BAGHDAD, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Fears that their country could slip into bloody chaos after a U.S. invasion aimed at toppling President Saddam Hussein haunt middle-class Iraqis in Baghdad.
"Saddam prevented Iraq from becoming Lebanon and the Americans are now after him," said one professional, referring to Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war. "There will be nothing left in our house if they defeat him. Mobs will loot everything."
As the United States and Britain pour forces towards the Gulf, some Baghdad residents expect any war on Iraq to lead to a nastier version of what Saddam called mob rule when the central government weakened after the 1991 Gulf War and uprisings erupted in the Kurdish north and Shi'ite Muslim south.
"We are not afraid of a new war with the United States," said a taxi driver. "But we are afraid of what comes after such war. We are afraid for our safety and honour. We all saw what happened after 1991, the rapes, the killings."
After a U.S.-led coalition evicted Iraqi troops from Kuwait in February 1991, former U.S. President George Bush urged Iraqis to rise against their Baathist rulers.
Kurdish and Shi'ite insurgents did so, briefly seizing large parts of Iraq. But the United States then stood by while Saddam rallied his helicopter-backed elite forces to crush the rebels.
Twelve years on, Iraqis retain vivid memories of those events, though many are reluctant to speak of them.
Some say the U.S. military might be hard-pressed to prevent post-invasion bloodshed among Iraqis who have many scores to settle and who may turn to violence in a struggle for power.
Saddam and many of his associates are from the Sunni Muslim minority that has dominated government since Britain carved out Iraq's borders from the remnants of the Ottoman empire in 1919.
But neither the Sunnis, nor the majority Shi'ites form a cohesive community. Kurds, who are mostly Sunnis, have rarely maintained internal unity for long. Even now, the northern enclave they have held since 1991 is ruled by separate administrations run by the two main rival Kurdish parties.
Other ethnic or religious minorities include Sunni Muslim Turkmen, Christians and Yazidis.
Despite Islamic rhetoric deployed by Saddam since the 1980-88 war with Iran, his Baath Party remains essentially secular. The deputy prime minister, Tareq Aziz, is a Christian.
"Saddam has given us security and preserved our equality," said a Christian housewife. "Thanks to him we feel safe. We do not need to lock the door."
Any U.S. military occupation of Iraq could spark resistance from Iraqis who blame the United States for more than 12 years of crippling U.N. sanctions imposed for the Kuwait invasion, and who share widespread Arab anger over U.S. support for Israel.
The idea that Saddam's exiled foes could peacefully rule a defeated Iraq arouses scepticism in Baghdad.
"They are not statesmen material," the Iraqi professional said. "We don't want warlords or extremists ruling Iraq. We don't want the American way either."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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