Hawking his spices and cooking oil in a market on Damascus’ outskirts, Hassan Habib carries on lively discussions with his regular customers, Iraqi refugees like himself who have sought refuge in neighboring Syria. But ask Habib about Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein, and the 28-year-old falls silent and glances nervously over his shoulder. “It’s better not to talk about him here,” he says.
IN THE FOUR years since Syria reopened its border with Iraq, tens of thousands of Iraqis have fled Saddam’s regime to Damascus, where they eke out a meager existence working in markets and as laborers. Yet, while they have gained distance from Baghdad, living in Syria has not entirely freed them from its repression.
Even here, Saddam’s security agents regularly snoop on the refugees’ activities. Punishment is meted out against the refugees’ relatives still living in Iraq.
THE ‘LAST STOP’
Hassan Habib spoke only after leading a reporter to the small apartment he shares with seven other family members. There, the family said, they were safe from the prying eyes of Saddam’s security agents who have also entered Syria.
Saddam’s long reach has left no member of the Habib family untouched, he says.
Back in Iraq, Saddam’s security forces killed 27 members of the extended family - seven uncles and 20 cousins, all male.
The Habibs are members of Iraq’s Shia majority, long viewed by Saddam as a threat to his minority Sunni Muslim power base. They have been targets of Iraq’s mukhabarat, or intelligence service, for as long as Hassan Habib can remember.
“They were always taking somebody away,” he said. “They used to stop me every 15 minutes as I walked down the street. I always wondered whether that would be my last stop.”
Habib says the pressure became unbearable, especially for his father, Ibrahim, who was tortured repeatedly by security agents attempting to gain information about the family’s opposition activities. He suffers from burns on more than 50 percent of his body. Electrical shocks destroyed his genitals.
“They tortured me with everything they had,” says a frail Ibrahim Habib, looking a decade older than his 58 years.
WATCHED IN SYRIA
Iraqi agents, taking advantage of open trade ties between Syria and Iraq, travel freely across the border, posing as refugees or merchants.
The Habib family is of particular interest to Baghdad. Several family members supported Al-Dawa, a Shia political movement long opposed to Saddam’s rule. They secretly printed manifestos and held illegal meetings to plot actions against Saddam. One by one the men of the family - 27 in all - were hanged or executed by Iraqi security agents. Hassan Habib’s brother was recently released from jail in Iraq. The family fears he will suffer for their decision to leave.
The Habibs are not alone. Other exiles opposed to Saddam’s rule report regular intimidation, and frequently assassination, of their relatives back in Iraq.
Bayan Jabor, the Damascus representative of the main Shia opposition party, the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, says his brother was poisoned only hours after he called during an interrogation at Saddam’s security services headquarters in Baghdad.
“They forced him on the phone to try to convince me to return to Iraq,” says Jabor, who uses three different passports and aliases when he travels abroad. “We’re afraid of the regime. Saddam is still watching us.”
SADDAM’S LONG REACH
A 20-minute drive from the center of Damascus, Iraq’s mainly Shia refugees have settled near a shrine to Zeinab, the Prophet Mohammed’s granddaughter. In the four years since Syria bridged its differences with Saddam in the name of cross-border commerce, a maze of buildings has sprouted up in the area around the gold-domed tomb of Zeinab.
But where the Iraqi refugees thought they would find refuge from Saddam, they instead live in fear of his security agents prowling the winding alleyways of their ramshackle city.
For the Habib family, there may be an escape. The United Nations, after careful vetting of the family’s stories of oppression, has recognized their application for political asylum. Within weeks, the Habibs expect to move to Washington, D.C.
The move to America, the family says, will be its last. “Even if Saddam is toppled, we don’t want to stay,” says Hassan Habib. “This has been going on for too long. We want the freedom of the West.”
MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in Syria.