After endorsing Saddam, Iraqis seem ready to defy the U.S.,
A GRAND SHOW OF SOLIDARITY
After endorsing Saddam, Iraqis seem ready to defy the U.S.,
JUST AFTER SUNSET on Oct. 16, a violent desert storm blew into Baghdad. Gusting winds ripped shutters off windows, knocked merchant kiosks flat and filled the air with dust particles, creating a choking fog. Iraqi citizens, out in the thousands to celebrate Saddam Hussein’s re-election, were driven from the streets and stadiums. The next morning, when the winds abated, residents emerged to begin clearing away the debris. Scattered on roadways and draped from trees were thousands of propaganda banners declaring, “Yes, Yes, Saddam!” and “We love the leader.”
George W. Bush is continuing to demand that the UN adopt a resolution that would lead to a military response if weapons inspectors are not allowed to operate freely in Iraq. And organizers of the vote hoped to show the international community, through an exercise in “honest democracy,” that Saddam is loved by his people. “We do not submit to outside pressures,” said Mohammed Saeed alSahaf, Iraq’s Minister of Information. “The people of Iraq support Saddam Hussein if there is a threat of war or not. Whether this will be accepted in the West is irrelevant.”
Still, the foreign ministry invited over 1,000 foreign journalists and observers to witness the election process. Political rallies and campaign posters, in English as well as Arabic, were strategically located within sight of the hotels housing international delegations. On Oct. 15, the day of the referendum, foreign observers were bused to selected polling stations. “The Iraqis wanted us to witness that there was no intimidation or coercion taking place,” said Joe Comartin, the NDP MP for Windsor-St. Clair in Ontario, one of only two Canadian politicians attending the referendum. “There were certainly no gun-toting goons forcing people to cast ballots.”
Maybe not, but there was only one candidate; the ballot asked for a yes or no
answer to the simple question: “Do you agree with Saddam Hussein’s continued rule?” And the atmosphere was celebratory, with a steady procession of musical acts and political demonstrations—many involving schoolchildren. Mahmoud, a 12year-old boy dressed in a camouflage uniform and carrying a sign proclaiming Iraqi-Palestinian unity, showed reporters a fresh scar on his finger. “I proudly give my blood to Saddam,” he said.
Referendum day was also declared a state holiday. “It’s important to be seen at these events by the Baath Party officials,” said Ahmed Yahya, a 24-year-old Baghdad shopkeeper. “People certainly don’t want to be singled out for retribution.” When asked if he supported Saddam on his ballot, Yahya replied, “This referendum is not about selecting a leader, it’s simply to send a message of solidarity.”
Iraqis are also preparing to fight. Throughout Baghdad, the windows of government buildings have been taped to reduce glass shrapnel in the event of an air
strike. Mohammed Noori, a 42-year-old father of four, was recently ordered to leave his position in the Ministry of Culture and report to a Baghdad-based infantry unit. Having fought in the Gulf War as an air defence gunner, Noori has no misconceptions about U.S. military supremacy. “They slaughtered us during the last war and we could do nothing,” said Noori. “For the past 10 years they have bombed us at will. Yes, we will still suffer catastrophic losses—but let the Americans come to Baghdad and learn what war really is!”
Many Iraqis fear the U.S. will simply lay siege to Baghdad rather than risk heavy casualties in street-to-street fighting. “During the Gulf War and in the initial years of the embargo there was rampant civil disobedience and disorder here,” said Dr. Asmaa Alawai, a physician at a Baghdad hospital. “The U.S. will simply cordon off and starve us into committing barbaric acts of inhumanity against each other.” Despite her fatalism, Alawai is confident the Iraqi army will put up a stiff fight. “They will die bravely,” she said. “So long as Saddam is alive and able
to communicate orders to them.”
In the southern Iraqi city of Basra, celebrations were more subdued. “The people of this city are simply tired of war—it seems we are always at the epicentre of these conflicts, and as a result we have suffered the most,” said 36-year-old photojournalist Nabil Al Gorani. Situated astride the strategic Shatt al-Arab waterway, Basra has a population of 1.5 million and its residents have been on the front lines of Persian Gulf conflicts for years. “I cannot recall,” said Al Gorani, “a time in my life that there were not air raids.”
The Basra region was the most contested battleground of the nearly decade-long Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and it was the staging area for Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Then, during Operation Desert Storm, Basra was pounded heavily by air strikes. When the defeated Iraqi army fled north, out of Kuwait, the U.S.-led forces pursued them to the city’s outskirts.
Since the 1991 ceasefire, allied aircraft have launched regular air strikes against
Iraqi forces inside the no-fly zones in and around Basra. With U.S. troops already on the ground in Kuwait, many Basra residents fear that the next bloody round of fighting is only weeks away. And Ali, a 47-year-old hotel manager, expressed a uniquely pragmatic opinion about the impending crisis. “Everyone in Baghdad is shouting ‘Yes, Yes, Saddam’ for the referendum, but they would just as enthusiastically shout ‘Yes, Yes, Tommy Franks’ if the U.S. launches an attack.” (Gen. Franks, as commander in chief, U.S. Central Com-
‘lf Iraq was declaring war against America, I would be the first to protest. But if Iraq is attacked, everyone must fight.’
mand, would be in charge of allied forces during an invasion of Iraq.)
With his hotel business crippled, Ali explained that he was not pro-American— he just wants the suffering to stop. “Chanting slogans,” he said, “and professing a love for Saddam does not put food on my family’s table.” Such sentiments are not widely expressed by the majority ot Iraqi males. As part of their preparations for war, Iraq has been mobilizing reservists and thousands are being recalled to service. Hameed Saeed is 61 years old with grey hair and a paunch. An academic by profession, Saeed spends three hours a day doing military training. The reservists in his regiment are of all ages—including his own son and daughter. “I’m a pacifist by nature, not a soldier,” said Saeed. “If Iraq was declaring war against America, I would be the first one in the streets to protest. But if Iraq is attacked, then everyone must fight.”
Scott Taylor is editor of the Canadian military magazine Esprit de Corps.
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