Middle East

Middle East

'Are They Going to Attack Us Again?'

Iraqis pray at the Mother of All Battles Mosque in Baghdad
Iraqis pray at The Mother of All Battles" mosque in Baghdad, Jan. 3, 2003. The sermon called for a peaceful resolution to the current crisis (Photo: Marwan Naamani/AFP).

For inhabitants of a country facing the prospect of becoming the testing ground for a new generation of high-tech American weaponry, on the one hand, and the scene of a Samson-like act of self-destruction from its leader, on the other, Iraqis are a remarkably calm people. Talk of an invasion over the weapons of mass destruction that Washington says Saddam Hussein’s regime is hiding has gone on for so long that no one seems to want to talk about it anymore.

In fact, there was more interest in recent weeks in the love life of Iraq's most famous export to the Arab world, pop star Kazem Al-Saher. The Arabic entertainment press has reported that he has taken a second wife in Paris, leaving his Iraqi first wife and mother of his two sons in the lurch. Sensing that the news could dent public morale at a critical time, the state-owned daily Al-Jumhouriya asked Saher to make a public statement. “We will reserve judgment on whether to believe the news until Saher decides whether it is true, or that he will not take a second wife,” the editors wrote.

When asked, Iraqis talk genuinely enough about their disgust for what they see as George Bush’s war lust. But one gets the sense listening to them that they nurture equal loathing for the president who got them into this mess in the first place with his dreams of turning his police state into a regional superpower with a nuclear capability to match Israel’s. Such is Saddam Hussein’s grip on the country, and so legendary is his willingness to stop at nothing to stay in charge, that few dare open their mouths against him. Highways, airports, fine art schools—even mountains—are named after a leader who has personalized rule in his country to a degree that, in the modern world, is equaled only by Kim Jong Il in North Korea. Government minders accompany journalists to most places they want to go. But even in quick conversations grabbed when the government escorts are not around, Iraqis have seen too much to risk an honest opinion.

Hussein seems to be relishing his final showdown with America. In his frequent appearances on television of late, he has cast himself as another semi-mythological figure from a heroic past. In a televised speech to the nation on the anniversary of the beginning of the 1991 Gulf War to oust his forces from Kuwait, he called the Americans the “new Mongols” preparing to invade Baghdad, like the forces of Hulagu Khan in 1258. But this time, he vowed, it would be different. Unlike the bloodbath that Baghdadis suffered then, the invaders would be routed at the city walls by a united and steadfast leadership, army, and people. The Mongol invasion lives on Iraqi minds to this day. Historians consider that the damage they caused to Iraq’s irrigation system lasted for at least a century. Baghdad itself—the famed circular Islamic city of Jaafar Al-Mansour—was destroyed.

“The army of Hulagu has now come at this time to clash with Baghdad after it was born again. Tell them in a clear voice: Stop your evil against the mother of civilization, the cradle and birthplace of the prophets and the messengers,” Hussein told television viewers. “Baghdad, its people, and its leaders are determined to force the Mongols of our age to commit suicide on its walls. We have planned to defeat the aggressors.” It’s a strange comparison in a way—the caliph tried to make peace with the attackers, but they murdered him and his two sons.

The regime has always cast itself in a melodramatic historical light. Its current chief is Sargon, Nebuchadnezzer, Hammurabi, even some of the prophets, rolled into one. Everyone is expected to have a threshold of suffering and readiness to sacrifice as elevated as the leader’s—“May God protect him and watch over him,” as the phrase after mention of his name has it—whose words of wisdom are quoted endlessly on television, signposts, and stelae like those  other modern Arab hero-villains who sought a place in the firmament, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Muammar Al-Qaddafi.

Iraqis stock up on weapons ahead of the U.S.-led war
Gun sales have skyrocketed in Baghdad. (Photo: Sabah Arar/AFP).

Since the Mongol speech, Saddam Hussein has appeared nightly in jovial morale-boosting discussions with his top military officers, discussing plans to meet the American challenge. Some speculate that he has chemical or biological weaponry that will be thrown at the invaders inside Baghdad, or that he will blow up Iraqi oilfields, sites the Americans have said they will try to secure quickly.

Saddam’s son Uday has promised the invaders a fate worse than that of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He appeared on his own Shabab (Youth) television channel on Jan. 23 to tell a group of journalists, “Sept. 11 will be a picnic compared to what will happen to the Americans if they commit their aggression against Iraq.”

It would be reasonable to surmise that his father has kept behind a few canisters of mustard gas or the like for the day when the house finally comes crashing down. The buzz among diplomats in the Arab world has been that perhaps Saddam could be persuaded to step down in return for saving Iraq a war that could plunge the region into another generation of turbulence like that which followed the 1948 wars in Palestine. But the Mongol speech seemed to moot that idea, and Arab hopes now are being pinned to a Saudi proposal to extend amnesty to Hussein and his inner circle in an attempt to encourage an 11th hour coup from within.

