The U.S. vows to remove Saddam as an increasing number of world leaders try to slow the rush to war

NAHLAH AYED February 3 2003


The U.S. vows to remove Saddam as an increasing number of world leaders try to slow the rush to war

NAHLAH AYED February 3 2003




The U.S. vows to remove Saddam as an increasing number of world leaders try to slow the rush to war

THEY ARE GATHERED in a dimly lit theatre far from the pollution and hubbub of central Baghdad. On this rainy evening, members of the National Iraqi Symphony Orchestra are practising and greeting the tardy, as they trickle in, with good-natured jibes. The music starts and stops under the director’s baton, but finally they make it through a piece by Fairuz, a revered Lebanese singer and composer. Despite talk of war, the musicians—many smoking cigarettes—are relaxed. Even when the electricity goes out and the theatre is plunged into darkness, they don’t seem to mind. Saad al-Dajaleh simply packs up his flute and heads for the door. Does he think there will be a war? For most

Iraqis, he says, that question is meaningless: after decades of conflict the possibility of violence is always there. “Life here,” he says, “revolves around the fact that there could be an attack any time.”

A generation of Iraqis has never known anything but war and the threat of it. But last week some were looking for signs of hope as George Bush’s drive to oust Saddam Hussein faced mounting opposition, both from a growing number of European leaders and among his own citizens. In Paris, French President Jacques Chirac stood shoulder-toshoulder with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and vowed not to support a war with Iraq until there is clear evidence that Saddam

possesses weapons of mass destruction—a process that could take months, if not longer.

Other nations, including Russia and China, quickly backed the two leaders. And while Canadian Foreign Minister Bill Graham said “Canada is determined to see Iraq disarmed,” he insisted the U.S. must have the approval of the UN Security Council before attacking Iraq. But it’s doubtful the council will sanction military action any time soon, with Chirac hinting that he will use France’s veto to block any resolution authorizing an attack. “War is proof of failure,” said Chirac. “Everything must be done to avoid it.”

The White House, however, launched an aggressive campaign to shore up support, in-

eluding releasing a 29-page report entitled “Apparatus of Lies” that purports to document Iraq’s “brutal record of deceit.” Among other charges, it accuses Iraqi authorities of placing military installations close to civilians in Baghdad in order to cause gruesome casualties in the event of war. It says the Iraqis are keeping the corpses of babies who have died recently in cold storage until enough bodies can be accumulated to hold “dead baby” parades with dozens of tiny coffins. Bush also stepped up his attacks on the Iraqi dictator and vowed to use force to remove him—with or without UN support. “Saddam is a dangerous man, with dangerous weapons,” said Bush. “If he will not disarm, then the United States and the friends of freedom will disarm Saddam Hussein.”

In a week when one American died and another was gravely injured in a terrorist attack in Kuwait, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell also went on a diplomatic offensive. He phoned Western leaders and dismissed European doubts about attacking Iraq as a “blip.” He was planning to meet with Graham in Washington this week to ask for Canada’s support in any war against Iraq. At the same time, he made it clear that the U.S. was capable of attacking Saddam on its own without UN approval. To put muscle behind that threat, the Pentagon dispatched Task Force Ironhorse to the Gulf. Made up of 37,000 soldiers, along with tanks, artillery and attack helicopters, it is spearheaded by the 4th Infantry Division—considered the U.S. Army’s most lethal heavy fighting unit.

But even as it sought to bolster its standing internationally, the administration appeared to be losing ground at home. A poll by the Washington Post and ABC News showed that support among Americans for military action against Saddam slipped from 62 per cent to 57 per cent over the past month. Those who generally approve of the way Bush is handling the Iraq crisis dropped from 58 per cent in December to 50 per cent last week. The poll also found that seven in 10 Americans want to give UN inspectors more time to finish their search.

