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War and Terror: Trapped in the world of Saddam|
Posted on Monday, March 31 @ 14:05:05 UTC
Topic: Saddam and Iraq
April 1 2003, www.theage.com.au|
by Paul McGeough in Baghdad
In a crisis, pride is the glue holding Iraqis in place
It is the early hours in a city suspended in darkness, but now it is being cut to pieces again. First there is the sound of US aircraft, but then an incoming missile drowns the sound of the jets and an ear-splitting explosion signals another barrage hurled at Saddam Hussein.
I don't know what the target is. But minutes later, in a phone call from New York - which manages to navigate the increasingly shattered circuitry of the Baghdad phone network - I'm told that CNN has just aired footage of the missile striking Saddam's propaganda nerve centre, the Information Ministry.
In the morning, the jets are still prowling when I arrive at the ministry. Most of the windows are blown out, the blast has made colanders of the roof-top communications dishes and edgy soldiers make it clear there will be no press inspection.
But there is a party. Rousing music blares from a giant mobile sound system and more than 500 Iraqi artists and entertainers are singing, dancing and swaying on the roof of the lower section of this bunker-like building.
A man in a suit - white hair and wrap-around sunglasses - is swirling the national flag. A soldier with a big gut and a droopy moustache brandishes his Kalashnikov as he joins the chorus, from which the dapper Hadi Al Shati emerges to inform me that he is a famous singer.
All this prancing and dancing is a deliberate act of defiance; these people are daring the US to strike the building again. They could have stayed at home, and not answered the telephone round-up for this protest.
But as the sun dazzles on Shati's ensemble - dark-blue tie, shiny blue shirt and blue hunter's jacket, he tells me: "We are not frightened to be on this target."
The tail section of the missile that struck the ministry is brought in and the crowd becomes ecstatic, raising it above their heads and singing with even more gusto as they give the Saddam salute. The singers are with Saddam.
But eight hours earlier there is no singing or saluting the leader in Al Shualla, a predominantly Shiite shantytown north of Baghdad, as impoverished families prepare to bury 62 people killed in an accidental missile strike.
Grief overcomes anger. Western reporters are invited to observe the most intimate final act: the washing of the dead and the wrapping of their broken bodies in lengths of white cotton.
The ritual unfolds under the gaze of portraits of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's nephew whose martyrdom in the seventh century is a powerful symbol of oppression for Shiite Muslims.
They have suffered long and cruelly at the hand of Saddam. Washington desperately hopes they will rise in revolt, legitimising the invasion and making the final stage of war easier.
The Shiites, the majority religious group in Iraq, have nothing good to say about Saddam, but they are sitting on their hands. However, instead of appealing for the US to get on with the business of decapitating the regime, they plead only for a halt, and only one mourner dares to criticise the regime.
Perhaps the Iraqi sense of reality lies somewhere between the singers and the Shiites. Saddam is not the glue that holds them together; but in this crisis, maybe being Iraqi is. And in tumultuous times their nationalism is accentuated.
They know of no life other than under Saddam. Ten years of Western sanctions have left them with little positive sentiment about the place Iraqis often refer to as "outside" - the rest of the world and, in particular, the US.
This may be the key to understanding the working of the national psychology. A regime of fear keeps them in line, but they know their place and they know that in the confines of that place they are relatively safe as long as they abide by Saddam's rules.
Take the 20-something Iraqis. Since their early teens they have known only the Gulf War, foreign bombings in the flight-exclusion zones, and sanctions.
The older generations might have some fond memories of the days of British colonial rule. But after decades of Saddam's hyper-nationalism, these people have been marginalised.
So there's a void. Iraqis have been exposed to no useful links with the West - there have been no cultural centres, no lending libraries, nothing much of social or cultural values beyond the beloved Chevrolet Caprice.
Now as the West bombs them round the clock, it is Saddam's state-run media that fills their media space, filtering most of what they know about the US.
In the old days, the nicotine-stained Alzahawi coffee house on Rasheed Street was a hotbed of free thought. One night last week, I asked Ahmed, a world-travelled businessman, if the all-male crowd talked about anything other than, as they would say in Northern Ireland, the troubles. "No; we talk about it all the time," he said. "Well, the debate must be interesting," I said. "No - we agree with each other all the time," he replied.
