Chalabi's Rally in Nasiriyah

  • Share
  • Read Later
When Ahmed Chalabi walked into the Ba'ath party headquarters in Nasariyah last Wednesday, the discarded ballots of Saddam Hussein's referendum were scattered across the floor, all of them reading "Do You Agree that Saddam Hussein is the President of the Republic of Iraq?" and all of them with a blue check in the "yes" box. When Chalabi stepped onto the balcony of the three-story headquarters building, a gathering throng amassed in front of him on a palm-lined square on the banks of the Euphrates, all shouting "Saddam, No! Saddam, No!"

Chalabi, his face chalk-white with sunblock, the top two buttons of his blue dress shirt undone, took a white plastic microphone in his hand and spoke to the crowd which by then had swollen to a few thousand. Chalabi had sent an advance team of INC (Iraqi National Congress) members into Nasariyah to gather an initial group to meet him and when the people downtown heard their cheers, curiosity drew hundreds and hundreds more to the square.

"I'm happy to be there and see the faces of those who have suffered," he said. "I'm here to tell you this is the end of oppression, the end of the tyranny you have endured." All faces in the plaza were turned up to Chalabi on the balcony. The citizens of Nasariyah who had gathered here many times before to mime their support of the Ba'athist regime seemed eager to hear the new message. "You will choose your own government, you will use your vote, there will be rule of law, all of you are equal," Chalabi continued, and then said something that must have been on the minds of the Iraqis gathered there. "We must end the Ba'ath party in Iraq. There is no place for them." A huge cheer rose up from the crowd, and many started chanting "Down with the Tikriti bastards". This was obviously the message they wanted to hear. "You must feel free," Chalabi told them. "You are free in your own country."

After Chalabi's speech, Alah Kadin Talish couldn't hide the feeling that he had heard all of this before. The 37-year-old high school teacher and father of three got on the shoulders of his friend and started pleading with Chalabi, insisting that the pattern of insincere promises and hollow ideology of the Ba'ath Party must not continue in the new government. "The fake slogans that the Saddam regime worked behind," he shouted up to the visitor on the balcony, "should not be repeated." Talish doesn't want the baby in his wife's belly to grow up in a country constantly at war. "We gave a lot of blood and many wars, and we don't know for what we gave these lives." Chalabi was impressed and invited Talish back to his camp to sit and talk some more. Talish now wants to be a liaison between his teachers union and the INC. "Our hope," says Talish, "is with these people here [the INC] who are calling for democracy." But Talish wants to avoid a bloody purge of the old regime. "The people must forgive what they faced in part to open a new day and to reconstruct and build a peaceful country on the basis of respect," he says. "Peace and the religion of all people."

After the speech, Chalabi's FIF (Free Iraqi Forces) bodyguards, wearing chocolate-chip-spotted camouflage and toting newly issued Cuban Kalishnikovs, pushed him out of the back of the rear building, shuffling over broken glass, moving past offices blown apart by grenades.

Outside was a mob scene. Men from Nasariyah crowded to kiss Chalabi. Two grenades sounded off in the distance, and people in the square scattered. The guards looked around nervously and ducked Chalabi into a waiting red Suburban. The convoy — four minivans of FIF security, advisers and journalists, special forces in front and behind driving Humvees mounted with .50 caliber machine guns — pushed through the crowded streets. The citizens of Nasiriyah lined up and cheered for some three hundred meters along the road. It was a dangerous endeavor, but they pulled it off. "That was good," sighed Frances Brooke, Chalabi's Washington advisor, "but that's the last time we do that."

At last they broke out of the crowd and drove out of the town, passing through barren salt marshes, bombed out shells of Soviet T-55 tanks, past an unfinished monument to Saddam Hussein, scaffolding still wrapped around it. "This used to be all cultivated land," someone in the car moaned. "Look at what Saddam has done to this place."