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Iraqi Exiles Nurture Dreams in London - 2002-10-16

London has become a haven for members of Iraq's intellectual and business elite seeking refuge from decades of political turmoil. Nearly 200,000 strong and growing, London's Iraqi community is one of the most significant groups of Iraqi exiles in the world. As the talk of a possible American and British-led attack on Iraq dominates the headlines, London's Iraqis are watching developments more anxiously than ever.

Saturday night in the Bayswater section of London, diners at a Middle Eastern restaurant keep time to the rhythmic motion of a belly dancer slowly weaving her way among the guests. This is "Baghdad" in name and atmosphere, if not in fact. It's a sleek, modern eatery renowned for its authentic Iraqi cuisine, but even more well-known as a meeting place for the Iraqi diaspora.

Iraqis from all religious, tribal and political backgrounds come here to mingle. Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites mix with former members of the ruling Ba'ath party and communist activists. Recently, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's official translator was spotted here, having a quiet dinner. The man at a nearby table was from Kuwait, the country Iraq invaded in 1991, sparking the Gulf War.

But even in this festive, diverse atmosphere, the somber tone of politics is never far off. Nowadays the threat of a U.S.-led strike against their country is prominent in people's minds. Many Iraqis here are eager to see an end to political strife back home. Some want the debilitating economic sanctions lifted. Others say it is time for Saddam Hussein to go.

The Baghdad restaurant's owner Abdul Ibrahimi says people just want a chance to live their lives in peace.

"The general feeling is that people want to have changes in their life," he said. "They are fed up. In the last 22 years they are going to war, from one war to another war."

In spite of growing political tensions, Mr. Ibrahimi welcomes all Iraqis in his restaurant, regardless of background or belief. He points out that in Iraq people live in constant fear of expressing their views, but Britain is place where opinions can be expressed freely. This he says is why he has made it his home.

"Mainly you look for a system that will respect mankind and human beings. You get it here," he said. "You get your self-respect. That is what I like about Britain. It's a good environment to create your dream."

For decades London has given Iraqis a place to live out their dreams and has provided a safe haven from political instability.

The first to come were Iraqi Jews in the 1930s and '40s fleeing religious persecution. They were followed a decade later by Iraqis escaping frequent military coups and rebellions in northern Kurdish territories. Most recently, it has been exiles from the Iran-Iraq and Gulf Wars.

At the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at Exeter University, Professor Nadje Al-Ali, an Iraqi, says her countrymen come to London seeking a freer, more democratic society, and are also lured by the cultural links formed during the three decades that Iraq was under the British Mandate after World War I.

"The language that people would learn other than Arabic would be English. They would prefer to come where they would speak the language. Then there is this history, and then there are family ties," she said. "So many would prefer to come somewhere where they have family and friends."

As a result, London's Iraqi community is home to academics, engineers, artists, doctors and influential business executives.

It's the other side of the Iraq "brain drain" caused by years of repression and instability. More recent arrivals from Iraq are desperate to escape debilitating economic sanctions and tyrannical rule.

London is also something of a base for Iraqi exile political activities. Most parties opposed to Saddam Hussein have offices here. And defectors who slipped out of Iraq are known to surface in London from time to time. There are even a few pro-Saddam Baathis who add their voice to the debate.

But Professor Al-Ali says even Iraqi political activists in London are not as active as they might be, partly because the opposition parties have a hierarchical structure that was created back home and tends to hinder grassroots creativity.

"You have political parties here. But unfortunately many of the political parties, although they are totally opposed to the current regime, in terms of the political culture, in terms of organizing, it is still very much in line with the authoritarian culture. It is very hierarchical," said Prof. Al-Ali.

London-based sociologist Falen Jabal, who fled Iraq as a communist rebel nearly 40 years ago, says many of his countrymen are just too disillusioned and war weary to be politically active.

"There is a big think tank," he said. "We have many books about Iraq, Iraq society, Iraq tribes, Iraq ethnicity. But we are not consulted, our voice is not heard. We are also lazy. We don't try to reach out for centers of power. And there is a sense of desperation."

The desperation can be felt here at weekly cultural lectures given at London's Al Kufa art gallery. The talks are sponsored by the gallery's owner Mohamed Makiya, a renowned Iraqi architect hired by Saddam Hussein to rebuild Baghdad in 1980.

After the lectures, conversation often turns to politics. Like many Iraqi exiles, Mr. Makiya targets his frustration at the West. He says the West's history of supporting authoritarian Middle Eastern governments in exchange for reliable oil lies at the heart of the current crisis. And he criticises the United States for failing to depose Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War.

"We feel that the western world has been unfair and cruel," said Mr. Makiya. "You have not finished a war in 1991. We have to free ourselves from this monster, which is cruel not to you, but cruel to us. Really to get rid of him is a freedom of the Iraqis, although your priority and your national interests plays all the part."

Through the lecture series on religion and art, Mr. Mikaya believes he can introduce democratic concepts to his fellow Iraqi exiles, concepts he says are not understood in Iraq and are necessary to help redevelop the ravaged country. "I feel now we should prepare ourselves for 'Iraqi Development Authority' or 'Iraqi Development Council,' so that the politicians are there and we are there and we try to sort of intervene to get the politicians to get more cultivated to the human value, to the human life," he said.

Mr. Makiya and other Iraqi exiles in London speak of the imminent arrival of what they call the "New Dawn" - the end of Saddam Hussein's rule and the end of years of conflict.

At the lecture series, and at gathering spots like the Baghdad restaurant, many Iraqis hope this will be a chance for people to put the past behind them and start rebuilding their country. But after years of hardship and pain others have given up any hope of returning to Iraq and say they just want to get on with their lives in exile.