AL NAJMA, Iraq—After decades of oppression at the hands of Saddam Hussein, Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq are tasting a new freedom in the early stages of the U.S.-led war to topple the Iraqi president.
Even before reports surfaced of a possible Shiite rebellion against Saddam in Iraq's second-largest city, Basra, Shiites in southern Iraq were taking some actions.
Many of the Iraqi soldiers who have surrendered willingly to coalition forces are Shiites who had been forced to join the army. Mohammed Hashem, a 19-year-old reservist from the farming community of al Najma, fled a day before the U.S. strikes began.
"I was afraid," he said. "The lunch for a soldier is just a loaf of bread."
Some Shiite farmers have stopped paying the monthly fee of 250 Iraqi dinars—enough to buy 2 pounds of potatoes or tomatoes—to Baath Party officials to fund the army. Others looted and shattered the windows of the Baath Party office in Safwan, a border town north of Kuwait.
Some recently stole doors from a building with a sign that read: "God Protects Iraq and Saddam Hussein."
There also are unconfirmed reports of Shiite farmers killing Iraqi soldiers who try to take their crops. And rumors are flying that a Baath Party boss in Safwan has been killed.
"He was nasty, dirty and showed no humanity," Hashem said. "He killed a lot of people just because they insulted Saddam by calling him names."
Shiites, who make up 65 percent of Iraq's 24 million people, have every reason to want Saddam removed from power. In interviews, they described a campaign of killings and executions, and said officials of the Baath Party confiscated their farms. Their mosques and holy sites have been systematically desecrated.
It was a tactic to preserve the power of minority Sunnis, Iraq's other division of Muslims, who control the government and economy.
"We're all brothers, but Saddam hated the Shiites," said Hussein Jaber, 20, a tall student who wore a black jacket with a Calvin Klein logo. "He didn't let us practice our customs. He didn't let us visit our shrines."
"The Hussein government told us there's uranium in the tomatoes, and then took our crops," said Muhsen Salim, 24, a farmer.
It's unclear how serious the revolt in Basra is. There was little new information Wednesday.
British troops have fired mortars at Iraqi paramilitary fighters and an unknown number of regular Iraqi troops holed up in Basra. Many are disguised as civilians and are using the local population as human shields, British officials said.
U.S. warplanes dropped satellite-guided bombs that destroyed the Baath Party headquarters and other military targets.
"We are assessing the situation very carefully to see how we can capitalize on it and how we can assist," British spokesman Group Capt. Al Lockwood said.
A successful revolt would give the Shiites more power to shape a post-Saddam Iraq. If the Shiites are content, a stable Iraq probably will emerge. If they feel marginalized, it could lead to chaos and Iraq's breakup.
A Shiite revolt isn't unprecedented. After the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Shiites in Basra rose up, but the rebellion was crushed swiftly by the Iraqi military after the United States refused to intervene. Thousands of Shiites were slaughtered.
But the coalition faces difficulty in spurring more Shiites to rebel, because Saddam's loyalists maintain a strong presence in southern Iraq.
From Safwan to the Persian Gulf port city of Umm Qasr to Basra, Iraqi troops are using guerrilla tactics, staging ambushes on U.S. convoys and firing at British checkpoints. Many villages and towns are still under the control of Baathist officials and Iraqi intelligence agents.
If the Basra uprising grows, it might convince more Shiites to take a brave step toward freeing themselves of Saddam.
But many here say they are skeptical. Taher Saleh said he was excited when he heard that U.S. planes had struck Saddam's palaces at the beginning of the war.
"But it doesn't matter," he noted, explaining his own reluctance to rebel, "because we are sure he wasn't in his palace. I still expect him to come here."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.