As the Western military buildup in the Persian Gulf region continued last week, and Canada prepared to strengthen its forces, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein remained defiant. Maclean’s Washington Bureau Correspondent Hilary Mackenzie, who has reported from Saudi Arabia and Jordan since the Gulf crisis began, flew to Baghdad last week to assess the mood in the Iraqi capital. Her report:
Off to one side of a busy highway in Baghdad, giant replicas of Saddam Hussein’s forearms tightly grip two crossed swords, their razor-sharp edges thrust defiantly into the sky to threaten would-be invaders. Elsewhere, an oversized bronze Iraqi airman stands proudly over the wreckage of an Iranian fighter jet that was shot down over Baghdad during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, which took one million lives. A smiling Saddam Hussein, dressed in a khaki military uniform and a black beret, smiles back at the pilot from the billboard across the street. In another part of the city, angry demonstrators wave placards depicting the United States as the latest warmongering enemy to be vanquished. On one, a skull is superimposed on the face of President George Bush and warns: “Death and danger = Bush.” It is a city that openly glorifies death and destruction. But in its heated rhetoric, there was an unmistakable fear behind the bravado.
Unmarked police cars lurked in the shade of the date palm and eucalyptus trees that line the main thoroughfares. And the Mukhabarat, the vast internal security network, cast its long shadow over daily life. Western publications are banned, broadcast signals are jammed, and international telephone calls are monitored. Little outside information penetrates the immense propaganda machine set up to indoctrinate Iraq’s 18 million people, who are forbidden to talk to foreigners. Said one Western diplomat (on condition of anonymity) of Hussein’s security network: “They have control all the way down. Everyone is being checked by his neighbor.” He added, referring to George Orwell’s chilling novel about totalitarianism, “It’s like Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
That was evident along Baghdad’s main commercial street in a trinket store that sells colored worry beads, gaudy jewelry and religious knick-knacks. Early one morning, a 50year-old salesman cranked open the metal gate and lifted the gauze blind. Gesturing with his right hand that his throat could be cut for criticizing the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait, the man said that he feared war because of his seven children, aged nine months to 17 years. “I have too many children,” he said. “I like to talk but I can’t talk. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He refused to give his name. Casting his eyes nervously down the street, he said, “Iraq is not London or America.”
He warned that people who talk to foreigners are interrogated—and can disappear. An employee of a plush five-star hotel delivered the same message. Lowering his voice, he cautioned: “You can’t get a lot of information. I can’t tell you a lot. But we are living in a jail.”
Images of Hussein are nearly everywhere. In the hotel, with its waterfalls and glassenclosed elevators, there are six portraits of the president in different poses and outfits. In another part of Baghdad, there is even a Saddam Hussein museum. Beneath the lavish marble processional entranceway, with its cascading waterfall and piped Arabic music, a spacious, air-conditioned bunker houses Hussein mementoes. Grainy black-and-white photographs depict the president as a baby in knitted dungarees, as a teenager with his school report card and as a young man with his first Mercedes. Other photographs show Hussein with friends who would later form the Baath party, a revolutionary secular movement devoted to Arab unity. Baathists, who once promoted parliamentary democracy, now rule the Middle East’s two most repressive states, Iraq and Syria, with iron fists.
A separate exhibition of giant full-color posters celebrates “Our beloved leader” and shows Hussein in various military settings: in the belly of a Soviet tank, addressing helmeted soldiers on the desert frontier. “When we fight the enemy,” he is quoted as saying on one poster, “we are fighting the evil that is against freedom, land, glory and the future of Iraq and the welfare of the Arab Nation.”
That message is broadcast repeatedly on state-controlled radio and television and is carried in the Al-Jumhuriya Arabic newspaper and its English-language counterpart, The Baghdad Observer. “The propaganda is so successful,” said one Western ambassador, who declined to be identified, “that Saddam has switched the focus from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait to the presence of American troops on holy soil.” The media routinely denounce Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd as a traitor for allowing the American military buildup on his territory, and ridicule Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as “Little Hosni” who cannot stand up to the Americans. Demonstration placards paint Fahd with a cloak made from the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack. An Israeli Star of David crowns Fahd. Said the ambassador: “They pound out the message incessantly, and the man in the street swallows it. The people are beautifully brainwashed.” Those who do hold views contrary to the government’s are so frightened, diplomats say, that they do not even express them to members of their own family.
