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The notion that a cornered Saddam Hussein will unleash destructive forces throughout the region and beyond is an apprehension voiced by many. "Listen, people have tried to assassinate this man for 25 years, and they haven't been able to do it," says one 58-year-old former Iraqi army lieutenant, who asked that his name not be used. He left his homeland in 1977 when government officials pressured him to join Saddam's B'ath party; now he makes ends meet by working at Home Depot. "Why does President Bush think he can do it now? I know what Saddam is like. My very best friend back in Iraq was the son of the man who was president 30 years ago, when Saddam was vice president. And I'm telling you, if we make him desperate, he'll use any weapon -- on his own people, on Israel, on us, whatever. And then he'll disappear."
Among those local Iraqi-Americans who favor U.S. intervention is Dr. Maha Yousif, a 51-year-old orthodontist who teaches at USC. "We don't look at it as an invasion," she says. "We look at it as a liberation." Yousif says she understands there may be Iraqi casualties, but her attitude has become fatalistic. "Death is coming to Iraqis either way," she says, "so we can't worry about it anymore."
Yet like many other Iraqi-Americans interviewed, Yousif would prefer to have Saddam indicted by an international court of justice. "We worked toward that for years, but nothing happened. And now the U.S. has refused to sign the [International Criminal] Court Agreement," Dr. Yousif shrugs. "So what is our alternative? At least, if the U.S. goes in, we can have hope."
Still, Yousif has her reservations. "In 1974, I heard Saddam Hussein say on TV that if he ever had to leave the country, he would leave it in ruins. Then his son got on TV recently and threatened to unleash chemicals on the people of the South. But despite the risks," she says, "I'm willing to roll the dice, because our people are suffering every day. So this is medicine we have to take."
THE MOST SANGUINE VIEWS OF INVASION were expressed, predictably, by those who stand to gain the most from overthrowing Saddam -- namely the members of the various competing Iraqi opposition groups who hope, under a U.S. military umbrella, to return home and assume some quota of state power. Most prominent among these official opposition leaders is Washington, D.C.-based Dr. Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an Iraqi coalition parliament in exile. With money and encouragement from the Clinton administration, Chalabi launched an insurrection from inside Iraq in March of 1995, but the U.S. pulled back support, and the attempted coup failed completely. Since then, Chalabi has won warm support from the Bush White House. And, just this week, the Bush administration allocated $92 million to train 5,000 Iraqi exiles -- most of them to be supplied by Chalabi.
Chalabi's principal INC representative in Southern California is Dr. Yousif's cousin, Mazin Yousif, 41, the owner of an electronics-design firm in Orange County. "Ten days ago, we had contact with members high up in [Saddam's elite] Republican Guard," he says, "and they told us, 'We're going to leave our windows and doors open.' What this means is, they're really fed up with Saddam and ready to switch sides." On the subject of a cornered Saddam becoming the world's biggest suicide bomber, Yousif is dismissive. "The way around that is to give Saddam an exit by allowing him to have a residence outside Iraq."
Yousif is also confident that the U.S. will stay in Iraq long enough to stabilize a new government. "They will not abandon us. We are sitting on the second largest oil reserves in the world. Of course," Yousif says, "we have been double-crossed a couple of times before. But I don't believe that will happen this time."
Yet Yousif too is not without his apprehensions. "What really bothers me is that the administration will take a short cut and make a last-minute deal with some second cousin of Saddam," he says. "As Henry Kissinger wrote in his memoirs, in the Middle East, tyrants are easiest to control, because you only have to deal with one person. Democratic governments are much harder."
Yousif rather glumly predicts that the odds are "50/50" the Bush administration will wind up making just such a deal. "If the U.S. government was really planning to support a democratic revolution -- meaning a liberation force, not an occupation force -- they'd be training opposition troops to go in with Americans," he says. "We have submitted a list of 2,000 ex-officers and soldiers who are ready, willing and able to be trained on a base in the region to spearhead the removal of Saddam. That proposal is sitting on George Bush's desk. But nothing has happened. And it's getting awfully late in the day. Thinking about that is what keeps me up at night."