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Any day now, though, Al-Mayali will return to the Basra he was happy to leave. He has stopped receiving news of his son, four brothers, and three sisters, since their last phone call, eight days ago. The footage on the evening news is all he knows of Basra at war. "If you're going to die, you may as well die near your family," he says. And Al-Mayali means to shield his home from the Americans, whom he calls "the invaders."
In doing so, he will join over 7,000 of his compatriots, according to Jordan's foreign ministry, who have already made the trip from Jordan back to Iraq, thinning out the quarters of this city they have adopted and called home. In recent days, the Iraqi government threw out a new carrot to the exiles, offering free rides from the Iraqi side of the border. This means that a trip that once cost $100 has been cut to just $10, a significant incentive to many of the low-wage laborers seeking to repatriate.
In conversations with southern Iraqis, a recurring litany of grievances appears to fuel their desire to return to their families. Some seize upon the symbolic evidence of an unwelcome and growing occupation, like the early incident of American flag raising in Umm Qasr. Others say America's "securing" of the southern oil fields confirms their deepest fears about the coalition's intentions. "What did they do first?" asks Hashem Marmala, a 30-year-old waiter. "They went for the oil. People are starving in the cities, and they were concerned about Rumaila," he says, referring to the southern field that pumps up to 60 percent of Iraq's oil.
As the coalition armies await the Iraqi revolt that isn't yet, war strategists will note with interest the apparent about-face by the political dissidents in Jordan who, only weeks ago, couldn't wait for the war that would remove Saddam Hussein's government. While the majority of Iraqis in Jordan are economic migrants, there are a number of political dissidents as well; that these people, many of whom have spent time in Iraqi jails, would return was unthinkable before the war.
"The reading of the situation in Iraq by the war's planners appears to have been very two-dimensional," says Charles Tripp, an Iraq expert at London's School of Oriental and African Studies. Tripp says the anticipated revolt against the Hussein government has not occurred, in part, for very practical reasons. "People are saying, 'Don't risk your life, or your family's life.' That's the survival instinct," he says. The memory of the quashed 1991 uprisings by Shiites and Kurds is another factor, he says, and fear that Hussein "will endure."
"And certainly, one can't discount patriotism," says Tripp. But the view that Hussein's regime "is a kind of alien group dominating Iraqi society," as he puts it, appears further battered with each Iraqi bus that crosses the border toward the war.
Al-Mayali speaks softly, a tone that falls to a whisper when he talks about Hussein. During the first Gulf War, he drove his Soviet T-72 tank right into Kuwait. "That war was really strange, and felt wrong for all of us in Basra," he recalls. The southern port city had close ties with Kuwait, and he feels the war was frivolous, and a disaster for several thousand Iraqis. He was captured by the U.S., and spent several months as a prisoner of war in Saudi Arabia, after which he was given the choice to go back to Iraq or seek exile. He returned to his dying father in Basra.
None of this appears to color his view of the war. "The inspections should have continued," he says, a process he believes would have uncovered very little. He doesn't seem to miss his working-class, industrial neighborhood in Basra, Five Mile, but says, "When someone comes to your house to fight, you fight. They may have come for Saddam Hussein, but they also came for the oil," he continues, noting that he would feel the same way about any invading army, not just the Americans. "We can take care of this problem inside Iraq," he says. "We will find someone to lead us. We will find a man of our own."
"Most of these young American soldiers don't undertand anything about the Middle East," says Ahmed, a student who lives with other political dissidents in buildings housing Iraqis here. "But Iraqis, since 1991, understand everything about America." Ahmed and other residents watch as Al Jazeera airs confessions by three Iraqi spies captured by the Iraqi police. "They will be killed tomorrow," one man says. "They should be killed."