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Exiled Iraqi Poets Ponder Returning Home

The military campaign in Iraq is over, but the long process of rebuilding and healing the wounds caused by decades of oppression and brutality is just beginning. Many Iraqi exiles are thinking about whether and when conditions will be right to go home. In Britain, a group of Iraqi poets voiced their hopes and concerns during a recent poetry reading at the London Institute for Contemporary Arts.

For years, they lived in exile, having fled the oppression of the Baath Party. They poured much of their pain into their poetry.

"Nobody told me, when I was a youth, that my homeland was not my homeland, that my enemy and friend are aligned against me," said Hashim Shafiq, who left Iraq in 1978, just before Saddam Hussein took power. Like many others, he has not been back since.

Now that Saddam has been toppled, some of the Iraqi exiles say their dream to return to Iraq will come true, but others are not so sure.

At their first post-war poetry reading here in London, a group of Iraqi poets said they are eager to see their country's once rich culture restored, and their peoples' minds freed from decades of oppression.

Fadhil Assultani, a poet and translator, who also fled Iraq in the early years of Baath Party rule, leaving his family behind, has seen his loved ones only once since then, when he sneaked secretly into northern Iraq.

In this poem, he compares Iraq to water flowing toward freedom, but getting lost along the way.

Mr. Assultani says those artists and writers who stayed in Iraq had to work for a huge propaganda machine, where all art was controlled, and limited to one theme: Saddam Hussein. "There was pressure on culture at that time," he said. "They just wanted you to praise Saddam, that's all, to write about Saddam Hussein, to sing about Saddam Hussein. The poets who stayed there, some of them who weren't Baathists, were obliged to praise Saddam Hussein. Everything must be for Saddam. The airport is the airport of Saddam, the university is the university of Saddam, the river is the river of Saddam. Dictator. That was a real threat to the Iraqi culture.

The U.N. refugee agency estimates there are about four million exiled Iraqis around the world.

Even now, many find it hard to believe that Saddam Hussein is gone. And many say his influence remains. Another Iraqi poet at the recent event in London, Salah Niazi, says there is still a long way to go before Iraq will be really free. "No society could be described as free, especially in Iraq," said Salah Niazi. "Wait for one or two months, when people believe that Saddam Hussein is not there. He is in their blood; he is in their ideas; he is in their steps, everywhere. They cannot forget him just like that. Societies cannot change overnight. But I think the first step is taken, and it was the right one."

Mr. Niazi says he doubts he can go back to Iraq, even now. He says the years of oppression changed his country dramatically.

Mr. Assultani is more optimistic. "I think the intellectuals will return to Iraq," he said. "I believe many of them will return to Iraq, and some of them have just [already] returned."

Mr. Assultani says things will be different in Iraq. He says, now he and others can read their poems in Iraq freely. He says over time, all Iraqis will forget their fears and will say what they think.

And he is looking forward to returning to a free Iraq for another reason," he said. " 'Soon,' he says, 'very soon I will see my family.' "