Iraq's Shi'ites, who form an estimated 60 percent of the Iraqi population, have long been repressed by the Ba'ath Party of Saddam Hussein. Thousands who have fled Iraq now live as exiles in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, and other parts of the Persian Gulf region. RFE/RL reports that while exiled Iraqi Shi'ites in Kuwait have many questions about Washington's plans for a postwar government in Iraq, they welcome the possibility of Hussein's ouster by U.S.-led military action so they can return home and start rebuilding the country.
Kuwait, 24 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Sayed Muhammad Radha al-Ghazwini, a 62-year-old businessman from a prominent Iraqi Shi'ite family, has been living in exile since the first year of rule in Baghdad by Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party. He fled in fear from his hometown of Karbala after he wrote a poem and recited it during a 1969 religious festival honoring Imam Ali, a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and a holy man revered by Shi'ites around the world.
Al-Ghazwini recalls that the mood of the festival was jovial, with some foreign Arab dignitaries laughing at his historical puns. But he says the room grew silent when he recited the final stanza containing a question that dared to ask whether the revolution that brought the Ba'ath Party to power less than a year earlier would benefit the Iraqi people in the long run.
Sitting at a small jewelry shop he now owns in a Kuwait City market, al-Ghazwini recites the words he spoke more than half a lifetime ago, words addressed to the Ba'ath Party leadership that changed his life forever: "The basic principles of the revolution, seen as so white and holy, were not meant to inspire aggression. The rulers of the past were corrupt for so long and bought their supporters. They'd forgotten that corruption is the main cause for the collapse of crowns. Learn the lessons of the past and try not to make the same mistakes. For a decade, we have suffered the drought of oppression. Will your rule be any different?"
Soon after he recited the poem, al-Ghazwini says agents from the Ba'ath Party stormed into the home of his father to try to find him. But al-Ghazwini wasn't there. He escaped from Iraq after his father told him about the search.
Iraq's Shi'ites live mostly in the south of the country and share religious, but not ethnic, ties with Iran. Iraq's central governments, drawn from the more prosperous Sunni minority, have often sought to marginalize the Shi'ites politically by claiming they have conflicting allegiances to Iraq and Iran, a charge the Shi'ites reject.
Al-Ghazwini is one of thousands of Iraqi Shi'ites living in exile in Kuwait today. He says he is not a member of any of the fractured Iraqi opposition groups that plan to meet later this week in Arbil -- the main city in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq -- in an attempt to put on a show of unity for their wavering sponsors in Washington.
But al-Ghazwini does advocate democracy as the best chance to bring stability to a post-Hussein Iraq. Indeed, compared to the rhetoric of the main Iraqi Shi'ite opposition faction in exile, the Iranian-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, al-Ghazwini and other Iraqi Shi'ites in Kuwait appear relatively moderate.
While the Iranian-backed Supreme Council claims it already has moved 5,000 armed fighters into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, al-Ghazwini says the thousands of Iraqi Shi'ites in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region are neither armed nor organized to do battle.
If Saddam Hussein's regime falls, he says "the Iraqi people who live outside of Iraq now, particularly those in Kuwait and the [Persian] Gulf [region], [would] wait to be sure of the results of this transition" before they attempt to return to Iraq. He suspects they will wait to see if the post-Hussein government "will be for their benefit, and whether it will be a civilian and democratic regime that they have confidence in and feel secure about. This is due to their bad experiences in the past."
The historical experiences al-Ghazwini refers to are not limited to the repressions Iraqi Shi'ites have faced since Hussein rose to power during the 1970s through his secular Ba'ath Party. Hussein, who is a Sunni by origin, has purged Shi'ites from the party and excluded them from the bureaucracy and security forces.
Al-Ghazwini says Shi'ites also will never forget their failed uprising in southern Iraq, which broke out in March 1991 after the United States had routed Iraqi troops from Kuwait. That uprising was fueled by a statement made on 15 February 1991 by former U.S. President George Bush. In that speech, Bush -- attempting to prevent a ground war -- said further bloodshed could be prevented if the "Iraqi military and the Iraqi people take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein...to step aside."
