BAGHDAD, Iraq—Omar Masood is no religious extremist from the provinces. He's a well-dressed, impeccably coiffed, university-educated 27-year-old who co-owns a computer and video business in Iraq's capital.
As he tells it, his cousin was executed for drawing a political cartoon that lampooned Saddam Hussein's regime. Yet he now calls the fallen leader a symbol of Iraqi pride and reveres the resistance fighters who kill Americans.
"Saddam Hussein made his mistakes," Masood said. "But I can justify to you most of the mistakes."
Interviews suggest there are many who share that view here in the Adamiya neighborhood, a Sunni Muslim stronghold of members of Saddam's Baath Party and former secret policemen where Saddam made his final public appearance in April 2003, waving to cheering crowds as U.S. tanks closed in on Baghdad. And according to national polls, they aren't alone.
The persistent support among Sunnis for Saddam and what he stood for is another example of how wrong U.S. policy-makers were when they asserted, before the war, that Iraq was replete with moderate technocrats who would quickly embrace a new order. The Sunni minority, which ruled Iraq from the time of the Ottoman Empire, doesn't seem willing to move on.
It's unclear what percentage of people who think this way are also armed members of the insurgency, which is thought to be drawn largely from the Sunni minority. But large numbers of Iraq's Sunnis don't seem to have engaged in any soul-searching, 15 months after the fall of one of history's most brutal regimes.
Adamiya residents will explain in painstaking detail why they think their former dictator, who's also a Sunni, was justified in using poison gas against women and children in the Kurdish city of Halabja and why they support the killings of more than a million Shiite Muslims.
And, like their compatriots who are attacking U.S. troops in Fallujah, Samarra and a dozen other Sunni towns, they're as bitter as ever about the American military occupation that upended their decades-long position of privilege.
The Sunnis "had a vested interest in that system," said Judith Yaphe, a former CIA expert on Iraq who's now a senior research fellow at the National Defense University. "I'm not sure they want Saddam back—though some may say so—but there really is a sense of dispossession and disenfranchisement and fear of being treated the way they treated the rest of the country for so many years."
That's not unique. There are people the world over who pine for their favorite alleged war criminals, whether Slobodan Milosovic of Serbia or Charles Taylor of Liberia.
But in Iraq, the sentiment appears to be widespread among Sunnis, and it raises questions about whether any military force—American or Iraqi—will be able to hold the country together in the face of a persistently lethal Sunni insurgency.
While a small number of foreign fighters are thought to be carrying out suicide bombing attacks and kidnappings, the primary tactic of the resistance—bomb and rocket attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces—is believed to be the work of as many as 20,000 Iraqi Sunni militants.
Those militants appear to command at least tacit sympathy from a large segment of the Sunni population. The insurgency is so fierce in Anbar province, the heart of Sunni territory north and west of Baghdad, that American officers say they've largely stopped patrolling there.
The Sunni Arabs are thought to make up about 20 percent of Iraq's population, along with ethnic Kurds at 20 percent and Shiites at 60 percent.
In an Iraqi poll taken after Saddam was captured in December, at least 17 percent of respondents said he was justified in "killing religious leaders and national leaders," "forced deportation" and "mass graves," a shorthand for his extermination campaign against Shiite opponents.
Although the respondents weren't asked their religion, the vast majority of people who answered that way are thought to be Sunni, which means the vast majority of Sunnis hold that view.
On one point, almost all Iraqis are united: Eighty-two percent said they considered it a "good action" when Saddam fired missiles at Israel during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
To converse with the Sunnis of Adamiya is to step into a parallel universe.
To many of them, Saddam was a tough but fair ruler who did what anyone would have. Jordanian militant Abu Musab al Zarqawi—whom the United States blames for many attacks in Iraq—doesn't exist, and was fabricated to cover up attacks by the CIA and its allies, which are carried out to justify keeping U.S. troops in the country. The deaths of thousands of American soldiers have been covered up, their bodies buried in secret graves.
Ahmed Ibahim al Douri, 30, who stopped to chat recently on his way into Adamiya's Abu Hanifa mosque for Friday prayers, said: "These mass graves—most of them were looters, thieves and criminals. As for the gassing of Halabja, the Iranian army was in Halabja. The villagers were warned to leave, but the Kurdish leaders wouldn't let them."
Suicide attacks against Iraqis are "the work of terrorist organizations that entered Iraq from outside—from Iran, from Israel," said Omar Muhammed Khadim, 48, a university graduate who declined to specify his former occupation but seemed familiar with military matters.
Masood, the computer and video merchant, proudly displayed a poster he'd made featuring 10 Iraqi men who died fighting American troops. He said he'd been detained by U.S. forces for four days over such material, but he won release by convincing them he'd been forced to produce it. That was a lie, he said with a smile.
"The occupying army is killing the people of Iraq," he said. "They brought us democracy with bombs."
Said Khatif al Hadithi, a Syrian-born lawyer who disliked Saddam's regime: "There is something wrong about the people here. Many of them got benefits from the old regime, and now they lost everything. They are angry."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-SUNNI