29 Mar 2003 16:57:16 GMT
Iraqi Shi'ites fear Saddam will never fall
By Michael Georgy
NEAR BASRA, Iraq, March 29 (Reuters) - Shi'ites in southern Iraq are running out of Saddam Hussein posters to tear down, and some are losing hope
that a U.S.-led invasion will topple the Iraqi leader any time soon.
After decades of iron-fisted rule by Saddam's Baath party -- dominated by Sunni Muslims -- many Iraqis in the mainly Shi'ite south had high hopes
that the Iraqi president would fall after the invaders unleashed their military firepower.
But the campaign is moving at a slower pace than expected, with only one city captured in the south, hundreds of km (miles) from Saddam's power base
in Baghdad and his home town of Tikrit.
"What is all this American talk about taking over and removing Saddam in 72 hours?" asked an Iraqi man, who like many others asked not to be named.
"I don't think they can get rid of him any more. It is just too difficult. There is nothing we can do about it. Our life is oppression."
U.S. and British troops have gained control of the highways around many cities and towns but they are meeting tough resistance from militias loyal to
Saddam, who are holding their ground in civilian areas with old rifles.
The Baath officials who Shi'ites say abused their human rights for years are still spreading fear through neighbourhoods, adding to the gloom of
people who are eager for Saddam's downfall but see no evidence it will happen soon.
A group of Iraqi friends crossing the street near U.S. tanks said they were praying for a new leader, but tales of atrocities by supporters of Saddam
meant people were still living in fear.
"We really can't say anything about Saddam because we could be killed like the guy in Safwan. He tore down a Saddam poster and he was executed. We
heard the Baath brought his corpse to villages to make an example out of him," said another Iraqi man.
"We think (Saddam) should be put on trial and then hanged so every Iraqi can see it. But I doubt that will ever happen."
Iraqis tend to whisper when they criticise Saddam. If they sense someone has appeared nearby, they immediately switch to loud talk about American
aggression against Iraq.
Many said they were still terrified of Baath party members, even as Saddam's loyalists come under the pressure of U.S. and British bombs that shake
the ground near their strongholds.
"Saddam's thugs are all over the place. They drive around in their trucks and tell us to stay indoors and we know they could kill us," said Mehdi,
describing life in Basra, where plumes of thick black smoke rose up on Saturday as shells landed.
Rumours of an uprising in Basra, Iraq's second largest city, are quickly denied by Iraqis, even those against Saddam.
Uncertainty over the course of the war has raised concerns that Shi'ites could face a repeat of 1991, when their uprising against Saddam was crushed
after the Americans left.
"Our biggest fear is that Americans will leave. That would be a disaster. Saddam's people will come back here and they will kill us," said one man,
sliding his finger across his throat.
Some also worry they could suffer the same fate as the Kurds in the north, where Iraqi troops rained chemical weapons down on the village of Halabja
in 1988, killing thousands.
Just before the war broke out, Saddam divided the country into four regions and put Ali Hassan al-Majeed in charge of the south. He is known as
"Chemical Ali" for his role in chemical attacks against the Kurds.
"Nothing is in our hands. The longer this war lasts the more chance that Saddam will use chemical weapons against us," said a man who gave his name
Others try not to think about what life would be like if Saddam stays in power. Many believe the Iraqi leader, who has endured years of Western
military pressure and stringent U.N. sanctions, is the ultimate survivor after maintaining a tight grip on the country for so long.
For now, all Iraqis can do is search for water, food and electricity as Saddam tries to outfox his bitter foes again.
"There is no way they can remove Saddam. He is just too strong and he has too many troops," one teenager said. "That is the way it has always