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U.S. From Abroad : Iraqis and America: A Love-Hate Relationship Blooms : We weren't always The Enemy. Many Iraqis hate Bush, it's true. But they're also fond of all things American--a result of the time when Iran held U.S. hostages, and Washington found that the enemy of its enemy could be its friend.

October 02, 1990|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BASRA, Iraq — Sgt. Suleiman Kadir is the living image of America's new enemy.

A veteran paratrooper now assigned to a tactical squadron in this southern Iraqi city just two hours by road from downtown Kuwait, Sgt. Kadir already has been hardened by scores of combat jumps during Iraq's brutal war with Iran. He was wounded once, re-enlisted twice and has no obvious doubts about his mission at hand.

Ask Kadir if he's prepared to fight America, and his response is the official one: "We want peace, but we're ready for war--with anybody. We are afraid of no one. And we will fight until we die."

But, as the 25-year-old, battle-scarred soldier sat wearing his red beret and khaki camouflage battle dress on the Iraqi Airways evening commuter flight from Basra to Baghdad last Friday, Kadir gradually unveiled the human face of Iraq's one million-strong regular army--a face not so different from that of the tens of thousands of U.S. Marines camped in the Arabian desert just 200 miles to the south.

The sergeant was en route to Baghdad for a week of leave with his family, he said, as he began a conversation with several foreign journalists who happened to be sitting near him on the plane.

After a bit of political chitchat in broken English, Kadir asked where the journalists were from.

"America," one said.

Suddenly his face brightened. A smile broke the battle scars in both of his cheeks, and he gave a thumbs-up sign.

"George Bush bad, but American movies very good," he said, beaming.

And then, he opened the top few buttons of his standard-issue uniform shirt to reveal a silk-screened color portrait of Sylvester Stallone as Rambo.

It was a startling image in a nation that President Saddam Hussein has so insulated from Western influences. But it underscored a new reality in Iraq that is largely unseen by the Americans who may soon find themselves Iraq's opponent in war.

Just beneath the surface of this nation of 17 million, there is a fondness of, and compelling curiosity for, all things American--much of it the result of a gradual warming of relations between the two nations' governments in the two years that immediately preceded the current Persian Gulf standoff.

The period of Iraqi-American detente began toward the end of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, which had so toughened Kadir and his fellow soldiers by the time it ended in 1988. Iraq, a traditionally close political and military ally of the Soviet Union, had formed the cornerstone of Soviet influence in the gulf for decades after Iraq's Arab Baath Socialist Party overthrew the monarchy here in 1958. But America, which had used Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran to protect U.S. interests in the region for so long, suddenly found itself with dozens of its nationals held hostage there and soon realized that the enemy of its new enemy could, indeed, be its friend.

When the cease-fire came after limited U.S. assistance to Iraq during the waning years of the gulf war, both Saddam Hussein and the American leadership, brought together by what diplomats call "mutual interest," found themselves ready to work in an economic partnership.

And so was corporate America.

The U.S. government signed on to deliver as much as $1 billion a year in subsidized wheat to Iraq. American companies flooded Baghdad's five-star hotels with representatives seeking to plant anchors in this oil-rich, although deeply debt-ridden, nation.

The theory was simple: Iraq was sitting on the world's second-largest oil reserves; it needed a massive infusion of capital after a prolonged war that drained its national treasury, and its leader, Saddam Hussein, was a committed modernist interested only in state-of-the-art technology.

The result came quickly. Dozens of American businesses set up shop in Baghdad, most offering high-technology goods and services in the petrochemical industries. Hussein, a monolithic leader with absolute power, revolutionized the Iraqi economy almost overnight, granting a dizzying array of new freedoms to the nascent private sector. And, just as quickly, Iraq's eyes suddenly were opened to a wonderful new world of capitalism and consumerism, one that had once been forbidden them.

Computer shops opened with the latest in American and Japanese gadgetry. In a nation where the mere possession of a typewriter had been illegal, dozens of Iraqis began buying American fax machines under the liberalized new laws. The video shops, once filled only with Turkish kung fu movies and Hindi-language romance films from India, were soon stocking Rambo, Rocky and Clint Eastwood. And, suddenly one night, the Bob Newhart Show began appearing on state-run Iraqi Television, a nightly feature that has continued even through the crisis.

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