BAGHDAD -- In Baghdad's largest slum, Yasser Abdel-Hassan broods over the life that he wants, then faces the life that he has.
His dream, an obsessive and almost blinding desire, is to become an engineer, like his father. But already 18, he has yet to master a computer. He studies until 11 p.m., but his school in Saddam City promises only dead ends, with broken windows, battered desks, 500 students and 10 computers, still in boxes. His father earns $35 a month, barely enough for food and clothing.
That was before the war.
Now Abdel-Hassan stands listlessly on a street corner with his friends, spending an idle moment in a city on hiatus. School is canceled, with no plans for its resumption. His home is crammed with the stuff of a long, unpredictable siege: a metal vat filled with water, cylinders of kerosene and bags of flour piled against a wall of peeling paint, patched with uneven cement.
"Our fate is unknown," said Abdel-Hassan, slim and strikingly handsome.
Saddam City, a miserable place at once sprawling and claustrophobic, is home to most of Baghdad's Shiite Muslims, who have seethed for decades under the repression of a state run by Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority. It has produced moments of unrest that have shaken the government. It remains the elusive hope of U.S. officials, who predict that an uprising here could save U.S. troops from a street-by-street battle for Baghdad, the garrison of President Saddam Hussein's 30-year rule.
But 10 days into the U.S. invasion, Saddam City is a neighborhood staggering with the monotonous task of survival, made all the more difficult by the war. Few speak of waiting to be liberated, and even fewer volunteer that they see Americans as the agents for change. Like Baghdad, the district on the eastern edge of the capital is more weary than restive, saddled with anxiety over what lies ahead.
Many say they are indifferent to politics, the very word a potential act of subversion in Hussein's Iraq. Their lives, they say, are shaped most by sanctions whose burden has been crushing for Iraq's poor. Many speak of the United States in strikingly different terms than they did a decade ago. Today, the U.S. image, residents say, is colored by foreign policies elsewhere in the Arab world, a conviction that the United States covets Iraq's oil, and persistent resentment over the failure of the United States to back Shiite uprisings against Hussein after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
"I know the Americans are liars, I know their policy is a lie," said Abdel-Hassan's father, Qassem. "We can read their minds."
Like so many of the grandiose ambitions of Arab leaders a generation ago, the slum began as a huge housing development -- originally called Revolution City -- built in the early 1960s by Iraq's military strongman, Gen. Abdel-Karim Qassem. Designed on a grid, it offered broad avenues and subsidized housing for the tides of Shiite Muslim immigrants sweeping into Baghdad from impoverished southern Iraq. When he came to power, Hussein gave the district his name.
But residents say that as its population grew from 500,000 to well over 1.5 million, Saddam City suffered the government's willful neglect. Painted in dreary browns, few houses claim more than three rooms -- two bedrooms and a sitting room. Herds of goats and sheep pick at scraps of lettuce, bread and tomatoes tossed with trash on the side of the road. Men sell cigarettes, shoes and hardware on burlap mats spread along sidewalks. Every corner is under official surveillance, conducted by a fearsome and suffocating network of Baath Party cadres suspicious of even small groups speaking in the streets.
The conditions have bred isolation, a general characteristic of life in Baghdad in recent years that is especially deadening here.
Abdel-Hassan said he rarely listens to the news. Instead, he dreams of escape. He longs for a computer, lamenting that Chinese-made desktops that recently arrived at his school were not unpacked before the war began. With unbridled curiosity, he peppers a visitor with questions about mobile phones, DVDs and the Internet, symbols of an elusive modernity in a country that, in many ways, remains trapped in the 1970s.
"We look at computers and don't know how to use them. I'm in my last year of high school and I don't know how to use one. I'd just like to see a computer, just see it," he said.
The words made his father wince. His father once earned $1,800 a month at a chemical company. He now makes, at best, 100,000 Iraqi dinars a month -- about $35 -- selling a sparse inventory of television antennas and space heaters. He spends 15,000 dinars of that on locally made cigarettes.
