AMMAN, JORDAN—Karim Al-Mayali still fumes when he talks about his ex-wife, the mother of his six-year-old boy, Ali. “It was a matter of money,” says the 34-year-old car detailer, who left his native Basra, Iraq, for Jordan in 1994. She wanted a bigger house and a car, possessions then well beyond his means. So they divorced, and he came to Amman to work, like thousands of other Iraqis, to forget, and hopefully to find a nice Jordanian girl to marry. But this too will take money. “It costs about $15,000 for a wedding here,” he laments.
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.”
Just a few weeks earlier, many of the men living in the buildings bared the scars from torture sessions in Iraq’s jails, and urged the U.S. to go to war. This sentiment, with few exceptions, has vanished, and indeed, most of the men who were here have gone back to Iraq. Only one of the six gathered around the TV today says he won’t return, under any circumstances; a former officer in the Republican Guard, he says going home would mean “death.” Nonetheless, he is adamant that imperial America is wielding an unjust foreign policy again. “The president is just a picture, a puppet, right?” he asks. “The real power is with the U.S. Congress, I think.” Then he says that George Bush should give up power.
These men remember the events of 1991 clearly. Encouraged by the first President Bush’s call to revolt, Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north rose up, only to be brutally repressed by the Iraqi regime. The U.S. did not intervene on the rebels’ behalf, and these men swear they won’t be tricked twice. “Where was America then?” asks Ahmed. “We know very well that America has backed Saddam in the past, and that we don’t fit into whatever they are planning this time.”
Tanoor Al-Habayab, a restaurant on Shabsogh Street in downtown Amman, is so full of Iraqis at lunchtime that candid conversations about Hussein’s government are incautious. Downstairs, where owner Abu Ahmed is perched behind the cash register, random visitors pop their heads in the front door to offer their political opinions. “I am stopping by to declare my solidarity with the Iraqi people, my assistance in whatever they require, and all my best wishes!” says a bald, Jordanian doctor before disappearing down the street.
Upstairs is safer, but still the eyes of waiter Marmala dart frantically as he speaks, sticking mostly to the Hussein–as-hero script. A third-generation farm boy from Karbala, he will return to Iraq next week. The family farm sounds idyllic, but he doesn’t pine for the seven acres of date groves or apple trees. He’s worried about his eight brothers, the youngest of whom, at 18, is in the Fedayeen Saddam. He’s puzzled by the distinctions made abroad between the Iraqi paramilitaries and civilians. “Civilians defend their homes, and the army and the Fedayeen defend the country,” he says. He greets two men who are preparing to return too. “But even the Bedouin are fighting. Everyone is fighting.”
This is another intricacy of Iraqi society that seems to have eluded the Pentagon, according to Tripp. “Though Hussein is loathed by a lot of people,” he says, the regime did “create these networks of obligation that don’t disappear overnight. These security networks are not as alien to the community as is being portrayed.”
Marmala is careful not to utter a word against the Iraqi government, but suggests if a change was needed, it didn’t require an invading army. “We could have taken care of our problems on our own.”