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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Iraqis Fear Hussein Is Plotting to Return

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The graffiti extolling former President Saddam Hussein went up a few nights ago throughout Baghdad's Adhamiyah neighborhood. A girls' school wall promised that "Saddam the hero will be back." The side of a shop proclaimed that "Saddam is still our leader."

Although residents eagerly painted over slogans praising Hussein in the days after his government fell, they said no one dared to remove the latest messages. "His people have come back," said Sarmed Ahmed, the owner of a music shop in the neighborhood. "Everyone is too scared."

After weeks of jubilation over Hussein's ouster -- during which people here blithely lampooned him, toppled his statues and seized offices of his once-ruling Baath Party -- many Iraqis have become increasingly spooked that the former dictator and his loyalists are plotting a return to power. That concern has escalated in recent days with the release of a recorded message purportedly from Hussein as well as a surge in violent attacks against both U.S. troops and Iraqis who have cooperated with U.S. forces.

The incidents, particularly Saturday's killing of seven Iraqi police cadets who had participated in a U.S. training program, have led some here to change their behavior -- and their assumptions about the future.

"When the American soldiers first came to Baghdad, we thought we would never hear from Saddam again. We thought he would be killed or he would flee the country," said Abdelrahim Warid, the owner of a small shop selling packaged foods. Now we know he is in our midst -- and that is very dangerous for us."

The belief that Hussein's supporters are gaining ground has revived some of the fear that paralyzed discourse in this country for the 24 years he was president. Instead of lambasting Hussein to strangers as they did just a few weeks ago, Iraqis have become more reluctant to criticize him in public, out of concern that he might return or that his supporters might overhear and seek revenge.

"You can't speak now, just like you couldn't speak during Saddam's time," said a math teacher who would identify himself by only his first name, Rami, which "would not be enough for them to catch me."

Some Iraqis said recent attacks against people who have been working with U.S. troops and the U.S.-led civilian occupation authority have further stoked public anxieties and prompted some to question whether they should continue cooperating with the Americans.

The bomb explosion Saturday that killed the seven police officers in the town of Ramadi, about 100 kilometers west of Baghdad, wounded 40 people. Two weeks ago, the director of electricity distribution for the western half of Baghdad -- a woman who had worked extensively with U.S. officials trying to increase Iraq's power supply -- was killed in her home. A day later, two electric workers were killed by a bomb placed on a highway median near Baghdad.

Some electric workers are afraid to leave their offices, said Ghalib Bakr, the manager of electricity distribution for western Baghdad. "The Baathists view us as collaborators with the Americans," he said. "I tell my staff that's not true, that we're working for the Iraqi people, not the Americans. But what can you do? They're afraid."

With Hussein's fate uncertain, many Iraqis said they were not sure whether to count him out or to wait for his reemergence. "Saddam is like a ghost in the heart of the country," said Tariq Mohammed, an unemployed former soldier. "We thought he was gone, but now he's back."

Fadhil Majid, a bridal shop employee, said many people in his neighborhood became more enamored of Hussein as their expectations of the U.S. occupation -- particularly the restoration of electricity, the creation of jobs and the formation of a new government -- went unfulfilled. "Everyone is very frustrated now," he said. "To them, Saddam is the solution. They don't think about all the evil things he has done."