AS PART OF HIS PUSH TO GET CONGRESS and the United Nations to sign off on war with Iraq, President Bush has repeatedly promised that the Iraqi people are clamoring for liberation by U.S. forces. Likewise, the State Department has been holding regular meetings with a half-dozen Iraqi-American exile groups, talking up the post-Saddam future.
These are the proxies who have purportedly endorsed the U.S. invasion strategy, described by retired Army Lieutenant General Thomas McInerny in his August 1 testimony before the Senate, as “blitz warfare . . . [designed] for a devastating, violent impact [using] the most massive precision air campaign in history.”
Scant evidence exists, however, that the State Department's hand-picked Iraqi interlocutors faithfully represent the prevailing views and desires of the 400,000 Iraqis living in the U.S., 78,000 of whom reside in Southern California.
Indeed, a broad canvassing of local Iraqi-Americans reveals that while anti-Saddam sentiment runs high, so does opposition to a U.S. military invasion. Both views seem nearly universal and have been confirmed by at least one State Department official interviewed for this story.
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Like most diaspora populations, the Iraqi-American community varies widely in lifestyle and political viewpoint. There are ultrareligious enclaves and secular contingents, professionals and blue-collar workers, the politically active and the uninvolved. Yet, during interviews over the past three weeks, most opinions throughout this community coalesced around these twin principles: Everyone hates Saddam Hussein and wants him gone, yesterday if possible; and people emphatically do not want him taken out by American military force. This is, in part, because they fear that the “collateral damage” will be more catastrophic for their families than living under a tyrant. They are also convinced that war will produce a blowback effect — for either the U.S., the Middle East, or both.
Typical of this mindset is Ban al-Wardi, a 27-year-old immigration attorney who was born in the U.S., but who makes regular trips to Baghdad to visit her uncles, aunts and cousins, all of whom still live in Iraq. She favors a diplomatically negotiated solution. “I was just at a town-hall meeting at my mosque,” she says, “and we all hate Saddam — we hate him more than you can imagine. But the overwhelming feeling is against an invasion, because we absolutely know that thousands and thousands of people are going to die. And many of them could be people we love. I mean, it's not this empty space we'll be attacking. American troops won't be fighting on Mars.”
EVEN AMONG THE LESS POLITICALLY ACTIVE, the anti-war attitude prevails. Norair Aprahamian fled Iraq in 1971, when he was 15 years old, eventually finding passage to Los Angeles, where he found work pumping gas for $2.75 an hour. Now Aprahamian has his own auto-repair shop and gas station in Hollywood.
“I'm a patriot,” he says, pointing out how for three months after 9/11 he donated 5 cents a gallon of gas sales to the New York police and fire departments. “But I tell you, I don't agree with what President Bush is planning. I think we're playing with fire. If today we take Saddam Hussein out by force, tomorrow someone will come into a shopping mall in California or New York and throw a bomb and kill a thousand people. If we kill innocent people, then they will kill innocent people.” Aprahamian shakes his head. “I love this country. Why shouldn't I? I'm living the American Dream. But I'm telling you, we are about to make a terrible mistake.”
Salam al-Marayati thinks so, too. As the executive director for L.A.'s Muslim Public Affairs Council, al-Marayati is the official spokesman for much of Southern California's Muslim community, often shuttling between L.A. and Washington, D.C. “I feel like a doctor working on a cadaver,” he says. “Because I'm a spokesperson, I have to numb myself, otherwise I couldn't do my job. But I'm also Iraqi. That means I hear my mom on the phone with her brother in Baghdad talking to him about his family's options when the bombing starts.”
Al-Marayati — who supported the U.S. and NATO war in Kosovo — believes, in the case of Iraq, that American air strikes are likely to worsen conditions, not improve them. “What if we back Saddam in a corner, and he decides to burn the oil fields, for example, or to use whatever weapons he's got? And then, after the country's been turned to rubble, who's to say we're going to end up with someone better?”
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.”
SOME STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIALS openly acknowledge the doubts and fears that roil the Iraqi-American communities. “I think, generally, no one in the Iraqi-American community trusts the United States to do what it says it's going to do,” says Gregory Sullivan, the deputy director of press relations at the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. “From their perspective, we have too much baggage. For example, they feel that the U.S. is doing it for Israel, not for the Iraqi people. Or that we simply are making an attempt for hegemony over the entire region. Or that it's an imperialist strategy to put in a puppet regime. But if we took a scenario in which the U.N. replaced the U.S., with the assurance that the French or the Egyptians would be at the head of this, I think every one of them would say, 'Fine. Let's do it.' All in all — and this is truly unofficial, because I have no empirical evidence — I'd venture to say that four out of five Iraqis oppose an invasion, not because the end is wrong, but because we, the United States, are incapable of doing it correctly.”
Sullivan's personal view rather markedly contrasts with the administration's official line. “I believe that our greatest threat is al Qaeda, not Saddam,” he says. “And I don't personally believe that the connection has been made between al Qaeda and Saddam. Of course, I believe that the world would be a better place without Saddam Hussein, but on the rank order of threats against the United States, he is not anywhere near the top of my list.”
But clearly Saddam is at the top of the administration's list. “Look,” says Sullivan, “there's going to be a regime change. So in our meetings with the opposition groups, we outlined what we believe are the five possible scenarios. One is the all-encompassing American invasion. Two, we give air support for an indigenous ground invasion. Three is the coup scenario in which someone close to Saddam takes him out with a bullet. Four is the nightmare scenario in which someone close to Saddam takes him out, but they turn out to be someone we like even less. Five is the natural-demise scenario in which Saddam chokes on a peach pit and dies.” Sullivan says he's hoping for the peach pit.
The natural-causes option is also popular in the Iraqi-American community, says Dr. Ilham Heather al Sarraf, a psychologist specializing in post-traumatic stress syndrome and an activist on humanitarian issues. “Just this past weekend, I was at two large Iraqi gatherings. And I talked to dozens of people, all of whom were really tormented. Everybody just kept repeating the same sentence: 'I wish I could go to sleep tonight, wake up and the regime would be toppled but my family is okay, and no one is hurt.' Naturally, it's a fantasy. We say this, and then we look to each other's faces for comfort. But there is no comfort. There's an old Arab saying: 'The bloodshed will be up to the knees.' That's what we are afraid it will take to remove Saddam, because he's not going to go gently into the night. And so, in America we desensitize ourselves to what is about to occur. We use terms like 'collateral damage,' because we can't tell our soldiers, 'Look, the person you're going to kill has a mother, a father and two siblings who are going to miss him terribly,'” she says. “I stay up nights thinking about it.”