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Former servants feel neighbors' heat after working in Saddam's kitchen

BAGHDAD—Nidhaal Khidir couldn't wait to teach her third-grade class of girls Sunday—the second day of school in Baghdad. For two months, their lives had been in total chaos because of the war. But now, this day signaled a blissful return to normalcy, or so she thought—until she got there.

School officially started Saturday, but the day was filled with registration and paperwork, leaving no time for lessons. So, on this day, Khidir went three hours early to Ibn Firnas Elementary School to prepare for "my girls."

Students at this school, which is wedged in a shady neighborhood between Saddam Hussein's Al Radwania Palace and the airport, are the children of former palace staff and airport employees. For years, the palace staff—housekeepers, handymen, electricians and gardeners—were the well-to-do and the powerful in the neighborhood, making about $300 a month and getting new Peugots every few years for their loyalty to Saddam, while air traffic controllers and pilots barely scraped by on $8 a month.

But now who is "in" and who is "out" in this area of two-bedroom homes with fenced yards has suddenly shifted.

"Now, we are ostracized and living in fear," said

Al Biatee, a former curtain hanger at the palace. His 11-year-old son is a student at the elementary school.

Al Biatee has come to school to check on his son after classmates taunted the boy with threats of turning him in to a U.S. military POW camp because of his dad's job.

"It's been tough for these former palace servants and their kids. Some of them have been beaten up, and we've had to come to their rescue," said Lt. Charles McGuirk.

In fact, the peace in this neighborhood around the school is so fragile that U.S. soldiers patrol the area every few hours.

But, as Khidir discovered when she went home on her lunch break, it is not enough.

In the morning, while the school was full of boys, she was deciding on the day's lesson in the teachers' study room. She chose a fable about a fox in a hen house for her 8-year-old girls to read in the afternoon. In this story the fox creates chaos and fear until the hens convince him to be their friend not their enemy.

"It is a lesson about forgiveness," said Khidir, whose husband is an airport mechanical engineer.

But when she went home a few blocks from the school at noon, she found her house ransacked. She was in no mood to heed the lesson in the story.

What bothered her most was not that her drawers were dumped and her things stolen. It was the message the looters left.

A Catholic, Khidir pointed to a crucifix on the wall.

It was broken in half and Christmas ornaments were smashed on the floor.

"For 15 years, we have lived in this neighborhood in peace, but this new freedom with (Saddam) gone has many people acting in the extreme," she said.

An hour later, still shaken by the mess in her house, Khidir returned to the school. A few boys in pressed white shirts and navy blue pants were waiting for their parents, and girls in navy blue jumpers and white blouses were just arriving.

They skipped and giggled, ecstatic to be returning.

Khidir hugged them as they entered the classroom, then opened the book to the lesson about the fox and the hens.

"Today, we are going to learn about forgiveness," she began.

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+servants

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