As U.S. forces battle guerrilla fighters, fierce sandstorms, rising heat, and the fear of possible chemical attacks, anxious Americans are beginning to question those early war projections that confidently predicted a swift romp to Baghdad lined with dancing Iraqis. Instead of candy and flowers, however, U.S. forces have been faced with a surprisingly staunch militia resistance and little public back-slapping of U.S. troops by the average “liberated” Iraqi.
Why? Perhaps America’s last “liberation” has something to do with it. In 1991, shortly after U.S. troops booted Iraqi soldiers out of Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush called on Iraqis to rise up against Saddam Hussein. Worn out by Saddam’s two disastrous wars in the last eleven years (he invaded Iran in 1980 leading to a brutal eight year war) and longing for greater freedom from Saddam’s brutal police state, Iraqis across the country heeded the American president’s call and rose against their dictator, a man who truly deserves the Bush moniker “evil.”
In large numbers in the south, Shi’a Iraqis, who compose the majority of the population, rose up in defiance of Saddam’s Ba’ath party henchmen in Basra, Nasiriya, Umm Qasr, the same cities that have become etched into our consciousness as battle sites today. They tore down Saddam photos, vandalized official buildings, and took revenge on Ba’ath party officials. In one scene, an angry mob hung an official in the same torture chamber Saddam used for local dissidents.
In the north, Iraq’s Kurds — long victimized by Saddam Hussein including a devastating chemical attack on the city of Halabja — saw Saddam’s day of reckoning and eagerly rose up in defiance.
In the center of Iraq, people whispered excitedly about Saddam’s imminent demise, according to reports at the time, though they feared open rebellion: Saddam’s Republican Guards were still too close for comfort. (Incidentally, Saddam’s hit squads are still too close for comfort, another reason why there is little in the way of uprising.) Both the Kurds and the Shi’a and the Sunni Muslim Iraqis in the center assumed that their rebellion would be supported by the United States. After all, they thought, why would the President of the United States — the most powerful and knowledgeable man in the world — tell them to rise in revolt if the U.S. didn’t plan on supporting the uprising? Surely, they thought, the President knows they’re not capable of defeating Saddam on their own.
And yet, when Iraqis rose, America stood idly by as Saddam’s forces slaughtered nearly 200,000 Kurds and tens of thousands of Shi’as. President Bush later said he never intended his comments to mean that the U.S. would provide air cover to rebellious Iraqis. For the average Iraqi, however, that’s exactly how they took the President’s call.
Of course, Iraqis must know that this time is different. Though there is once again a Bush in the White House, Iraqis have certainly seen the barrage leafleting and Arabic radio broadcasts announcing America’s intention: to march on Baghdad until the butcher falls. And yet, Iraqis still hesitate to embrace their “liberators.”
Well, perhaps the last ten years has something to do with it. You see, for the average Iraqi, America has represented an economic oppressor — not a liberator — due to the crippling United Nations sanctions, backed vigorously by the United States. Sanctions have decimated Iraq’s middle-class, and contributed to up to 500,000 deaths due to lack of medicine, according to the World Health Organization and UNICEF. An entire generation of Iraqis have experienced the slow strangulation of their economy and their lives at the hand of UN sanctions.
As one Iraqi professor turned refugee told me in neighboring Iran: “Saddam kills us suddenly. Sanctions kill us slowly. Forgive me if I cannot trust the Americans.”
Still, there is hope because Iraqis keenly understand one thing: the Americans are certainly better than Saddam Hussein. Given a real choice, the average Iraqi would rather have an American military governor for a limited duration (“limited duration” being the operative phrase) if it meant an end to Saddam’s reign of terror, if it meant that Iraqis could hope once again for a better future for their children and their rich and tormented land. It would, in their eyes, be the lesser of two evils, and don’t be fooled by chest-thumping coffee-house Arab nationalists in Cairo or Riyadh who tell you otherwise.
A key issue that threatens the U.S. position as “the lesser of two evils” is one of civilian casualties. How could America’s precision-guided bombs hit a market, Baghdad residents ask, justifiably enraged? What next, a school?
Ironically, the most important tool in the battle for the hearts and minds of Iraqis might be U.S. military technology: if more missiles go astray, average Iraqis could turn quickly against allied forces.
Let us hope we see the quick end of Saddam Hussein, who represents the worst of his generation of Arab tyrants. In his quest for greater glory for himself, his family, and his tribe, he has crushed the aspirations and hopes of two generations of Iraqis and strangled a people that spawned the world’s first civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates and one of the Arab world’s greatest cities in culture-rich Baghdad. When the dictator falls, Iraqis might not embrace their liberators, and their liberators ought not to overstay their welcome, but don’t be surprised if an American GI is offered a sweet or two by a thankful Iraqi mother. Unless, of course, her innocent son is killed by another errant missile.