Fearing the U.S. -- but hating Saddam more

Many of the millions of Iraqi exiles welcome war and hope Saddam will be ousted. That doesn't mean they trust the United States.

By Michelle Goldberg
Published November 20, 2002 11:48PM (UTC)
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For most of the world, it would be a tremendous relief if Saddam Hussein cooperated fully with U.N. weapons inspectors and averted a vicious war in the Middle East. To Alaa Yousif, a 35-year-old software engineer living in Austin, Texas, who fled Iraq as a teenager, such an outcome is "my worst nightmare coming true. I hope war is imminent and I hope it is the end of Saddam."

"It's ironic," Yousif notes wryly, "but the majority of Iraqis support a war against their country."


Yousif, who runs an Iraqi exile community Web site called Iraq Voice, says, "I have yet to meet someone that comes out of Iraq who says, 'Oh, we don't want war because we're afraid of the casualties.' Iraq has had so many casualties. They don't mind risking casualties just to end the suffering they're going through."

Of course, the feelings of roughly 4 million Iraqi exiles -- one-sixth of all Iraqis, if State Department figures are correct -- are not easily summarized. They left their homes at different times, during different stages of their lives, and settled in different countries. No association speaks for the Iraqi diaspora, although the Washington-backed Iraqi National Congress, the leading opposition group, claims to. This population, many of whom experienced the barbarism of Saddam's regime firsthand, is largely silent when the possibility of a war with Iraq is debated daily among pundits and politicians.

Perhaps that's because their opinions, born of an anguished calculus that forces them to decide what they fear and hate more -- bombs over Baghdad or Saddam's enduring tyranny -- don't fit snugly into any TV debate format. Much of what they say will displease both hardcore hawks and doves. Several speak of a nation betrayed by generations of American presidents, ripped apart by American-imposed sanctions, fearful of more death and destruction but so desperate to depose their dictator that they're ready to accept an American invasion.


Of course, some Iraqis have such profound distrust of the United States that they're convinced its involvement can bring only misery. Haifa Zangana, a 52-year-old Iraqi writer living in London, was subjected to atrocities by Saddam's regime, but now, as she wrote in a September Guardian column, "This war plan forces me to stand by the dictator who tortured me."

Yet interviews with a dozen ordinary Iraqis and community leaders in six countries, as well as comments solicited on Iraqi bulletin boards like Iraq Voice, suggest that few share her unequivocal opposition to war. In a highly unscientific poll on Iraq Voice, 72 percent of 140 respondents answered yes to the question, "Should the U.S. remove Saddam from power by using force?" Zangana concedes that desperation has bred support for America's war plans. "It's very understandable that some Iraqi people want to get rid of Saddam any way they can, with the help of anybody," she says.

Of course, a dozen people is a tiny sample, but their views echo each other in powerful ways. Most would like to see a multinational force, preferably including Arab soldiers, come into Iraq and overthrow Saddam. Despite the White House's recently announced plans to track Iraqi immigrants in the United States, most Iraqi exiles are quite amenable to American foreign policy goals. They would even be happy to see Americans invade alone, if they believed Bush was serious about getting rid of Saddam, rebuilding Iraq and creating democracy (though many don't). Antiwar protesters who oppose an attack on Iraq under all circumstances may speak for many people throughout America, Europe and the Middle East, but they don't speak for most Iraqis.


Adil Awadh, a 33-year-old living in Lincoln, Neb., says he was disinvited to speak at a Nebraskans for Peace rally after the organizers heard he was planning to talk about Saddam's crimes. "I always advise my friends and people who I meet in the United States to focus more on what the Iraqis want," he says. "The Iraqis want to be liberated. I found it very hard to conceive why some people do not believe that Iraqis have this desire."

Even Anwar Al-Ghassani, an Iraqi writer who teaches at the University of Costa Rica and is a leading Iraqi voice against the war, says, "There is no sense in opposing the Iraq policy of the Bush administration 100 percent. Don't oppose it 100 percent, but criticize and give some other options; perhaps this will help."


Still, among the exiles there is deep distrust of America, a country that has rarely missed an opportunity to betray them. In the 1980s, when Iraq was fighting Iran, Zangana and other activists begged America not to sell Saddam weapons. In 1991, when Iraqis responded to the first President Bush's call to rise up against Saddam, the U.S. failed to back them, and the Revolutionary Guards that U.S. forces had left intact slaughtered the rebels. Since then, the U.S. has insisted upon keeping devastating sanctions in place even as it became clear they were depriving Iraq's people, not its tyrant.

"If the U.S. wants to intervene truly to support democracy and free expression, everyone will welcome it," says Sinan Antoon, a 35-year-old Harvard graduate student and war opponent. "But most of us know it's for oil and strategic interest. As much as I and millions of Iraqis would love to see Saddam leave now, we don't want to replace him with just another thug who has a different name but has the U.S. behind him."

