In the shadows, behind closed doors, from inconspicuous nooks of cafes, the whispers go on. They come from ordinary people – mechanics, clerks, computer operators, and civil servants. They are voicing the dilemma of Iraqis today, caught between the authoritarian regime of Saddam Hussein and what they see as irrational ‘American aggression’ by a Bush administration determined to invade their country.
‘Do you think they will really try to get rid of him?’ agonizes Sami, a part-time salesman. ‘Who would they put in his place, and how long would they stay here afterwards?’ Everyone knows who ‘he’ is. Few Iraqis will utter the name of Saddam without looking over their shoulders at least twice.
But as the drums of war beat on in distant capitals many in Iraq believe that sometime in the not-so-distant future they may be faced with the hardest choice of their lives: to fight the world’s toughest army or sit back and hope for the best. ‘If the Americans come here I’ve already made up my mind to fight them,’ says a sociology professor at Baghdad University. In his 60s, he has an old army gun that he insists will be unlocked from its drawer the moment a US military boot is set on Iraqi soil. He is determined to fight out of pride and because he believes – with most Iraqis – that America is up to no good in this arid part of the world. ‘Sheer greed’ is Bush’s motive, he says. And oil is at the bottom of it all.
But the professor has also read history, and he understands the pattern of Western intervention in the Middle East. After the Ottoman Empire fell at the end of World War I, the British occupied Iraq and installed a Hashemite king from Arabia. Decades of rebellion followed, and eventually independence. In the end it was the British who folded their tents, leaving Iraqis with nostalgia for things ‘colonial’… Shakespeare, Scotch and democratic government.
But it also left a feeling of betrayal: one that grew worse with a succession of repressive regimes. If democracy was good enough for Britain why is it too good for Iraq? Frightful though Saddam is, the chaos, anarchy and civil war that could follow him would be worse.
Iraq’s ruling elite springs from the Sunni Muslim minority, and the 60 per cent of the population who embrace the Shiia form of Islam have been brutally repressed. They hold no important positions of power and their participation in government is negligible. In the north of the country the Kurdish minority are also eyeing a self-ruled state. They now have a small semiautonomous enclave protected from Baghdad by a Western-patrolled no-fly zone, but still vulnerable to Saddam’s forces. Although Kurdish leaders, who have fought each other in the past, were persuaded by Washington to declare their rejection of outright separatism if the Iraqi dictator were overthrown, no one can be sure what would happen on the ground. ‘I’m afraid there will be a lot of revenge,’ says Sami, shaking his head. ‘Once the blood starts flowing here, it never stops. Not for generations.’
Unlike Afghanistan – even more fractious than Iraq – there is no benevolent Western-leaning leader who could be counted on to work for unity and democracy. Exiled political groups such as the Washington-favored Iraqi National Congress are sneered at within the country as corrupt, out of touch, or incompetent. And within Iraq no one dares to raise his or her hand against Saddam while he is in power. ‘This is our sad state of things,’ says Sami, pouring another thick, bitter coffee. ‘The Americans may come and go, and they’ll take our oil with them. As usual, we’ll be left behind to deal with the damage.’