Safe Under Saddam, Iraqi Jews Fear for Future

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BAGHDAD - Under Saddam Hussein, they were a privileged group, protected and left to worship as they wished.

Since U.S. troops toppled Saddam in April and Iraq cascaded into lawlessness, they have taken refuge behind high walls and closed their house of prayer. One Muslim cleric has made death threats against them and they say they fear for their future.

They are the 34 Jews of Iraq.

"I speak the truth: Saddam Hussein was good to us," said Tawfik Safer, 80, outside the now locked doors of Baghdad's last synagogue.

"I think it was because we had nothing to do with politics," he said on Monday in the courtyard of the synagogue, a plain building but for Hebrew script at the entrance and anonymously surrounded by high walls.

Safer has seen a thriving community that traced its roots back to the Babylon of biblical times, whittled to below three dozen, most of them old and frail like himself. There is little prospect of new births.

Saddam fired Scud missiles at Israel in the 1991 Gulf War and gave money to families of Palestinian suicide bombers.

But the Jews of Baghdad, left behind by tens of thousands who departed for Israel over the past half-century, were afforded the direct telephone number of an Iraqi state security officer they could call if anyone bothered them.

"We did our fasting. We celebrated Passover. We read our religious books. Then the war came and the synagogue was closed because of the circumstances," Safer said.

There has been no trouble since Baghdad fell on April 9, said Mohammed Jasim, 30, caretaker of the building, which was put up in 1942 in what is now a largely Christian neighborhood.

But around Iraq suspicion comes easily, of minorities all the more so. One notable Shi'ite cleric last week issued a decree, or fatwa, forbidding followers from selling land to Jews and promised death to any Jew who bought real estate.

Whatever the ill intentions of others may bring, migration and the simple march of time may end Jewish history in Iraq.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, which arranges immigration, has sent an envoy to Baghdad to make first contact.

The envoy, who spent three days in Baghdad two weeks ago visiting some of the 34 people the Agency says have presented themselves as Jews, found there were no children among them - the last Jewish wedding in the city was in 1978.

Safer and two Iraqi Jews of the younger generation, Khalida and Nidal Saleh, sisters in their late 30s, said they had not heard from the agency but in any case they would not leave.

"I want to live here. We were born in Iraq," Khalida said.

Iraq's Jews trace their roots to the capture of Jerusalem nearly 2,600 years ago by King Nebuchadnezzar. He sent Jews to his capital Babylon, 100 km (60 miles) south of Baghdad, making it the cultural center of the Jewish world for almost 1,000 years.

Before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Iraq still had a vibrant Jewish community - some 280,000 people by Safer's recollection. Nearly half that number settled in the newly created Israel. Others went to Europe or America.

Safer walks in slow motion with two canes and greeted a reporter in pyjamas and sandals. When asked about the days before 1948, he opened his eyes wide and smiled.

"There were 75 synagogues in Baghdad alone!" he said.

Now he is concerned about the state of postwar Iraq.

"There is chaos," he said. "I fear civil war."