Antoon lived in Baghdad during the Gulf War, and if the U.S. had marched on Baghdad then, he was prepared to support it. Speaking on the phone from Cairo, where he's doing research, he recalls, "I thought that the U.S. would at least, if not support the rebels, it would not allow Saddam to use his gunships against them. Some Iraqis already mistrusted the U.S. for obvious reasons, but they thought that maybe once the U.S. had no need for Saddam, maybe they'll take him out."


Which of course it didn't. On ABC News, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft told Peter Jennings, "I frankly wish [the Iraqi intifada] hadn't happened -- because the military were faced with the problem of maybe a revolution inside Iraq." And even Saddam, it seemed, was preferable to revolution.

Antoon recalls, "As the days of war went on, we realized the U.S. was destroying the whole country -- its infrastructure, its water treatment. What did that have to do with Kuwait? There was no support even symbolically for rebels, and Saddam is still there."

Baan Alsinawi, a 40-year-old Iraqi-American computer engineer living in Washington, D.C., also had her faith shattered in 1991. She was living in Baghdad then, and recalls that in February, the government lost its ability to block foreign radio transmissions. She would listen to the BBC, and says, "We had a really, really great hope that something would come. All the puzzle pieces were falling into place."


Then, in mid-March, the government regained control of the airwaves. "I will always remember this as a very sad day, when Saddam was able to restore electricity and he got on TV and spoke to the Iraqi people," says Alsinawi. "I thought, I cannot believe he's back." Today, when she hears the White House leaders talk about bringing democracy to Iraq, she says, "I don't believe a single word of it, and I don't think any Iraqis do either."

But many Iraqis want the U.S. to prove them wrong, because the status quo is intolerable. Antoon doesn't dispute reports that some in Iraq, fearful as they are, are eagerly waiting for the bombs to start falling. "People there are so desperate," he says. "They have no hopes for anything, so they say yes, bring it on. It doesn't mean they want a U.S. invasion. They want Saddam to be gone."

That's really the crux of the matter -- for Iraqis, the choice isn't simply between war and peace, but between different kinds of hell.

Yousif says he doesn't fear war, because "I am more afraid of the casualties with Saddam staying in power. Whether it's another war that he's going to start, or just the killing, the brutality that's used ... he kills his own people every day. He killed my brother."


Yousif's brother disappeared in 1980, a year after Saddam became president. Yousif was 13. His brother, who was in his last year of medical school, declined to join Saddam's Baath party. Agents came to their house and took him away, "right in front of my eyes," Yousif says. He's never been heard from again.

Their mother feared for her other three children, because the secret police would often seize recalcitrant suspects' relatives to make them talk. So they fled, eventually reaching Pakistan by bus. They spent four years there while they tried to get visas to come to America. "The consulate wanted to know that we're not against Saddam," he says. "Even though my brother was arrested, we couldn't say we were against Saddam, because the U.S. was not giving visas to someone who was against Saddam."

So Yousif knows that America has hardly been a consistent friend to Iraqi exiles. "Iraqis, we feel that the U.S. knew about his brutality before and they really did not do anything about it then. They allowed him to collect these weapons. If you talk to the average Iraqi, it's hard for them to say the U.S. is not responsible."

But he's willing to put all that aside if it means the end of Saddam. "Right now, our interest is the same. I hope the U.S. does not betray the Iraqis once again."


Mohammed Al-Moussawi, a 34-year-old security guard and computer student living in Toronto, grew up in Basra, in southern Iraq, near the front lines of the war with Iran. He has no illusions about war's devastation, but he believes leaving Saddam in power is even worse. "I saw the war firsthand," he says. "My life was devastated. A lot of my friends were killed -- bombings and killings were a fact of everyday life. When Saddam came to power, if Iraqis rose against Saddam, let's say 10,000 Iraqis would have been killed, but they would have spared the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis" -- those killed during Saddam's wars, as well as in his gulag. "In any war there will be victims, but if it means the end of Saddam and his regime, the price is worth it."

Even, some say, if the price includes a lasting American military presence. "The Iraqis that live in Iraq hate Saddam and they cannot live under him," says Yousif. "I believe they will accept the U.S., even in the form of an occupation. Because the way they look at it is that things cannot get any worse. We'll accept any change at this time."

Zangana disagrees with Yousif and Al-Moussawi's politics, but she understands their feelings. "Most of us are desperate people," she says. "We all want the regime to be changed. Whether we are Iraqis inside Iraq or in exile, we're all suffering."

