ESSAY: on Saddam's birthday Baghdad enjoys silence

On Wednesday, Saddam Hussein's birthday, the residents of Baghdad had the rare occasion to enjoy silence in the city.

"It is unbelievable that today is Saddam's birthday," could be heard frequently in the streets of the capital of Iraq on Wednesday. Some people said this with satisfaction, believing that nothing more terrible could ever happen to them, although presently life in Iraq lacks stability and security.

Others, however, were sad because they remembered the exemplary order in the Iraqi cities during the Baath party's military dictatorship.

Wednesday was not interrupted by the already traditional morning shelling of the so-called green zone, where the headquarters of the coalition administration and the international forces are located.

After the recent bloodshed in the city of Sadr and the troubling reports about mass hostage taking, the residents of Baghdad seemed to be enjoying the unusually calm in the city.

The best way to meet representatives of different social and ethnic groups during the day is to go to a shopping district somewhere near the city center and talk to local residents, to learn about their attitudes about what is happening in Iraq.

Jamal Mahdi, a former officer in the Iraqi army and now the owner of a large wholesale food store in the Al-Shoryah district, was the first person I talked to. When asked about what used to be one of the biggest national holidays, Mr. Mahdi, without hesitation, said that he regretted the past.

According to him, after the collapse of the regime Iraqis lost the most important thing - their personal safety. "Even those who were recently happy about Saddam's departure, frequently compare their new life with the previous one," he said.

The former officer agreed that Hussein and his henchmen had made many mistakes. However, the diverse ethnic and religious structure of the Iraqi society needs a strong-armed government, he said.

Mr. Mahdi is certain that Saddam's trial will not take place. Even he, a common officer, had heard from his friends in the security service that the Americans had close contacts with the Iraqi leadership. Thus, the United States is unlikely to try Saddam openly and will most probably arrange for Iraq's former leader to suffer some accident or commit suicide, Mr. Mahdi said.

"The Iraqi people need a new and fair Saddam Hussein and a strong army," he said.

Abde Hussein Rasul, the owner of one of Iraq's best known transportation companies, had another opinion about Saddam.

"Thanks to Allah for finally having gotten rid of Saddam for us," he said. "Otherwise, I would have to think of different reasons to close my company during the celebrations like I used to do to escape Baath extortionists who demanded large sums from local traders to organize parties for the leader."

Later, he told me that because of his plan he had spent three months in prison because of the neighbors' denunciation and it cost him much more money to get out of there.

He said that he thought the trial of the former dictator should be open and broadcast live.

"To ensure security in Iraq, the Americans must leave as soon as possible," Mr. Rasul said. "But this may not be enough, if the country is not governed by religious leaders of the Shiite community, which comprises the majority of Iraq's population."

Sayed Tayah, a secondary school teacher in the al-Nahda district, said that his only regret was that he will no longer receive an annual bonus for his daughter, who share's Saddam's birthday.

While explaining the need to try and execute Saddam, Mr. Tayah emphasized that as long as the former leader was alive, many Iraqis would fear him returning to power. Especially, because many of his supporters continue to operate in different parts of Baghdad under different names.

"Today my family and I will celebrate Saddam's birthday," said Haris Dokhan, a graduate student at Baghdad's Arab History Institute. "Saddam is a true son of the Iraqi people, he has done many things for their prosperity and respect."

Mr. Dokhan said that the trial would be a farce. "How can you try the legitimate president of a state simply for deciding to protect his homeland from aggressors," he said.

According to him, American plans to preserve their position in Iraq even after June 30 may cause serious problems both for Iraq and America.

Umm Sattar has worked as a secondary school teacher for over 25 years and said that she was satisfied with post-Saddam Iraq. "We only lack security," she said. "As to Saddam's trial, I am no longer interested in it. His rule has ended, as the rule of every past Iraqi king and president ended."

Sardar, a Kurd who refused to give his full name, said that he was satisfied with the new life. He recently arrived in Baghdad from the northern part of Iraq.

He said that the trial should take place in Halabja, where in 1988 Iraqi troops, acting on an order from Saddam Hussein, used chemical weapons to kill over 5,000 Kurdish civilians. "The same chemical weapons should be used to execute Saddam," Sardar said.

Moyed al-Jumaili, an imam of the Al-Nuaymi Mosque in northern Baghdad, said that life was better under Saddam. "The Americans say that Saddam killed many people," he said. "And what are they doing now in Fallujah and other Iraqi cities?"

As I returned home, I found a mention of the former Iraqi president, although a circumstantial one. In an oval-shaped center of a square, somebody had put up four large posters protesting against the coalition authorities' attempt to lift sanctions on former Baath party members. One of them said in Arabic: "We will never forget the mass graves that Saddam's Baathists made all over the country".

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