War, he said, is only the latest tragedy, with far less impact on his life than the economy.
"War is better than the sanctions," his father said.
At those words, a customer standing silently at his shop jumped in. "Sanctions are a slow death," said Fadhil Faleh, 47, who is unemployed. "War brings a quick death, and a quick death is preferable."
To what degree the quest for survival overrides other sentiments in places such as Saddam City is difficult to gauge, particularly for journalists required to conduct interviews in the presence of a government escort. Although the government appears in firm control of Baghdad, it remains nervously aware of the threat an uprising could pose. Militiamen remain dispersed throughout Saddam City, in what appears to be less a show of defending the city and more a message to anyone contemplating revolt.
In recent days, a fatwa, or religious decree, signed by five senior Shiite clerics called on followers to remain loyal to the government and submissive in a time of war. Shiite Muslims, who make up about 60 percent of Iraq's 23 million people, have been handed a role crucial to Hussein's staying power, with British forces besieging Basra and U.S. forces farther north at or around two other Shiite centers, Najaf and Karbala.
"Don't succumb to the devil's temptation and rush into aggressive actions to satisfy personal grudges or achieve illegal gains," said the decree, which was posted at Kadhimiya, the most sacred shrine for Shiite Muslims in Baghdad.
In Saddam City, silence is often the language of aspirations.
In conversations today, no one invoked Hussein's name, and privately, residents spoke of their resentment of a government that has executed its religious leaders, repressed its activists and exiled tens of thousands of people to neighboring Iran.
While residents discounted the prospect of an uprising in Baghdad, they were eager for news about unrest among civilians in Basra, the country's second-largest city with 1.3 million inhabitants, located in the Shiite-dominated south. Shiite uprisings in Basra that were encouraged by the United States at the end of the Gulf War were repressed after it became clear that U.S. forces would not intervene on their behalf.
In 1999, riots spread through Saddam City after the assassination of a prominent Shiite cleric and two of his sons. Many residents believed the killings were the work of the government. The unrest was put down by units of the Republican Guard that killed at least two dozen residents.
Some disaffection can still be sensed beneath the surface. In a candid moment, Abdel-Hassan's father declined to say whom he blamed for keeping sanctions in place.
But there was a deep unease over the prospect of a foreign occupation of Iraq. The prospect seemed an affront to very qualities that Iraqis hold most dear: dignity, honor and respect.
"I don't think an occupation in any form will make Iraq better," said Abdel-Hassan. "I don't think people will accept this situation. Iraqis will try to resist, to end the occupation. Our country is well known for these things, resisting foreigners."
That tradition, a feature of Iraq's landscape for generations, stands in opposition to the image of the United States. Although residents said that no bombs or missiles had struck Saddam City, far from the centers of power, the menace of daily bombings has cast deep unease here as elsewhere in the capital, and the devastation at two markets this week that left dozens dead caused revulsion.
"You say you're going to change the regime and you kill civilians," said Fadhil, the customer. "If you say you're going to attack the regime, attack the regime, don't attack the people."
At Abdel-Hassan's home, cramped quarters of concrete walls with tea served on a plastic white chair, friends and relatives delivered estimates of the U.S. advance to Baghdad -- 50 miles, 60 miles, 75 miles. They spoke not with anticipation, but fear.
"To tell you the truth, we don't want the Americans in Baghdad," said Bassem Ibrahim, a 28-year-old friend. "We don't think a person who comes from the outside will make something better."
The words prompted a cousin, Farid Majid, 25, to list a litany of America's perceived sins -- its arrogance in invading Iraq, its treatment of the Palestinians, its support for Israel and its desire for Iraq's oil. It was not a defense of his government. But neither was it an endorsement of an alternative. There was suspicion, a skepticism of intent.
"If we had no oil, the Americans would not come," he said. "They won't improve anything. They'll do the opposite."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company