She was an idealistic 21-year-old when the Baath party arrested her in 1971. At the time, the communist party in Iraq was debating whether it could work with the Baath, and Zangana was part of the faction that believed cooperation was impossible. Baath agents took her to Qasir aln Nihya, a notorious torture center often called "the Palace of the End." After three weeks, she was moved to a general women's prison for six months. Upon her release, she stayed in Iraq for two years, still hoping she could work to change the country from within, but with the security services constantly watching her, her presence endangered her family, and she fled to Syria before settling in London. She eventually wrote a novella, "Through the Vast Halls of Memory," about her experiences of torture in Iraq.


But Zangana cannot ally herself with the United States. "Saddam Hussein, he hasn't been invented out of nowhere," she says. "It's a well-known fact he's been supported by the West, supplied with all kinds of weapons along the years. We should be realistic. If we think of the long-term solution, Iraqis, no matter how much they hate Saddam, they're not going to accept any kind of occupation."

Zangana believes that if the sanctions were lifted, Iraqis could "regain their dignity, regain their power." If they didn't have to worry every day about finding enough to eat, she says, "They will be capable of changing the regime and dealing with this themselves. I am a great believer in the Iraqi people."

Al-Ghassani, who left Iraq even earlier than Zangana did, in 1968, shares her belief that the will of the Iraqi people will triumph -- and her profound skepticism that any good can come of war. "If the situation gets out of control and there is no immediate plan for a democratically elected government in Iraq, and American troops should remain there for a long time, this is a recipe for big trouble," he says. Pointing to America's success at getting Iraq to agree to inspections, he suggests a similar process could be undertaken to force democratic and human rights reforms on the country.

Such a scenario, obviously, would be ideal. But many younger Iraqis lack the patience for it, and some say that given conditions in Iraq, it's impossible anyway. "Iraqis inside Iraq are living in a hostage situation," says Awadh. "Hostages do not care who will help them become free again and save their lives."

Awadh had been a doctor in the Iraqi army, but left the country in 1996. After the uprising in 1991 -- during which he secretly helped treat injured rebels -- "I was frantically looking inside Iraq to get involved secretly in any opposition activities," he says. He couldn't. "Inside the military, it's extremely rare to have opposition cells that a person can affiliate himself to," largely because the military secret police and Baath party informants are so ubiquitous. So he kept his head down and did his job.

In August 1994, he was working in a military hospital when Saddam issued the infamous Law 109, which called for attempted military deserters to have their ears cut off and to be branded on the forehead with an X. Still only an intern, Awadh says he didn't perform the amputations. Shortly after Saddam's decree, though, "I started to see patients who had ear wound infections. These poor soldiers ... after they were subjected to these atrocities, they were sent back to their dungeons where no medical attention was available, where of course no beds were available, no electricity," he says. "They were humid, dark, unventilated dungeons. I heard some of them had died."

He continues, "On one occasion I saw a soldier who had been subjected to bilateral amputation of his ears, plus branding on his forehead with a hot iron. This soldier was manifesting severe signs of psychiatric disturbances. On another occasion I saw a soldier who I could not detect any lesion on. I asked him, 'What's wrong with you?' He wouldn't answer. He avoided looking at my face. I knew there was something very painful happening to this patient but I could not recognize what it was. I asked him again, 'What's wrong with you?' He started to cry. I could see tears shedding out of his eyes, with no weeping, no sound. He shuffled away some of his hair covering his left ear. I saw his left ear was amputated, disfigured and infected. As I treated him I wept."

As a first lieutenant, Awadh was able to move somewhat freely. In 1996, he left his base and found a smuggler to take him north, to Iraqi Kurdistan. Once there, he sent another smuggler for his wife and child. He joined the rebels there, but a few months later America let them down once again. The region was supposed to be a safe zone, protected by the U.S. and Britain, but in August they failed to stop Saddam's incursion into the area, and the rebels had to flee to the Turkish border. Two months later, they were evacuated by the Americans.

Today, Awadh is not uncritical of America's activities in Iraq. "Iraqis understand that it is a major mistake that the sanctions are being imposed blindly on Iraq without differentiating between the victim and the perpetrator," he says. Still, he's more than willing to accept American support for his cause. "For Iraqis, it doesn't matter who provides the help. The question is, is there help?"

For Awadh, as for other exiles who support war, the U.S.'s role doesn't end there. "Change of regime is not the end of the matter." In other words, if the U.S. goes in, it has a duty to keep the country from falling apart while it creates a government answerable to Iraqis.

Alsinawi, the D.C. computer engineer, is convinced it's a duty America won't fulfill. "This is not Clint Eastwood going in with one bullet so one man's dead and everyone's happy. Americans have this vision of Saddam. They hate him and think, 'Let's go kick his ass.' I don't know if they're willing to pay the huge costs if people are suffering and body bags start coming back. The cost will be way too prohibitive. What's in it for them to take care of the mess afterwards?"

Still, she allows that she can't help but entertain the thought that a war would somehow make things right. "There's a part of me, a very small part," she says, "that hopes they're serious about getting rid of him and willing to take the risk of war."

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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