Two weeks ago, the 20 Iraqi women who had gathered in a shabby west London community center were full of tears and anger as they denounced "Bush and Blair's war." But when Baghdad fell last week, the same women were ululating and dancing as they watched the symbols of Saddam's regime come crashing down. "I see those beautiful children on television, getting their first taste of peace and freedom, and for the first time in years I recognize my country," cried Hotham Al-Ghanim, a 58-year-old former teacher who fled a still-prosperous Iraq 16 years ago. Al-Ghanim says she feels "desperation to go home and rediscover Iraq." But the other members of this women's group, which meets weekly to exercise and learn about healthy living, aren't so sure. Like many of Britain's 300,000 Iraqi exiles, they wonder whether a post-Saddam Iraq is something they can truly believe in and whether they should swap the relative comfort and security of London for an uncertain future in Baghdad. Two questions nag at them: What's next for a country that has known only brutal dictatorship for 35 years? And where exactly is "home" when you've been an exile for decades and raised children who speak with British accents? Jamilah Salehi, a 48-year-old Kurd who fled Iraq through the northern mountains with her four young daughters in 1987, says she could never return: "I suffered so much for my British passport, and built a life for my daughters here. For me, there is too much pain in Iraq." But she is encouraging her daughters to go back to rebuild the country. They may, but only temporarily, because they are caught in the oldest of expatriate dilemmas. Though they are proud to be Iraqi, their clothes and cadences owe more to Bayswater than to Baghdad. And with acclimatization to life in the West has come an expectation of rights and freedoms that, even in a liberated Iraq, will still be only a distant hope. "Let's be realistic," says Salehi's 22-year-old daughter, Susan, "a really democratic Iraq is still far away. And I'm happy here. I like my freedom of speech, I like my freedom as a woman even if that's just the freedom to go down the pub and get a drink with my girlfriends."
That "realism" is also entwined with an ingrained cynicism toward the promises of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair. Iraqi exiles are fond of saying that "history blinked and Saddam came to power" even a brief lapse of vision can bring a proud people to ruin. But the blind spots haven't always belonged to Iraqis. No one has forgotten the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, when George Bush Sr. encouraged Iraqis to rebel, then failed to support or protect the rebels. With the world's eyes averted, at least 30,000 dissidents were slaughtered by a regime eager to reassert control.
Washington won't let that happen this time, but will the Americans come through with the money and manpower needed to restore order and rebuild the country? The exiles aren't counting on it. "This is a good day," says Jamileh Salehi. "But will Iraq really go back to Iraqis? These Bushes every 20 minutes they change their mind."
With Iraq already facing humanitarian crisis and chaos in the streets, Iraqis living in Britain know it would only take another blink, another broken promise, for the country to lurch into apocalypse. Worse, these women at least aren't encouraged by the early signs, as the U.S. has alternately courted and spurned warring tribal sheiks, opposition groups and religious factions.
"The only way I can see into the future is by looking to the past," says Munhir Chalabi, a computer consultant who escaped Iraq after being imprisoned in the early days of Saddam's regime. "It makes me wonder what will be the price of this moment of happiness."
During their years of exile, the women now cheering Saddam's downfall certainly paid a heavy toll for their joy in cultural concessions to their adopted lands, in the lives of their loved ones, in promises made and in hopes of a new Iraq broken. For many, the vision of a democratic and peaceful Iraq sank long ago into the realm of fantasy. With Saddam's control shattered, that vision is slowly being coaxed back into reality as Iraqis both at home and in exile wait for whatever is coming next.