BASRA, Iraq—For the first time in his life, Safaz al Hellou feels like the teenager he is. The tall, lanky 16-year-old recently crossed a forbidden line: He told a joke about Saddam Hussein in front of his giggling friends in the scorching heat.
It went like this: Saddam disguised himself as a woman to hide from U.S. forces. He approached a female vendor to buy some food. But she insisted that he not pay. When Saddam asked why, the vendor lifted her veil. "Sir, it is me," whispered Izzat Ibrahim al Duri, Saddam's vice chairman, who is also on the lam.
Hellou's eyes danced after telling the joke. His friends burst into laughter.
Under Saddam's Orwellian state, Hellou and his friends might have gone to jail for that joke, or for spreading a rumor that he was in hiding. But a month after the fall of Baghdad, Iraqis are lifting up the psychological barriers left by Saddam's intelligence network. Many are finding a new independence to laugh and gossip about the old regime anytime, anywhere, with anyone.
"We can say anything we want in public," said Hellou with a wide, carefree grin. "Now we're free."
In the old Iraq, entire generations of Iraqis could only poke fun at their leaders or share rumors inside the confines of their houses. A web of spies spread its tentacles into every neighborhood and was so secretive that your closest friend might be the informant. So even light-hearted political humor was shared only with those you absolutely trusted.
"We only told jokes to our own family, and never outside our homes," said Hellou. "They would have taken away my whole family."
"Even if they heard the joke before, our houses would be destroyed," said his friend, Hassan Maliki, 14.
The old regime was so paranoid that it expended vast amounts of paper to douse rumors and jokes perceived as anti-Saddam.
According to documents obtained by Knight Ridder, Saddam's spies routinely filed reports on the minutest rumor heard on the streets with local Baath Party officials. Those officials then copied the report, in most cases without changing a word, and signed it. Then they sent it off to Baghdad.
In one example, an informant named Balqees al Mayouf filed a report on Jan. 21, 1993, about a rumor she heard in Khaleej Arabi district in central Basra.
She wrote that she heard a group of boys talking at nighttime that Saddam had contributed $9 billion to the presidential campaign of President Clinton. This was in order to help Clinton defeat his opponent, the first President Bush, Saddam's enemy from the first Persian Gulf War.
Mayouf, the informant, wrote that one boy said: "As a gratitude from Clinton to Iraq, he will improve relations between America and Iraq."
But Mayouf said she told the boy "Iraq can grab the victory by itself" and break the U.S.-induced U.N. economic blockade "by its own will and justice."
"No one will bring the victory to us and break the blockade except Saddam Hussein and the strong will of his loyal Iraqis," she said she told the boy.
Mayouf sent her report to Abdul Baki al Sadoon, the leader of the Baath Party in Basra. He had her letter retyped, signed it and sent it to Baath Party headquarters in Baghdad.
Sadoon attached a note reassuring the Baath leadership that they had nipped the rumor in the bud by telling the boys that "it has no basis of fact" and that it was intended to falsely portray Iraq as a possible U.S. ally like "Saudi Arabia and Kuwait."
"This is not the great Iraq and its victorious leader Saddam Hussein," Sadoon wrote patriotically to his superiors.
In another document, a Baathist spy filed a report on how people were rumored to be fleeing Kuwait, which Iraq had invaded in 1990. A prominent astronomer had predicted that Iraq would occupy Kuwait again. The Kuwaiti government apparently arrested him, according to the report.
Sadoon, in a report dated Jan. 31, 1998, to the Iraqi national security office, wrote about a conversation between a sailor from Bahrain and an Iraqi sailor.
The Bahrain sailor said, "My cousin is a Saudi Arabian pilot who says that the USA, the enemy, will come one day and make a landing in Basra city," Sadoon wrote to his superiors in Baghdad.
The purpose of filing a rumor report was twofold. For mid-level Baathist bosses such as Sadoon, it was a way of currying favor with Baghdad, to show their grip was tight, that they kept watch on every citizen. For lower-level spies, it was a way of making money or getting gifts for their loyalty to the government.
Spreading rumors was also a well-oiled tool of Saddam's propaganda machine. On Nov. 8, 1995, a memo was sent to all Baathist "comrades" in Iraq by the office of Rokan Abdul Ghafour, a key aide of Saddam.
It was right after the presidential election. Saddam, being the only candidate, won.
The memo listed all the hardships that Iraqis endured to go and vote for Saddam, to show "how much our brave nation loves Saddam Hussein."
"There are two kinds of rumors the Baathists spread," said Ali Ohaili, 33, a stocky trader with a shoe-brush moustache. "One is to keep your mind busy. And the other is to keep you away from reality."
Until Saddam is captured or proved dead, many Iraqis won't totally be free, added Ohaili. When asked about jokes and rumors under the old regime, some Iraqis refused to give their names, still fearing that a Baathist spy might be within earshot.
Today, the only rumors that concern Ohaili are about Saddam.
"All the people are thinking: Where is the president?" said Ohaili. "There are some rumors that he has left Iraq with the help of the Americans. Others say he's in Syria or hiding in Iraq.
Some even say he's on George Bush's ranch in Texas."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.