“Liberated” Town Remains Captive to Its Tragic Past

SAFWAN, Iraq – A week after American tanks rolled through their
town, a group of Shiite Muslim men here is making a daring move to
open a new mosque.

Saddam Hussein’s henchmen for years denied permission to do this,
in line with his decades of ruthless suppression of the Shiites.
The men now are emboldened by America’s invasion.

Yet as they defy the Iraqi regime, they also are ambivalent about
embracing an America they deeply mistrust.

“I don’t like Saddam Hussein, but I like Iraq,” said farmer Hamed
al-Anizi, 45, ranting against U.S. bombing and praising
paramilitary forces waging resistance against U.S. forces as

He and fellow farmers laughed at the notion of working with America
to establish a democracy in postwar Iraq. The only power they’ll
respect in the future: “Allah,” the men say, nodding in
agreement. “Allah.”

The situation in this farming town of 24,000 offers an early look
at Iraq and the forces shaping what may be a longer war than many
Americans expected.

Safwan is fearful, volatile and far from grateful for the allies’
presence. Local officials loyal to Hussein struggle to retain
control, directing fighters that military officials say are capable
of launching ambush or suicide attacks on U.S. supply lines.

They badger the townspeople who are thirsty and reduced to looting
as the first Kuwaiti aid convoys approach their scattered mud-brick
and cement-block houses, wilting green vegetable patches, and
dilapidated, mile-long main street. One minute, young men riding in
pickups flash thumbs- up for America, begging for water and
cigarettes. Next minute, they lapse into singing for Hussein:
“Saddam a good man!”

This might be a moment for trying to sway hearts and minds – a
crucial part of the Bush administration plan to rebuild Iraq into a
beacon of democracy for the Middle East.

But American humanitarian workers have stayed out, with southern
Iraq deemed potentially deadly. U.S. troops now skirt Safwan and
other southern towns as they move north toward Baghdad. America is
visible only as a distant, green-black-and-brown-splotched boa of
gun-topped war machines.

The Pentagon has claimed control over more than 30 percent of
California-size Iraq.

Here, British troops find control is tenuous at best. On Saturday,
Col. Chris Vernon, a British military spokesman, announced a new
counterinsurgency campaign that will run parallel to fighting the
war. Iraqi forces that continue to fire low-trajectory missiles
regularly at Kuwait probably are based in southern Iraq, Vernon

At first “Safwan did not pose a threat,” but now strengthened
patrols will try “to win the people and appear non-oppressive to
them,” Vernon said.

The most vulnerable here simply cower.

“I am afraid,” said 10-year-old Salwah Ganem, who was barefoot,
wearing a yellow dress and squatting in a dusty field about 5 miles
north of Safwan as a helicopter swooped about 100 feet overhead.
Tears streamed down her face. Finally, her three barefoot brothers
and mother, clad in black, arrived. The mother hoisted an emergency
Red Crescent box of water and food on her head, and they walked
away into the hot, gritty haze.

While a dozen or so patrolling British soldiers spoke into headset
microphones, Kuwaiti Red Crescent workers unloaded hundreds of
these boxes. More than 500 Iraqis rushed to the scene, lined up,
then began pushing, fighting and shouting.

Standing back by his battered Toyota pickup, tomato farmer Mohamad
Khalid, 33, said Hussein “has left us with nothing.” He clutched
two nearly empty vials of insulin, hoping to find a doctor who
could supply more.

Some Iraqis will support Americans, Khal