunni insurgent groups, which sprung up when Saddam was ousted and Iraq's majority Shiites took power, continue to strike at anyone who tries to restore normalcy to Iraq — security forces, the government, Americans or even fellow Sunnis, like the 29 who were killed in a Baghdad mosque by a suicide bomber during Ramadan prayers this past month.

"I'm not going to short-sheet the current security situation; I think it's not what the Iraqis want or deserve," said U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, the American military's top spokesman in Baghdad.

Asked to compare today's security in Iraq to what it was under Saddam, Buchanan called it "very, very different."

"I don't think we know as much of what was going on in the past, just because much of it was quiet," he said. "In the dead of the night, people would come and take you away, and you never heard from them again."

Certainly no one has forgotten the horrors under Saddam.

Estimates of how many Iraqis were executed or otherwise "disappeared" during Saddam's 24-year regime range from 300,000 to 800,000. Reviews of bodies found in mass graves from that era point to what Gerard Alexander, an expert at the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington, has called a "conservative estimate" that an average 16,000 Iraqis a year were killed.

Saddam persecuted prominent Shiite clerics and their followers and launched what Human Rights Watch calls a campaign of genocide against Kurds. People from all backgrounds rarely, if ever, dared to criticize the government, even to relatives or neighbors, for fear they'd be taken away by Saddam's secret police and beaten, imprisoned, killed, or simply disappear.

"When I was in Baghdad, I would always feel that today would be the day that I would be killed. But I was lucky," said Biekhal Alkhalifa, a 31-year-old Kurd who commuted between engineering classes in Baghdad and her hometown of Kirkuk when Saddam was president.

"I am sure there are a lot of Arab people who now say, 'We wish Saddam was still in power,'" she said. "But for the Kurds, it is 100 percent of us who are happy that he is gone."

The U.S. military surge that poured more than 160,000 troops into Iraq in 2007 quelled much of the sectarian violence.

But a July report by the U.S. watchdog that oversees construction in Iraq concluded that the nation is more dangerous now than it was last year due to bombings, assassinations and a resurgence in violence by Iranian-backed Shiite militias. Iraq Body Count, an independent British monitoring group, estimates at least 102,043 Iraqi civilians have been killed since the war began.

Iraq has gone into what Sean Kane, a former United Nations diplomat now with the U.S. Institute of Peace, calls a "sideways drift" — progress has plateaued and Iraqis have a hard time predicting what may come next.

The violence looms over the American military's planned exit, fueling fears about instability and burgeoning influence from neighboring Iran. As a result, Baghdad and Washington are reconsidering whether the U.S. troops should leave by Dec. 31, as required under a 2008 security agreement.

Saddam's last wide-ranging campaigns of death against Shiites and Kurds ended in 1991. As a result, in the perception of many Iraqis, the years before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion seemed peaceful — even as Saddam continued terrorizing people in smaller numbers without attracting much nationwide attention.

"Even though Saddam was a tyrant, we Iraqis used to live a good life," said Huda Aqeel Jaffa, 35, a Sunni housewife with three children and a husband who receives death threats because, as a construction contractor, he is seen as working with Americans. "Life was simple, and we could go everywhere we wanted. Now, there is no security. There is no stability. There is no humanity. We are afraid of everything."

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