NEW YORK – Iraqi families who have relatives in America paint a bleak picture of what it's like to be living in Saddam Hussein's grip.
Iraqi exiles, now U.S. citizens, talk to their families in Iraq by phone. Their relatives tell horrific stories of the situation in Basra, saying their loved ones want an uprising but they remain afraid of Saddam's regime.
Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, has been the site for intense fighting in recent days as British-led troops aid the Shiite community's uprising against Saddam's troops there.
Inhabitants of the mostly Shiite Muslim city on Tuesday started attacking members of Saddam's Baath Party and other Iraqi fighters, who responded by firing mortars at their own people, the British military said. The British, in turn, shelled the mortar positions and bombed Baath headquarters. Coalition aircraft later helped the effort.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has promised to back the insurgents.
Two leaders of the Iraqi exile community here in the Unites States say Saddam deliberately placed the Fedayeen Saddam-- a group of Saddam's loyal thugs -- in the cities of Karbala and Basra to maintain his brutal grip on power.
"Fedayeen Saddam have full authority," said Sheik Sadiq Khadem Mohammed, an Iraqi Shiite exile. "Since they start this organization to challenge Shia movement, they have full authority on the streets. They arrest. They torture. They kill in the streets and everyone knows about that."
Mohammed said a curfew had been imposed in many cities -- including Basra -- and under these restrictions, Iraqis must get permission to go outside their own homes, to go to the market, or simply to meet in groups. This is designed to prevent gatherings, which could ultimately lead to a serious uprising against Saddam.
Saddam rules not only civilians by fear, Mohammed said, but also his military forces, including the Fedayeen.
After the last Gulf War in 1991, the Shiite community said it was encouraged by the United States to topple Saddam but didn't get the necessary backup. Saddam eventually slaughtered thousands of Shiites in the south.
Right now, Shiite leaders in exile say they are afraid this could happen again.
"They have no confidence that the Iraqi regime will be demolished this time because of the experience of 1991, so they are scared to say some words until now against the regime because maybe tomorrow the regime will come back again and get revenge on them," said Sheik Fidhel Al Sahlani, a Shiite Iraqi exile.
Al Sahlani said there is a critical window right now for coalition forces. They need to get aid into Basra in a significant way, because that would send a sign to the Shiites that Saddam has lost control in the region.
"We welcome the war because Saddam is a dictator," Mohammed said. "You cannot take him out of the power but by force that is for sure. We hope the war will be the process for peace in Iraq."
Fox News' Catherine Herridge contributed to this report.