But White House insiders maintained that Bush and his most influential advisers are so determined to overthrow Saddam that opinion polls will have little or no impact on their decision. Eric Larson, an ex-

pert on national security and public opinion at the Rand research group, also pointed out that just before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, support for military action stood at 45 per cent. Once the fighting began, however, Americans quickly rallied behind the president at the time, Bush’s father. Larson says there is little reason for the current president to be worried by the poll numbers. “In comparison to other historical incidents,” he said, “this seems to be extraordinarily high support for a military option.” White House sources also point out that the President had not yet made a direct appeal to Americans to support an invasion of Iraq. That was expected to be the centrepiece of Bush’s State of the Union speech this week, to be followed in February by a series of televised addresses by Bush and Powell. Bush’s speech would follow the anxiously awaited report to the Security Council by UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix. Perhaps

tipping his hand, Blix made it clear late last week that there was still much to learn about Iraq’s arsenal. “The inspections,” he said, have failed “to answer a great many questions.” In Baghdad earlier in the week, he and Iraqi officials came up with a 10-point agreement detailing how Iraq would provide, in Blix’s words, “more active co-operation,” which included allowing UN inspectors to interview Iraqi scientists in private, without the presence of Iraqi intelligence officers.

The inspection was certainly on the mind of Rasul Kasem Khanjar as he worked at the counter of an old juice stop in the heart of Baghdad. On a wall behind him, a placard claimed the juice, prepared according to a recipe that’s been a family secret for generations, helps fight cancer and heart disease. The young man was flippant about the possibility of war as he poured the sweet concoction into scratched glasses. “Why would I be afraid?” he asked. “I have nothing to be

afraid of.” But his smile disappeared when he was asked what would happen if Blix condemned Iraq and opened the door to a U.S.led attack. “God only knows,” he said. “I hope things will be good. I really hope so.”

Across Iraq, people nervously awaited Blix’s crucial report, due on Monday, and the momentous events that would follow quickly. Would Bush use his State of the Union address the next day to declare his intention to attack Iraq, with or without UN approval? The focus of the debate would then shift to the Security Council, scheduled to begin discussing Blix’s report on Wednesday. Then on Friday, Bush’s staunch European ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is due in Washington to discuss Iraq.

Despite growing doubts in Europe, and divisions within his own party, Blair ordered 26,000 soldiers—one quarter of Britain’s army—to the Gulf last week. He stood with Bush even as polls showed that nearly half

of Britain’s population opposes the war. But Blair said he believed he could sway public opinion to his side. “We can’t have a situation in which there is a material breach and yet action is unreasonably blocked,” he said. “We must not give a signal to Saddam that there is a way out of this.”

Saddam may remain the target of Bush and Blair, but on the streets of Baghdad people felt they are the real victims. The U.S., many said, is just looking for a pretext to strike, and ultimately will attack even if Blix fails to turn up any doomsday weapons. The young feel particularly angry because they believe the economic sanctions that have limited trade with Iraq since 1992 have ruined their lives and destroyed their futures. Teachers are driving taxis, engineers trained in the West are doing clerical jobs, and many professionals are not working at all. “The sanctions are economic, intellectual, scientific, and even in sport,” said a young man at-

tending an anti-U.S. rally. “They stopped us from thinking and dreaming.”

Anger aside, there’s a more practical concern at hand for Iraqis: how to prepare for the war that many believe is coming soon. In a defiant speech last week, Saddam said he and his people are ready for a fight. Part of the preparations involves ensuring that people have extra food if war breaks out. The government recently doubled its monthly ration of flour, rice, oil, soap and other provisions to each Iraqi. Individuals are buying extra food, storing water and fuel, and saving their money.

That’s about as close as many come to admitting they’re afraid of the prospect of war. Over a cold bottle of cola in a Baghdad shop, one man said he has stored up all the food and water his family will require. He also pointed out that if all else fails, most people are ready to join the fight. “There is a shotgun in every house,” he said. “We also

have lots of fuel, and it’s easy to make bombs with it. Just put some in a bottle and light it. We can defend ourselves just fine.”

And life goes on in Baghdad. Street vendors still put up their stalls every morning and buyers walk by asking for prices. Some grudgingly pull out their wallets. Restaurants are filled with patrons sitting at tables surrounded by clouds of cigarette smoke. And on Thursdays, the traditional wedding day in Iraq, dozens of small cars decorated with balloons and ribbons madly honk their horns as they carry brides in billowing white gowns to hotels where family and friends gather. But even as they dance and celebrate, most realize that the debate over another attack on their country is notching up another level this week, at the White House and the United Nations.

With William Lowther in Washington

Nahlah Ayed is a CBC reporter in Amman jordan. She was on assignment in Baghdad.