Not everyone shares Saddam’s sense of sacrifice. In the predominantly Shiite south of the country, shops often conspicuously lack the standard portrait of Saddam Hussein seen in mainly Sunni Muslim Baghdad and the north. A sprawling slum district on the edge of the capital, called Saddam City, is full of Shiite migrants from the south who rose up with southerners against the regime in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. The walls of the area sometimes carry slogans that dare to hint at hatred for Saddam Hussein.

Diplomats reckon the south will fall easily: first, because the territory is entirely flat and easy for any army to storm, and secondly, because the Shia have gone over the psychological threshold to make the end of Saddam Hussein’s rule their first priority. The man himself seems to have grasped this, and his armies are notably absent from the south, with only token bunkers apparently lining the highways toward Kuwait.

But U.S. troops will have to deal with at least 2 million armed Baath party members, as well as Bedouin tribes allied with Saddam Hussein, spread all over the country.

Baghdadi gun merchants say Iraq’s tribes in particular have been stocking up on rifles and pistols from the Iraqi capital’s 45 retail gun outlets. “There has been growing interest in buying weapons. It’s in Iraqis’ interests to have weapons to face the American fighter...We are all military now,” says Yassin al-Jabbouri, a Baghdad gun merchant who happens to head a tribal confederation. Iraqis have seen Palestinians fight the Israeli military juggernaut and will do the same to the Americans, he says. “I have a tribe of 200,000 people and 12,000 of them are in Baghdad ready to fight. We are all human shields against America,” he says, adding that his young sons and wife can handle guns too. To prove the point, his 12-year-old son Ahmed steps up with a Cobra Magnum revolver, letting off a few loud blank shots in Jabbouri’s shop.

“I was trained when I was 9. It was difficult at first, but it became easy. We learned to fight in order to fight the enemy: the Zionists, America, and any foreign country,” he says, repeating some of the slogans that fill the state-controlled television, radio, and print media. Gun culture is deeply ingrained in Iraq, where anyone over 25 can buy such weapons. That culture is encouraged by Saddam Hussein himself. Baghdad is festooned with large posters of the Iraqi leader in various proud poses handling guns. Possessing guns is seen as a mark of honor among tribal Arabs, of whom Saddam is one.

Amid this cacophony of appeals to Iraqis’ hearts—Saddam Hussein’s appeal to pride and history, America’s promise of freedom, and a general atmosphere of anger over the suffering of Palestinians, which in complex ways is also factored into the equation—ordinary Iraqis don’t seem to know what to feel about the impending war. Most say they will hide at home. Others say they will pack all their possessions into a car and make for a border.

Even in Mosul, a northern Iraqi city bordering the Kurdish enclave, which was far away from action in 1991, tales of woe are not hard to come by. Wandering through the market district, locals direct you to a labyrinthine residential area where a school once stood. It was hit on the first day of the Gulf War. No one was inside at the time, but the attack caused widespread damage to surrounding houses, killing “dozens” of civilians.

Safaa Hassan lost her father. “When my dad came back and saw that the house had collapsed, he thought our mother was dead inside. Then he had a heart attack and died,” she said. The tragedy left her brother, Marwan, in charge of the home. Since then he hasn’t been to school, he says, forced to get whatever work he can.

Across the alleyway, an elderly woman named Sobeiha who can’t remember her age cries at the recollection of the midday air raid. “God help us from America,” she wails, rocking back and forth on two useless legs inside a small brick shack. “Are they going to attack us again?”

“Her spinal chord was broken when the roof collapsed, so now her legs don’t move,” her neighbor Wujdan Taha says. “But her mother died.”

Sixteen people were killed in the large stone house next to Sobeiha, but none of the family is left to tell the tale. Another neighbor, an Egyptian man, lost one of his two children and his pregnant wife, Taha said, adding (pointedly, it seemed to this reporter): “The child was to be called Saddam.” No one comments when she says this. No one needs to. The Iraqi president’s culpability in these senseless deaths is implicitly understood.

Denial is everywhere. A local government employee in Mosul, when asked about the regime’s gassing of Kurds in Halabja in 1988 answers: “It’s only the foreigners who talk about Halabja, I’ve never ever heard a Kurd talking about it here. The Americans only started talking about it after 1991.”

In a way, the comment is understandable: The brutality that Iraq’s leader has used to maintain his realm has known no ethnic or religious boundaries. Rebellious residents of Najaf learned their lesson in 1991 when they thought that hiding in the grounds of the building housing the tomb of the Prophet's grandson Hussein would protect them from the army. But the army fired on the centuries-old compound, damaging a dome.

A Syrian Orthodox bishop in Mosul explains that he doesn’t want a war and that the Bush administration is bringing the law of the jungle to the world. The Americans say they want to liberate Iraq, this reporter points out. “What are they going to liberate us from? Ourselves?” he asks, rhetorically. He adds, speaking to no one in particular: “I can’t imagine someone foreign coming to rule us.”