Since then, Bush and his advisers have explained that what they really had hoped to see in Iraq in 1991 was a kind of palace coup by military officers within the Ba'ath Party and to see such an uprising gain the support of Shi'ites in the south and Kurds in the north.
The United States chose not to support the uprising that did take place, fearing further instability, and the revolt was crushed by Hussein. The Kurds and Shi'ites felt betrayed by Washington.
Al-Ghazwini says most Iraqi Shi'ites in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia today will wait to see what plans emerge from Washington for any post-Hussein Iraqi government before they try to return to Iraq.
As Iraqi opposition leaders prepare for their meeting in Arbil this week, many fear the divisions among them are causing the United States to back away from the idea that they represent a credible political force for a post-Hussein Iraq. Washington has said it plans to occupy Iraq after toppling Hussein's regime. And there are indications that the United States may do much of the initial work administering the country.
Still, very few details are publicly known about the kind of occupation government Washington is considering. Some reports suggest an 18-month military occupation with a U.S. commander who runs the country along with a civilian administration.
But it remains unclear whether such a civilian administration would be appointed by Washington or the United Nations or whether there might also be a transitional Iraqi government similar to the post-Taliban government in Afghanistan.
Ahmad Chalabi, who heads the Iraqi National Congress opposition umbrella group once considered a favorite of Washington, says he still does not know anything about Washington's plans. But Chalabi insists that whatever involvement opposition leaders have in a post-Hussein Iraq, they must show the Iraqi people that they are allies of the United States rather than its agents.
Analysts say that to do this, the fractured opposition will have to show Washington that it can gather under its own initiative in Arbil and reach common ground on a collective leadership with a common platform that goes beyond a simple call for democracy.
Al-Ghazwini says he hopes the feuding among opposition groups doesn't continue at Arbil because that would further weaken Washington's already skeptical interest in establishing a civilian government: "I have been praying to God that this corrupt, criminal regime [of Saddam Hussein] will be replaced with a democratic one so we can return home under the justice of a decent, democratic, civilian government; a government that respects people, their souls, their rights; and treats all men, women, and children in Iraq equally. Our biggest hope is to return to Iraq as soon as possible."
Meanwhile, al-Ghazwini says he and other exiled Iraqis who are staying in Kuwait for now are troubled by the antiwar demonstrations that have been on the rise in Europe and the United States in recent weeks: "We feel puzzled by these demonstrations. We are thankful that people have such sympathy for us as Iraqi people. But we wonder why all these protesters [in the West] don't know how horrible the situation is for the people in Iraq [under Saddam Hussein] and for those outside of Iraq."
He says that if the antiwar demonstrators in Europe and the United States had lived through the same experiences as the Kurds in northern Iraq or the Shi'ites of southern Iraq, they would be demonstrating instead for Hussein's immediate ouster. "These people are, in fact, misled," al-Ghazwini says. "They don't know the true nature of [Hussein's] regime. They assume that the opposition in Iraq enjoys the same rights that they have in their countries. They don't know that a wolf is on the loose in Baghdad and is cutting the Iraqi people into little pieces. The [Iraqi] people are waiting for salvation. They hope that a foreign power will come and help save them by kicking this regime out of the country."
And al-Ghazwini concludes that the exiled Iraqis in Kuwait and elsewhere -- many who still have loved ones inside Iraq who could be killed in a new war in the Persian Gulf -- are eager to see Hussein's regime ousted by any means possible: "It is a wild regime that has killed thousands of people and left behind thousands of orphans and widows. This evil regime has compelled thousands of us to escape [from Iraq] in fear of [Hussein's] vengeance. They have become homeless people around the world, in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia, and they are now waiting impatiently on the borders for the hour of their salvation."
Despite the jewelry shop he has owned since his retirement from a career in banking, which led him from London and Tehran to Jordan and Kuwait, and despite the seven children he has raised to adulthood or the 23 grandchildren he now has around the world, al-Ghazwini says he does not consider himself to be a man who has settled down.
He says that he is also waiting eagerly, but watching carefully, for the right moment when he and his family can return safely to his homeland.