NEAR NAJAF, Iraq—Time and again, Iraqis ask interpreters working with U.S. forces here: Will the Americans abandon us again?
The lessons of 1991, when the first President Bush in the first Persian Gulf War called on Iraqis to rise up against Saddam Hussein, only to see many of them killed, were learned hard and remembered well.
Now, even with Baghdad surrounded and the second President Bush vowing to topple the Iraqi regime, people are wary. They're afraid that their government again will slaughter those who help the invaders, and they're worried about America's ambitions.
"They say, `You kill Saddam, OK, but the United States just wants the oil,' " said Soud al Otaibi, a Kuwaiti who works as an interpreter with U.S. and British military forces.
Or the Iraqis tell them the regime might prevail or battle to a standstill with the Western coalition, al Otaibi said. That would leave them open to reprisals again.
It is better, Iraqis have told translators in hundreds of interviews, to stay out of the fight until it's over. They're afraid to back a losing cause.
"They're still not believing they are going to be free," said Khala al Tarqi, another Kuwaiti translator. "They need to see proof that the Americans will stay this time."
Wariness seems widespread here. Whether it is true or not, a story has been widely repeated among Iraqis this past week that a woman was killed because she waved enthusiastically at a passing U.S. convoy near Nasiriyah. Most civilians stare at the troops with interest, or they might nod politely and smile.
More than 12 years ago, al Tarqi, now 45, worked as a Kuwaiti Air Force technician. He said he was captured by Iraqis and held prisoner for eight months in a squalid prison in the city of Tikrit, being told almost daily that he would be killed and his family slaughtered.
Al Otaibi, 30, fled to Saudi Arabia as a high school student when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Farel Sabah, 32, joined the Kuwaiti Army after the invasion and translated Arabic for Western troops.
In this war, they accompany U.S. military police, quizzing Iraqis who have surrendered, been captured in battle or been intercepted at checkpoints. They have spoken with hundreds of Iraqis since the war started, translating for the Americans and giving cultural advice.
They tell of Iraqis not ready to take on a brutal dictatorship. Rather, they say, Iraqis simply want out of the poverty and chaos.
One civilian, a boxer, tried to surrender at a checkpoint, but al Otaibi sent him away. A day later he saw the man in a prisoner of war center with three long slashes on his abdomen.
The boxer told al Otaibi he had cut himself with a razor to make it look like he was a soldier wounded in battle.
"They think it's a way out," al Otaibi said.
After the last war, the Red Cross arranged refuge for some Iraqis in Western countries. Those people have been sending back money to their families and telling stories of better places.
"Now some people think they can get out if they go with the Americans," he said.
Among regular Iraqi army soldiers, the translators have found neither loyalty to Baghdad nor the heart for mutiny.
One lieutenant colonel told translators he made $50 a month. "For such little money, why are you going to fight?" Sabah said. "They don't care about Saddam."
Among the Saddam Fedayeen paramilitary fighters, who work as enforcers for the regime, there is a different attitude. They travel with bankrolls of American cash and prized Thuraya brand satellite telephones, which give them a way to communicate in a country without a developed cell phone network. And they have cast their lot with the government.
"They are doing it for the money, and their future is linked with Saddam's future," al Tarqi said. "When he falls, they will fall."
Mostly, though, the translators listen to stories of hopelessness, and people who ask skeptically if it's really possible for Iraqis to enjoy the sort of affluence that Kuwaitis know.
To the Kuwaitis, that seems remarkable. They know there's oil beneath Iraqi soil. They look at the Tigris and Euphrates rivers with envy, sources of water are so rare in the Arab world.
"There could be so much here," Sabah said. "And yet we see men who are 35 years old and they can't even read the numbers (POW tags) on their wrists. They don't know about the rest of the world. They can't see that this could be a good place."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): najaf+boy