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Intellectuals somber about prospects for Mosul, all of Iraq

MOSUL, Iraq—Before the war, Junaid al Fakhri's house was the closest thing the conservative northern Iraqi city of Mosul had to an intellectual salon.

Sprawling and decrepit, the century-old bungalow on the banks of the Tigris River, al Fakhri said, had been the setting for an early scene from the movie "The Exorcist." And in a garden not far from a room where Max von Sydow mulled the mysteries of the occult, al Fakhri and a group of musicians, artists and intellectuals discussed the issues of the day.

"This was a secure place from the outside world," said Ismael Hammo, 45, a painter. "It wasn't a fancy place, but it was a kind of salvation."

Police periodically interrupted the conversations, said al Fakhri, 57, an archaeologist. Three days before American bombs started falling this year, six officers showed up to send everyone home. "We were in the garden," he said. "Some of my friends were drawing, some were playing chess. A couple of people were singing. They had their guns drawn. It was ridiculous."

But for the most part, the house was a free-speech zone. "They would say everything, everything," al Fakhri said. "They would say there is something wrong with the regime," criticizing unqualified insiders from Saddam Hussein's Baath Party who had been put in charge of university and cultural programs, for instance.

Now, with the old government gone, the people who meet to talk at the old house remain skeptical about the state of their country, worrying that those grasping for power in the new Iraq are people who went along with the former regime rather than the ones who spoke out against it.

On a warm afternoon, a group of old friends gathered at al Fakhri's house for strong coffee and somber conversation about the city government that had taken office recently.

"These guys, the council members, they are all part of the old people," al Fakhri offered. "And now they're coming back."

"Why is it a military guy?" asked Mohammed Tahel al Qaisi, 33, a lawyer, referring to the new mayor, retired Gen. Ghanim al Basso. When a reporter noted that al Basso was retired by Saddam after his brother and cousin were executed, al Qaisi scoffed. "He walks and talks the same as the old officials," he said. "He has a gang around him, just as the old officials. It's as if there were no civilians. Iraqis are tired of the military."

"Rebuilding is not just repairing the material things," Hammo said. "It's rebuilding human beings. The people who are intellectuals shouldn't hide. They should help build the culture."

But when the American officials organizing Mosul's elections were drafting members of the 250-person assembly that elected a city council and mayor, none of these old friends stepped forward. Al Qaisi said that when he saw who was involved, he didn't want anything to do with it. "So many of those people had hurt the people under Saddam Hussein," he said, referring to the assembly. "They just selected them. That was not democracy as we've dreamed about it."

Hammo, though, pronounced himself much more optimistic than his friends. "I'm a patient man," he said. "It's part of my nature. I would give the Americans a chance to act slowly. But I'm waiting for the results."

"There is something vague about optimism," al Qaisi responded. "Especially when we have nothing to do with what's going to happen."

Faris Saddudin, 45, an unemployed businessman and sometime short-story writer, said the real questions were fuel, safety and jobs. Like many Iraqi cities, Mosul has been paralyzed by shortages of gasoline and cooking propane. Fears of crime after last month's looting spree keep people on edge. Many are out of work.

"A month from now," Saddudin said, "people will be beggars. There's a saying in Arabic: `Don't starve people, or they'll abjure God.' "

That launched the group into a discussion of the role of Islam in Iraqi life (Saddudin worried about pornography arriving by satellite dish, something his friends didn't agree on), which sparked a conversation about the differences in village and city life (everyone agreed that Saddam's regime consisted of village people who tried to boss city people). By afternoon's end, the conversation had veered into archaeology, back to Islam and finally back to the future.

"It's the end of an old era and the beginning of a new one," Hammo said. "We should make use of the lessons of the previous experience. And we must regain our love of country."


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

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