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Jordanian truckers see Iraqis living under U.S. threat as `normal'

KARAMEH BORDER CROSSING, Jordan—He is a proud man, this former Iraqi soldier, a patriot devoted to his country and his president, a long-haul trucker who has traveled the Middle East and is convinced the United States has evil designs on his beleaguered nation.

"Everyone knows the United States wants to control the whole world and all of the oil in this region," said Ahmad al Hassnawi, a 30-year-old bachelor who recently served his obligatory three years in Saddam Hussein's infantry.

"If George Bush wants to fight, he should find some other country that also wants to fight. Not us.

"But if war comes to us, every Iraqi must die for our country and our president."

Hassnawi and others who make regular trips in and out of Iraq say the mood in its principal cities is "normal." The reports come from truckers such as Hassnawi, from the Jordanian gasoline-smugglers known as sailors who drive old Chevy Caprices with hidden tanks and from the long-distance cabdrivers who use black-windowed GMC Suburbans to ferry passengers and trade goods between Jordan and Iraq.

"I say our life is normal because we're used to living under these threats," said Hassnawi, who lives in Kerbala, 75 miles south of Baghdad. He said he could make 10 "papers" per month as a trucker. In Iraq, "paper" is slang for an American hundred-dollar bill.

"We have some difficulties, but people are living as always. There is plenty of food. The children are on their school holiday. No problems."

Hassnawi said he had noticed some extra military activity in Kerbala in recent days, but no new fortifications, tank battalions or gun emplacements. There has been no call for new military enrollments and no panic-buying by citizens. The government recently handed out three-month rations of basic goods to every household, but that's not unusual, Hassnawi said.

Nor has there been any mass exodus from Baghdad or other cities, no crowds of frightened Iraqis fleeing to the Jordanian border, as some news reports have suggested.

"No camps and no refugees over there," said a Jordanian police commander, pointing from his border post toward Iraq.

There is, however, some paranoia on the Iraqi side. For example, all cellular phones are seized—and kept for good—by Saddam's border guards.

"The Iraqis think you might use the phones for spying," said the Jordanian officer.

Iraqi drivers and Jordanian traders say the Baghdad-controlled media carry reports about the U.N. weapons inspections, but there's little official mention of a possible war.

Still, of course, the word gets out. Some people listen privately to BBC broadcasts from London. And the U.S. government's Radio Sawa—in regional Arabic, "sawa" means together—is said to be catching on. The station's rising popularity is apparently due more to its lively musical programs than its pro-Western news reports.

Do people in Iraq talk about the war every day?

"Every minute!" said Mohammed Basim, 32, a Jordanian trader who makes regular trips to Baghdad in his 1999 Suburban to buy consumer goods that he resells in Jordan.

(That 98-octane gasoline on the Iraqi side of the border is just 6 cents a gallon; in the Jordanian capital of Amman it's $1.70 a gallon. Cross-border trade is also brisk in fruit, vegetables, clothing, canned food, even sheep. A grass-fed sheep in Iraq is about $27; in Amman it's more than $200.)

"The Iraqi drivers don't think there's really going to be a war," said Garbi al Shemry, who owns a small garage in the truck-stop hamlet of al Ruwaished. "Here in Jordan, we're more scared than they are."

The Iraqi people are renowned in the Middle East for being defiant and tough, said a Jordanian driver who stopped in al Ruwaished for a lunch of grilled chicken, basmati rice and thick Turkish coffee.

"They are used to difficulties, and you can't intimidate them," he said. "You watch. Bombs will be dropping on their heads and they'll be playing cards."

Hassnawi, 30, whose hands are rough as rope and whose handshake is just right, makes weekly runs out of Iraq in his big Mercedes-Benz tractor-trailer, which he has nicknamed "Mishmish"—Apricot. He wears blousy Iraqi pantaloons, brown plastic sandals and a shirt that smells heavily of sweat and diesel. At the base of his right thumb is a homemade tattoo of the three-pointed Mercedes star.

Hassnawi typically carries fertilizer, hay or pesticides into Jordan from Kerbala. Famous for its apricots, Kerbala is a holy city for Shiite Muslims, and one of the city's principal attractions is a shrine to Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad.

In the cab of Hassnawi's truck, hanging from the mirror, a talisman picturing Imam Hussein dangles next to a Mickey-and-Minnie air freshener.

Kerbala also has a serious political history. It was the scene of a 1991 Shiite uprising against Saddam's ruling Ba'ath Party, which is predominantly Sunni Muslim. During that short-lived revolt, which came in the wake of Iraq's defeat in the Persian Gulf War, Shiites tortured and killed more than a few of Saddam's closest followers.

"Saddam has been keeping us down and executing us for too many years—he even targeted our religious leaders," said Ahmet, an Iraqi refugee and a Shiite who didn't want his full name used. A former tailor in Baghdad, Ahmet fled to Amman four years ago and now can't wait for Saddam to be ousted.

"Everyone is afraid, and no one can speak against Saddam," he said, pouring out cups of tea in the small apartment he shares with two other Iraqis. "The secret police are everywhere in Baghdad."

Hassnawi, the patriotic driver with the easy smile, angrily dismisses these comments as treasonous.

"Anyone who says this about our president is a liar," he said, eyes flashing.

"Anyone who says this is not a true Iraqi."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): jordanborder