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War Against Saddam -- or Iraq?

Maywa Montenegro

In the run-up to this war, one of the Bush administration’s most common propaganda tactics was to map a large, amorphous enemy -- namely, “evil” -- onto one figurehead, Saddam Hussein. We were sold a quick, clean, targeted conflict against a brutal dictator, as if it were possible to wage war on a person rather than an entire country.

Now we are being confronted with the utter fallacy of that notion. We watch as more than 5,000 expatriate Iraqis stream back over the borders, returning home to defend their homeland. Most don’t support Saddam; many in fact, loathe him. But the majority of Iraqis see our “war of liberation” as a Western attack on their homeland, their culture, and their religion, and many, we are now seeing, will willingly fight to defend these. Even non-Iraqis, according to a recent report in the Phoenix Star, are signing up to fight coalition forces. “With God’s help, I’m going today,” said one 30-year-old painter, “I am going back to serve my people and fight. I am not worried at all.”

Not all are so belligerent, and yet their feelings are much the same. “Of course the U.S. will win the war and all the Iraqis know it,” said another man, “They just won’t say that to your face. The Iraqis leaving are not with Saddam Hussein and they are not with the United States either. They just want to go home and don’t want their country occupied.”

Bush has wanted the world to choose between absolutes: “you are either with us or you are against us.” Clearly for these Iraqis, reality is not so black and white. On BBC radio reports you hear Iraqi opinions all across the spectrum. Some quietly (and anonymously) welcome the American invasion, viewing it as their only possible hope of getting rid of Saddam. Others hate Saddam, but detest the United States even more -- most in this category express doubt about our motives and are skeptical of our long-term commitment to bringing democracy. Several are afraid of a repeat of ’91, when the United States encouraged civilians to revolt against the Saddam, only to pull out, leaving them to face his wrath--and, presumably, his infamous torture chambers.

That we should expect all Iraqis to either welcome us with open arms and flowers or with hand grenades and Kalashnikovs speaks to our continued inability to appreciate them as a diverse people--not just a homogeneous group of olive-skinned, Arab-speaking Muslims. Americans, by and large, know so little about this part of the world that it is difficult for us to see the Iraqis as people with an wide variety of opinions and convictions, who live under a wide range of social and economic circumstances. It is all these variables combined -- and not some cookie-cutter thought pattern -- that inevitably shapes how individual Iraqis view the war.

And yet, as the war spills into a third week and the civilian casualties climb, even those with mixed feelings are beginning to change their minds. There seems to be a growing feeling that the war will destroy much and will construct little, leaving the Iraqis to bear the brunt of it.

I was initially surprised when I heard that so many expatriates were willingly running back to a land about to be ransacked by the mightiest military in history. Then I considered the following: What would Americans do if, say, North Korea decided to preemptively attack United States? What if Kim Jong Il -- following our stellar example -- decided that the United States had altogether too many weapons of mass destruction for comfort and posed a potential (even probable) military threat to his country? I think I can safely say that there are many, many Americans out there with little liking for George W. or his brand of politics, but I think I can also safely say that if bombs started raining down on Boston and New York City, and if North Korea began amassing troops on the Mexican border, we would not sit back and say, “Oh, Kim’s just fighting for regime change. It’s not a war against us.”

When I thought of it this way, it became easier to fathom why these Iraqis living safely in Jordan, Egypt, and elsewhere now return en masse to perhaps the most dangerous place on Earth. It also became easier to understand why so many Iraqis rail against the Coalition forces even while they fear and hate Saddam Hussein. Just as we found pride, patriotism, and solidarity amidst the rubble of the Twin Towers, Iraqis now find unity in the destruction wrought by a common enemy. In short, this can no more be a war against Saddam only than the attacks of Sept. 11 were an assault only on Bush.

A few days ago, a BBC reporter asked a couple of Iraqi women what they felt about their leader and the ongoing conflict. The younger one, after being assured that her name would not be used, spoke softly but forcefully, “I am anti-Saddam, but I wish him all the best in defending our country.”