Foreigners arriving in Baghdad see a repugnant, demonic construct. There is hunger for change among Iraqis, but to say life as it is should be ended does not allow for the difficulty many ordinary Iraqis have in seeing how they might get to a new, alternative existence. So, all the singers on the roof of the Information Ministry can do is sing in defiance of the US. For them, it is safer to be in a system and a philosophy that has been drummed into them for years. It all still revolves around Saddam Hussein. Had he been killed in the first strike, there would have been a fracturing at the heart of the regime. But while he remains, no one dares to step out of their place. Shatter the system and you shatter their lives.
Seen from Baghdad, what Washington is offering is no guarantee of security. Instead, what they are getting is great insecurity - bombs shake their homes all night and they hear of American "massacres" on the radio or TV.
Their children cry in the night and their daughters miscarry. Now that the US has set about destroying the phone system, they can't call an ambulance in an emergency or one another when they need reassurance.
Parents can't go to work to earn their pittance and children can't go to their neglected schools. And the internal security vice that clamps them into Saddam's world has tightened.
You might be able to rationalise this war if it had been a swift and brilliant strike under the aegis of the UN and had removed the oppressor without plunging the nation into devastation.
But the blurry Iraq TV continues to pump out its version of Iraqi triumph as the great US bogs down, running out of food and fuel at the front line.
Images are beaming across the world of Iraqis who are being bombed and shot at by young troops who often can't tell the enemy from civilians.
And of women, small children, bodies lacerated, being wrapped for burial. One of the more chilling quotes to date was from a US soldier, explaining the death of an Iraqi woman: "The chick got in the way."
With the US in a quagmire of its own making, many preconceptions of Iraq and its people are becoming more nuanced.
Where does it leave George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld? America desperately needs an Iraqi revolt, but with the intelligentsia in exile and Saddam's security forces very much in place, there are no voices of criticism at this critical time.
As the bombing continues, and the people get saturation reports on "criminal massacres" by the US, the Baghdad population sees itself in the bullseye along with Saddam.
Again Iraqi nationalism kicks in. It's a national duty to defend your country, to fight back. But the US doesn't seem to have factored into its war plan the possibility of such sentiment.
Whatever their inner feelings are, many Iraqis are going through the motions of defending their country. This is the position the US has placed them in by failing to grasp the Iraqi character and culture.
In these circumstances, many ordinary Iraqis simply want the war to stop, to be able to go back to work and get on with the abject lives they know.
There is an old man here whose mood swings I observe on a daily basis. He has no love for Saddam, but this week his chest is out with shy pride over reports of Iraqis knocking out US helicopters and tanks.
It all feeds into Iraq's warrior history. It's all a part of the national mythology that Saddam has been cultivating and reshaping to his own end for years - and now it's paying dividends.
Probably the single biggest reason there has been no Iraqi uprising is a lack of trust in the intentions of the US. No one is sure any more what this war is about, least of all the Iraqis.
The regime is pulling together. Whatever is occurring in the dark heart of Saddam's empire, outwardly we now see determination, exemplified best by the calculatedly urbane Information Minister, Mohamed Saeed Al Sahaf. Each day he briefs the foreign media with a dash that is reminiscent of one of Donald Rumsfeld's cockier briefings. Mr Sahaf arrives with a pistol on one hip and two spare ammunition clips on the other. Even on the day his ministry was bombed, Mr Sahaf attended as usual, in an annex adjacent to his hammered headquarters. And when three heavy bombs dropped nearby, the minister didn't miss a beat. He continued his review of the pause in the US war effort.
The braggadocio of Mr Sahaf and others in the regime could evaporate as quickly as it has been re-asserted if the US suddenly secured a psychological and military advantage. But for now, the Information Ministry is making itself heard in the propaganda war.
Mr Sahaf may be the public face of a regime that has been barbaric towards it own people, but his demeanour in the face of America's overwhelming might is playing well to Iraqi pride and nationalism.
Copyright © 2003 The Age Company Ltd
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