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Iraqi exiles living in Britain anxious for Saddam's removal

MANCHESTER, England—Peace marches? Iraqi businessman Ali al Bayati, 46, dismisses them as PR fodder for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and points to the widescreen television in his Manchester living room for proof. Sure enough, Saddam's satellite TV station is broadcasting footage of last month's massive worldwide anti-war marches, again and again.

President Bush? Polls say Europeans disdain him. But really, he's "a great man," says 40-year-old Iraqi and Manchester maintenance engineer Hayder Hamid. "I feel he wants to do something for the Iraqi people this time."

The looming invasion of Iraq by a massive and frightening Western war machine? "I see it as the light at the end of the tunnel, the glimmer of hope we've been waiting for," says 22-year-old Iraqi Sama Hadad, a medical student in London.

While much of world opinion opposes a war with Iraq, the Iraqis who fled their homeland because of Saddam's brutality see things differently.

An estimated four million Iraqis have run from their country because of Saddam, about 350,000 of them ending up in the U.K.

Look through their eyes, and Saddam is an unspeakably evil murderer and torturer who must be stopped at nearly any cost.

In a way he is worse than Hitler, because in addition to killing others "he fights his own (Muslim) people, kills his people, every day," says former Iraqi teacher Alya, 52, a London community worker who asked that only her first name be used.

Alya was imprisoned for 40 days in Iraq because she and her husband were active in Iraq's Communist party. She points to the false front teeth that replace real ones she said were punched out by police, points to her punched left ear and finally to her left hip and leg—broken when, after she was released from prison, she said, Saddam's people ran her down with a car.

Still, she and others admit, war is a difficult choice and not to be applauded outright.

"Almost all Iraqi people feel like me. They want Saddam gone," Alya said in a west London community center this week as other Iraqi women engaged in energetic aerobics in another room. "But if the war happens, it will kill innocent people. But Saddam needs to go. How? How?"

"We will pray for a minimum of casualties; war is never clean," said Yasser Alaskary, a London medical student, 22. But still, he said, the prospect that U.S. and U.K. forces may soon invade Iraq and topple Saddam seems "too good to be true."

Alaskary, fellow med student Hadad and other young Iraqis formed a group called Iraqi Prospect a year ago in an attempt to get the Iraqi exile point of view across to the world.

In Manchester, businessman al Bayati has done the same, leading a group called Iraqi Exiles in the U.K. and sending the group's concerns to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Iraqis here are distressed to see that as the war issue fills newspapers and television screens every day, nearly everyone BUT Iraqis are asked their opinions about it.

"It is hurting and disturbing and not pleasant that someone other than your own people" are debating your country's fate, says London fashion importer Kawa Besarani.

Recently, the efforts to inject an Iraqi exile and refugee voice into the war debate have had some success. In speeches, Blair has begun citing exile concerns while stressing the humanitarian argument for an invasion of Iraq.

As a crowd of some 750,000 anti-war marchers massed in London on Feb. 15, the prime minister told a Labor Party conference in Glasgow: "There will be no march for the victims of Saddam, no protests about the thousands of children that die needlessly every year under his rule, no righteous anger over the torture chambers which, if he is left in power, will be left in being."

Still, Iraqis are as diverse as any other people, and despite a shared hatred of Saddam they vary in support for a war and disagree over the intentions of President Bush.

London fashion importer Besarani fled Iraq as a young man when he realized he was in danger of death because of his opposition work. He desperately wants an alternative to war—perhaps in the form of U.N. "humanitarian inspectors" who would roam Iraq like weapons inspectors.

Even many who support war, he said, question the motives of Bush. "They think the U.S. approach is not necessarily to help the Iraqi people."

Yasser Alaskary of the Iraqi Prospect group agrees. "It's for American interests, not our interests, and we all know it's that. But the result is the same—Saddam is removed."


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

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