- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2003

NASIRIYAH, Iraq Wahid Soud, a proud man in a patched, dirty white robe, spent a lifetime in the desert to escape harassment by Saddam Hussein's henchmen. Now that Saddam is gone, Mr. Soud has brought his family and herd to greener pastures outside this southern city.
Since U.S. forces moved into Iraq, the country's southern Bedouin tribes have begun shedding years of fear and isolation, emerging with their flocks of sheep and camels from the sandy wastelands to pitch their tents on fertile grazing ground near the Euphrates River.
While their nomadic ways shielded Bedouins from some of Saddam's worst excesses, their independent spirit brought them into frequent conflict with the regime. When they refused to join the ruling Ba'ath Party, party officers withheld food rations, they say. When they tried to avoid the army, they were snatched away from their families in handcuffs sometimes never to return.
"I lived my whole life in the desert so they wouldn't persecute me and force me to join the army," Mr. Soud, 53, said bitterly. "We were nothing."
Qesma Ateya's family wasn't so lucky. Four of her relatives were forcibly recruited into the army, where they were accused of smuggling weapons and disappeared.
"There was no trial," the mother of eight said angrily. "They took them, and for two years, we didn't know what had happened to them."
On Sunday, Mrs. Ateya, 40, learned her relatives had located the Baghdad graveyard where the four were buried and dug them up. The bodies are now being brought home for burial.
"Our problems are finished," she said, a broad smile creasing her sun-worn face.
With Saddam's regime gone, Bedouins say they can roam freely again.
"I just came from Shatra," a nearby town, Mr. Soud said. "There was no checkpoint. No one searched me, and no one took my car."
He said his people's needs now are simple food, water and grass to graze their herds.
"We don't need power," he said. "We just want to be able to live."
But after years of discrimination, combined with the effects of economic sanctions, many Bedouins are desperately poor. Many have sold off animals just to make ends meet.
During the 1980s, they could travel to neighboring Kuwait, where they made money by selling their livestock. But after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, the border closed, and they were confined to Iraq, where their animals fetched a fraction of the prices in Kuwait.
With a flock of 1,000 sheep and a house in Shatra, Mr. Soud was once a wealthy man. Now his herd has dwindled to 200, and he depends on handouts from U.S. and British forces stationed near Nasiriyah.
Children with sand-matted hair and women in layers of red, pink and purple clothing crowded around British and American trucks Sunday, squealing with delight as soldiers handed out apples, candy and prepackaged meals similar to their own military rations.
Others dashed from low-slung tents furnished only with rugs and blankets to fill leather saddlebags and tin basins from a water truck.
Saddam's government distributed extra food rations before the war started, but these are running out. And while the market has reopened in Nasiriyah, prices have doubled and everything is scarce.
Despite the newfound sense of security, many Bedouins are also worried that Saddam and his top officials remain unaccounted for.
"Until they are dead, we won't be safe," Mr. Soud said.

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