In the heart of the old city, with its quaint wooden balconies and ornamentally plastered white pillars, the smell of backed-up sewers wafted into an electrical store. A 29-year-old soldier, just back from four weeks in Kuwait manning a cannon and now working in his father’s shop before returning to the front, repeated the party line. “I am Iraq man,” he said in halting English. “I defend country. I soldier.” Missing his right ring finger from an enemy bullet in the Iran-Iraq war, the man shrugged when asked if he wanted to fight again. “I must go,” he said. “What can I do? What must I do?” His gaunt, gentle face barely masked an apparent weariness at the suggestion that Iraq might be thrust once again into a devastating war. “I not afraid,” he said.
In some ways, life in the beleaguered capital seemed oddly normal. In the maze of dark alleys in the old city, merchants sold pungent spices and exotic foods. Others tendered bolts of richly colored cottons and silks. Marlboro cigarettes were selling at a brisk pace. In a lower level of the souk, or market, merchants hastily tore open cardboard boxes of socks and pants, marked with indelible ink: “KUWAIT—IN TRANSIT.” Western diplomats say that such goods had been looted from storehouses in Kuwait, and the merchants were apparently destroying the damaging evidence. Nearby, the wail of a mullah from a minaret called the people to prayer. Shrill Arabic music pierced the still air.
Throughout the city, the military presence is overwhelming. Anti-aircraft missile batteries perch menacingly on the roofs of strategic Baghdad buildings. Soldiers in green fatigues and black boots guard the major intersections with their Soviet Kalashnikov AK-47 rifles. One soldier stood in a long line that snaked down a narrow back street to a small grilled window, from which the smell of freshly baked bread wafted invitingly. Waiting for his 12-rolls-a-day ration, the soldier said: “We fight for our land. We fight for our cause: Kuwait is Iraq.” He added: “War is not a problem. We fought eight years. I fight like a wild animal.” Asked about the prospect of fighting American soldiers, he replied, “When someone calls the army, we face them and we kill them.”
Ration cards have been issued for such staples as flour, tea, oil, sugar, dried beans, lentils and soap. But Western diplomats said that the Iraqi government had limited the products to dramatize a shortage and incite the populace against the Western embargo. Already, protest marchers have waved banners, depicting a Jersey cow on a tin of full-cream milk powder and a hungry child, with the words “Why are you letting our children starve?” In fact, diplomats say, Hussein’s regime is letting the Asian guest-workers in Baghdad go hungry. “Ruthlessly and cynically,” said one envoy, “Saddam is using starvation as a political weapon to undermine the sanctions.”
Past the heavily fortified ministry of armed forces and over the languid Tigris River lies the ornate Imam Khadum Tomb—the burial site of a descendant of Mohammed, the seventh-century prophet and founder of Islam. There, stocky women in black abayas, which cover their bodies from head to toe, daub henna on the elaborately painted tiles and rub the brass door knocker. Others prostrate themselves and kiss the marble steps that lead to the inner sanctuary where a family tree traces Saddam Hussein’s roots to the Moslem prophet. Selling religious pamphlets and postcards outside, Rafid Fadhil, a 15-year-old with a thin adolescent moustache, said that he regretted that he could not join the military until he turned 18. “When anyone fights the enemy, it is a great honor,” he said.
Across town, 27 American men were sequestered in a bougainvillaealined diplomatic compound that has become known as “The Hostage Hilton.” The men are among the foreigners who are potential parts of Hussein's human shield, a cordon of about 550 Western men now placed at strategic sites around the country to try to prevent an American military attack. The men at the “Hilton” were in their fourth week of captivity—and the days were long. “It is like overstaying a stay at your in-laws,” said Ray Herrod, an engineer from Houston.
A duty roster including cooking, laundry, cleanup and monitoring the shortwave radio helps to fill the time. “The radio,” said Tom Graham, from Amarillo, Tex., “has become the altar where you gather to say your prayers and hope that the news affects you.” Sweaty socks hung from the air conditioner, wet towels from the landing stairwell. The talk has degenerated to locker-room jokes. Said Herrod: “It’s the same talk you would hear if you were at a refinery or a hunting lodge.” Added Graham: “We have bets on everything—but not when the big bomb will come.”
Within the diplomatic community, tales of brutality and bravery filtered back from Iraqi-occupied Kuwait. One Kuwait-based Western diplomat who arrived in Baghdad last week described a “very spontaneous” Kuwaiti resistance. Shortly after the invasion, he said, he witnessed a protest by 300 Kuwaiti women in the Jabria district of Kuwait City. Iraqi soldiers opened fire on the peaceful demonstrators, killing four and wounding 50. The diplomat also described attacks against Iraqi fuel convoys by Kuwaiti resistance fighters armed with Molotov cocktails. Said the diplomat of the resistance: “It couldn’t topple the Iraqis now, but it could make the whole occupation more expensive.” In tightly controlled Baghdad, however, the committed or cowed Iraqis seemed prepared to pay whatever price Hussein demanded.
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