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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ / AMERICA FROM ABROAD

To Iraqis, the U.S. Is Not Bush Country

February 08, 2003|Marjorie Miller | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD -- Dental student Ahmed Ghassan, a fan of Elvis Presley and Tom Hanks, explains in colloquial American English that he may have to fight for his life against U.S. troops.

Iraqi government press officer Kadhim Taie studied at the American University in Washington and would like to send his children there one day -- after a war with the United States.

Retired engineer Haitham Kassim says the U.S. government is intent on waging war to control the world oil market and distract attention from economic problems at home. He makes his point with a Hollywood film about a contrived conflict: "Did you ever see 'Wag the Dog'?" he asks enthusiastically.

After 12 years of U.S.-backed economic sanctions, and on the brink of another war, ordinary Iraqis express rage at the Bush administration but retain a strong affection for things American.

This distinction between the U.S. government and its people or products is common throughout the Arab world. However, it is all the more remarkable among Iraqis, who draw a direct line between their daily hardships and U.S. policy.

Iraq has seen relatively few U.S. visitors since the 1991 Persian Gulf War and, consequently, is one of the few places where Americans are not quickly identified by their open faces and distinctive accents. Ordinary Iraqis often do not realize they are speaking to one until halfway through a conversation.

"It makes me angry and sometimes afraid, but if American tanks come, we must save ourselves," said English-language student Balsam Abbas, 26.

"Iraq is very rich, and they want everything. They must do it. No, no, not 'must,' " she said, correcting her own English. "They do it."

Then, when she learned she was speaking with an American, her dimpled face broke into a wide smile. "Welcome, welcome," she said.

Abbas went on to explain how her family is storing food and water and preparing to seek cover at home when U.S. warplanes begin to bomb Baghdad. Like most residents, she said she will not go into one of the capital's 34 bomb shelters because hundreds of civilians died in the Amiriya shelter when it was hit by a U.S. bomb during the Gulf War.

An American visiting Baghdad today steps into a kind of forbidden city, the seat of power of President Saddam Hussein, whom the administration has placed alongside Hitler and Osama bin Laden as one of the greatest villains of modern times. Because of visa restrictions and U.N. economic sanctions, it is difficult to get into Iraq; security precautions make it almost as difficult to board a plane out.

Here in the capital, oversized portraits of Hussein adorn the facades of all public buildings, presenting him not as the enemy but as a modern-day Nebuchadnezzar, the all-powerful purveyor of welfare and protection. On the Justice Ministry, Hussein holds the scales of justice. On the Housing Ministry, he holds a pallet of cement. He wears a cap and gown at the University of Baghdad and a uniform at military headquarters.

His omnipotence -- and omnipresence -- is reinforced by vast interlocking networks of green-uniformed ruling Baath Party officials and security agents who demonstrate a preference for black leather jackets.

Foreign journalists must be accompanied by government "minders" -- what officials here call guides -- when speaking to Iraqis, so it is not possible to have a private conversation about politics. Residents express universal support for Hussein under such conditions, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm. They appear to fear and admire his ironfisted rule and to view him as uniquely capable of holding Iraq together against ethnic, tribal and geopolitical divisions.

Iraqis are far less restrained in expressing their views of the U.S. government. Like official Iraq, ordinary Iraqis view the Bush administration as a band of warmongers. State-run media do not present citizens with the detailed case, laid out by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Wednesday, that their nation is concealing weapons of mass destruction.

In any case, Iraqis believe that their nation and the U.S. are going to battle not over banned weapons or alleged links to the Al Qaeda terrorist network but over American avarice. To many here, the U.S. is but the latest in a long line of conquerors that includes Britain and the Ottomans.

"If Iraq had weapons [of mass destruction] like they are pretending, then America wouldn't attack," reasoned Adnan Hassan, 32, the owner of a small transport business. "America wants to bomb Iraq not because of arms, but for oil."

"America is our enemy," added his sister-in-law, Mona Hussein, 43, a primary school teacher and mother of four. "We cannot work normally, we don't sleep normally. We are worried about the situation, especially as the time for the bombing gets closer. We don't deserve to live like this."

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