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Border Town Braces for Iraqi Rule

As US withdraws, townspeople fear retribution of Iraqi authorities

THE main street of Safwan is beginning to show signs of life. The dusty border village in southern Iraq was only weeks ago the scene of intense fighting, as Iraqi troops fled through on their way out of neighboring Kuwait.

Today, people dressed in ragged clothes walk among the few vehicles left. Others squat on the dirt sidewalk behind whatever they have to sell.

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Crackers, soap, and other merchandise have found their way here as townspeople hesitantly come home from points further north.

But behind the apparent return to normalcy lies a unique story of this town and its people - a place which came under United States administration but which will revert to Iraqi civil authority as a United Nations observer mission replaces the United States Army here.

The changeover also reveals much about the nature of political control in the Iraq of Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime, a system that has long relied on fear and expressed loyalty to keep itself in power.

Situated adjacent to the divided highway linking Iraq and Kuwait and with a prewar population of 17,000, Safwan is the only major town to come under US control in the vast desert region from which the Army has now withdrawn.

As in a nearby refugee camp housing more than 11,000 Iraqis, US military units have distributed water to town residents. US soldiers have also provided medical care at a bomb-damaged clinic and security by patrolling the streets in armed military vehicles.

Although Iraqi civilian authorities have remained in town, the US has been the de facto government, and many town residents say they like it.

"The soldiers have been so good to us," says a man sitting in the dirt in front of a wall pockmarked from a coalition cluster bomb and scrawled with "Down Saddam."

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"But now we do not know what to expect, as they are to go."

He is one of the few people willing to talk with visiting journalists. Most quickly look away when a photographer points a camera.

Others in town are openly pro-Saddam, including Mansur Kathen, the son of Safwan's mayor. While speaking with reporters, he points to the rubble of several bombed houses.

"See what the Americans have done? All people of Safwan are glad they are going. They are only here trying to help because they know they have killed civilians," he says. But the tone of his remarks suggest this is what he is expected to say; his comments lacked real conviction. Asked how the townspeople feel about Saddam, the stocky young man looks to the ground and replies: "We are all glad the great leader will again govern us."

Two US Army physician's assistants in the town medical clinic say government employees have no choice but to express such support, knowing that their lives depend on it.

Under the cease-fire agreement, Iraqi civilian authorities will govern their side of the nine-mile-wide demilitarized border zone, which includes Safwan.

"I think most of these people are desperately afraid of the Iraqi government's return, and of course these government people say what Saddam taught them," says Chief Warrant Officer Ben Beaoui, who was born and raised in Tunisia and speaks Arabic.

Mr. Beaoui and Joe Hatch, another Army physician's assistant, have worked steadily in the clinic since March 19, and only recently turned things back over to Iraqi administration.

They say they have come to know Safwan and its people well enough to sense the fear and mistrust that permeate the town. They think injuries, such as gunshot wounds, and even murders have resulted from political fights.

"Everyone in this town knows us, they were just cramming in here with every kind of problem you can imagine," Beaoui says, sitting in the centrally located clinic building. "I think we know these people as well as anybody, and I know they're afraid of what comes next."

"But we can't stay and run things forever," says Mr. Hatch. "We have to let their system begin to operate again."

In their case, that means staying temporarily as advisers after turning the clinic over to Taha Husain, an Iraqi doctor.

Asked his opinion of the Americans' role, Dr. Husain sounds much like the mayor's son. "The people are very happy their own government and police will come back to them, after the criminals and murderers tried to take control," he says quietly, referring to the rebels who sought to overthrow Saddam after the war ended.

Asked about Iraq's takeover of Kuwait, he said, "As intelligent people, you know that the Arab nation is one, and in our hearts we know that Kuwait will always be part of Iraq."

These comments bring scant comfort to townspeople and refugees alike, especially given that the 1,440-person UN mission can only report violations of the cease-fire.

And to gauge the true sentiments of the Safwanis, the two Army medics say one need only look at the clinic itself.

"Before at this hour, we couldn't keep up with all the people crowding in here to see us," Hatch says. "Now the place is almost empty. There's so much mistrust in this town, everyone is afraid of everyone else."

Most civilians in town are not refugees but residents who left during the war and are slowly drifting back. But the town does have some squatters in abandoned buildings, people whose future is as uncertain as the thousands of refugees camped just down the highway.

One man staying with many others in a local school says he fears for the future, but blames President Bush for the situation.

"Bush lied to us, saying we should rebel and be rid of the tyrant and then abandoned us," he says, as dozens of children dressed in tattered clothes look on. "Now he is abandoning us again by pulling out the only troops who can protect us."

For weeks the refugees have held daily demonstrations against Saddam and the US withdrawal along the international highway, saying they have no confidence in the arriving UN forces.

Tensions have risen to the point that some people worry about a sudden flight into Kuwait once the US military leaves. As a preventive measure, the Kuwaiti Army has set up new highway checkpoints south of the demilitarized zone.

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