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Iraqi feuds heightened after capture of Hussein

BAGHDAD -- Instead of prompting a hoped-for national conversation about reconciliation and justice, the capture of Saddam Hussein has sparked a new round of internecine violence, laced with suspicion, conspiracy theories, and entrenched hatreds and loyalties.

 

It is too soon to measure the ultimate impact of the former dictator's arrest, but in the first week Iraqis responded with anger and violence, ranging from political assassinations to schoolyard fisticuffs between children of Ba'athists and children of those who were tortured under the rule of Hussein's Ba'ath Party.

On Friday, a Baghdad office of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shi'ite political party, was bombed before dawn. The blast caved in the entire cement building, killing a woman and injuring several squatters inside.

Basil al-Azzawi, a retired Iraqi air force general, said a string of assassinations of Shi'ite clerics, pro-Hussein protests, and bombings seemed intended to provoke civil war between Shi'ites, who bore the brunt of Ba'athist oppression, and Sunnis nostalgic for the old regime. "Whether civil war breaks out depends on how well the Sunnis and Shi'ites can tolerate each other under difficult circumstances," Azzawi said.

Also Friday, in the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf, an angry crowd attacked and killed Ali al-Zalimi, a former official of Hussein's Ba'ath Party. Zalimi was thought to have played a role in crushing a 1991 Shi'ite uprising. Revenge attacks in Najaf continued yesterday, when gunmen fired on a former Ba'athist provincial official, wounding her and killing her 5 year-old-son.

Since Monday, Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims battled across a Baghdad river separating two traditional strongholds of each sect, Adhamiyah and Khadamiyah.

High school students broke into fistfights over Hussein's capture. At one school, a vociferous pro-Hussein rally prompted US soldiers to enter classrooms and arrest more than a dozen teenagers brandishing textbook photographs of the deposed dictator.

Hussein loyalists also were suspected of assassinating Muhannad al-Hakim, a member of the leading Shi'ite political clan in Iraq, on Wednesday. He was a cousin of Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council, who holds the rotating presidency of the Iraqi Governing Council.

Amriya High School, spruced up in fresh pink and white paint and new rosebushes, is part of the coalition's showcase school reconstruction project, designed to win popular support for the occupation authority.

But last week, the school played host to one of the more bizarre juxtapositions of the old and new Iraq.

Located in the heart of a middle-class neighborhood called Hay Mukhabarat, for the former members of the Ba'athist intelligence force who live there, the school was recently spray-painted by students, who scrawled on the facade "God Bless Saddam," "Saddam High School," and "Down With USA."

About 150 students chanted "Long live Saddam" in front of the school Tuesday. Neighbors showed photographs of the demonstration to coalition forces, who returned the next day to arrest students responsible for the protest.

"They're just kids," said Talal abu Saleh al-Dulaimi, an engineer from Ramadi repairing the school's electric system who expressed "deep sadness" over Hussein's capture. "The American reaction was completely out of proportion."

Abu Ahmed al-Taie, a Shi'ite security guard at the school, waited until he was out of Dulaimi's earshot to say that the students who protested were mostly children of former Ba'athist hard-liners.

"Those who benefited from Saddam are defending him now. They are desperate," Taie said. "Saddam's arrest is just the trigger."

Iraqis like Taie echoed official pronouncements from the US-led coalition, which said that in the short run, the humiliating images of Hussein during his arrest might embolden insurgents. Attacks against Iraqi civilians have increased to nearly three per day. Coalition officials attribute the violence to "bitter-enders," stalwart supporters of Hussein's regime.

"They're trying to convince the people of Iraq that they can't trust the coalition," a military spokesman, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said. "They are intentionally trying to create terror in the minds of the Iraqi civilians so that they have a better chance of attracting them to their cause, whatever that may be."

It is not only anticoalition guerrillas who have raised tensions in the capital. Suspicion between Sunnis and Shi'ites was felt across Baghdad last week, as heavily armed men guarded Friday prayers and gruffly turned away strangers.

At the Sunni mosque across from Amriya High School, an angry imam spat invective against American troops. "They are taking our property. They are killing us," he said. "What kind of freedom is that?"

Abdullah abu Jihad, a beekeeper who volunteers as a mosque guard, swung his machine gun sharply when he spoke of the school principal. Abu Jihad is convinced he cooperated with the US soldiers who arrested the pro-Hussein students.

"I wish someone would kill him," abu Jihad said. "He submitted the sons of Iraq to the occupiers."

Since Hussein's arrest, his supporters, and even many who loathe or fear him, have bandied about conspiracy theories surrounding his capture.

One holds that it was not Hussein, but rather a double who was caught. Another supposes that the ousted leader was drugged by soldiers, explaining why he did not put up a fight.

The most intricate theory holds that US forces caught Hussein a month ago but announced the capture only last weekend. This is clear, proponents of this popular notion said, because televised images of the raid showed a date palm with yellow fruit, which were in season a month ago.

"I can't quite figure out why the Americans would do this, but I'm sure they did," said an unemployed salesman named Mohammed al-Azzawi.

As Iraqis grapple with the significance of the most symbolic indication yet that more than three decades of Ba'athist rule have ended, they must also deal with the specter of communal conflict.

Iraqis say a truck bomb apparently headed for a police station killed at least 11 people early last week, and several more bombing attempts were thwarted. Iraqis and coalition officials expect a major attack soon as an answer to Hussein's arrest.

"Saddam's capture provoked all this. He was our leader," said Dulaimi, predicting a new bout of violence and revenge killings to come.

But Entifadh Qanbar, a spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress, said Hussein's arrest heralded a new era of reconciliation. "These criminals will receive their proper punishment, so we can start healing our wounds," Qanbar said. "We have to start a reconciliation process."

In the poor Shi'ite neighborhood of Hay Huria, in Baghdad, that process may already have begun.

Ali Hussein, seated before a fruit stall with six companions, gleefully contemplated the prospect of Saddam Hussein's execution. "There should be a fair trial first," Hussein said. "Then he should be slowly cut to pieces in Tahrir Square," in central Baghdad, "so everyone could see it."

As Ali Hussein fantasized about publicly torturing the deposed dictator and recounted the recent string of attacks against Shi'ites, a Sunni neighbor and known Hussein supporter cut in: "You would be so lucky for Saddam to return to power. Only he could bring order."

Without missing a beat, Ali Hussein laughed and expressed the sort of tolerance that Iraq's provisional leaders hope will carry the day. "I don't mind him. He's our neighbor. He's lived here for years," Hussein said. "We would never hurt him."

Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at tcambanis@globe.com.

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