Broken Spirits

9 minute read
Lara Marlowe/Baghdad

Saddam Hussein dies and goes to hell, begins a new joke making the rounds in the Iraqi capital. Because his sins are so great, Saddam is sent to a special section reserved for those doomed to burn the longest. But the fear imposed by the Iraqi dictator’s secret police extends even to the netherworld. As Saddam is dragged toward the flames, his fellow sinners break into a chant, a variation of a political slogan often heard at official rallies during the Gulf War. Instead of addressing George Bush with defiant assurances of how much they love their leader, they now direct their warning to God: “Allah, Allah, listen well, we all love Saddam Hussein.”

Genuine expressions of love for Saddam are rare and hardly ever spontaneous in postwar Iraq — especially in the aftermath of the June 27 cruise-missile attack on Baghdad. Yet as they cleared rubble and replaced shattered windows, Iraqis blamed Bill Clinton — not their own leadership — for the deaths of eight civilians, including well-loved Iraqi artist Layla Attar. “People don’t understand why the Americans are still punishing them,” said a senior diplomat in Baghdad. “The economic sanctions and these not-so-surgical strikes don’t affect Saddam or his network. The damage to his intelligence services was minimal.”

Still, the unexpected attack gave a psychological jolt to the Iraqi leadership. Fearing further action by the U.S., the regime backtracked on early threats of retaliation. On Thursday Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told CNN, “We are not contemplating an act of revenge . . . That’s not going to serve our interests.” For Saddam, well known for his brash threats to unleash the “mother of all battles” on the American-led Gulf War coalition, Aziz’s appeal for “normal, quiet relations with the United States” must have been almost as painful as hellfire.

Two missile attacks against Baghdad so far this year and the economic deprivation wrought by almost three years of economic sanctions have not led the Iraqi people to rise up against Saddam Hussein. His people fear him; some hate him and ardently wish for his death. But there are no signs of destabilization within the regime. So why has the Iraqi regime changed tack? Sheer exhaustion, it would seem. While Saddam’s hold on power appears secure, his subjects are hungry, his weapons of mass destruction are dismantled, and his economy is a shambles. “They just don’t have the ability to retaliate,” says a diplomat. “If they didn’t blow up planes and embassies or kidnap Americans during the Gulf War, they’re not going to start now. Saddam has realized he has to come to some sort of modus vivendi with the West.”

Despite his missile attack, Bill Clinton is no match for George Bush in Iraqi demonology. A new mosaic showing Bush’s grimacing face was recently laid at the entrance to Baghdad’s al-Rasheed Hotel so that visitors cannot help stepping on the former President’s face. BUSH IS CRIMINAL, it says in English and Arabic. Although they show no hostility toward visiting Americans, Iraqis are angry that they — not the government foisted upon them — are the ones who always suffer. At the Lawyers’ Union in Baghdad’s fashionable Mansour district, a white-haired attorney captures Iraqis’ twin resentments in his . rage: “Did Bill Clinton have to murder Layla Attar to prove how powerful he is?” he demands. “Did that strike oust Saddam? No. So what’s the point?”

Another lawyer, seated beneath a towering portrait of Saddam Hussein framed in gold Christmas-tree tinsel, makes a veiled appeal for a more decisive solution: “The U.S. government knows the right way. They know where everyone is. They know everything. I can’t believe they don’t know how to do it.” A middle-aged working-class veteran of the wars with Iran and Kuwait, fearful enough to ask that neither his name nor occupation be revealed, claims that 70% of all Iraqis wish the Americans would kill Saddam or at least “take Saddam and his Republican Guard to the U.S. and leave us in peace.”

The Iraqi President’s entourage, composed mostly of family members, remains loyal. “They know very well that if anything happens to him they will all be murdered,” says a diplomat. And Saddam’s regime remains still very much in control. Despite the damage wreaked by Tomahawk missiles on Iraqi Intelligence Service headquarters, at least half a dozen intelligence services remain active. Nor is it certain that the agency targeted was the most important of these. Saddam’s half brother, Sabawi Hassan Hussein, heads the powerful Directorate of General Security. And another half brother, Watban Ibrahim al- Hassan, is the Interior Minister.

The mood in Baghdad is one of despair and humiliation. “I am hungry, he is hungry, all the people in Iraq are hungry,” says Abbas, a vendor in Baghdad’s Arabi Street market, where Iraqi-made plastic sandals, shampoo and deodorant are almost the only goods to be found. “We want to eat. We don’t care about politics.” An Iraqi journalist says the U.S. was mistaken if it thought the Iraqi people could be driven to overthrow their government. “The policy has backfired. People’s only concern now is to feed their children. The game played by the West has served the regime, because when you starve people they don’t think about anything else.”

Economic sanctions, even more than the missile attacks, have trained Iraqis’ anger on the U.S. and the U.N. “The U.S. said it wanted to defend Saudi Arabia,” says the white-haired lawyer. “Fine. The U.S. expelled Iraq from Kuwait. Fine. But starving 18 million Iraqis is too much.” Negotiations on the export of Iraqi oil are scheduled to resume July 7. The Iraqi government has until now rejected U.N. resolutions that would enable it to sell $1.6 billion worth of oil abroad; more than two-thirds of the proceeds would go to war reparations to Kuwait and for U.N. expenses in Iraq. Officials argue that the remaining few hundred million dollars would scarcely alleviate food shortages. The Health Ministry claims that it needs $3 billion a year for medical imports alone.

Physical isolation also weighs heavily on Iraqis. Hostile neighbors — Turkey, Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia — surround them. Even once friendly Jordan has distanced itself from Saddam since the Gulf War. International flights are banned under the sanctions, and the 621-mile trek across the burning desert to Amman is the only way out of the country. A recently imposed exit tax of 15,000 dinars (more than $200 at black-market rates) a person, nearly 20 times the average monthly salary, has made travel virtually impossible for most Iraqis.

“Iraq is like a criminal sentenced to a very long prison term,” says a diplomat in Baghdad. “Whatever they do, it’s not enough to make a difference.” Under Security Council Resolution 687, the U.N. could reconsider economic sanctions if Iraq destroyed its weapons of mass destruction. “But the U.N. keeps raising the bar they have to jump over,” says another diplomat. “Now they are being required to comply with more resolutions passed after 687.” Outstanding issues include U.N. insistence on helicopter flights over Baghdad and the placing of surveillance cameras in weapons facilities.

Iraqi officials say they have been trying to settle their differences with the U.S. since Bill Clinton was inaugurated. “Some of us thought Clinton would concentrate on domestic policy and ease the pressure on us,” says a high-ranking Iraqi official. But Saddam’s charm offensive, which included a pledge not to challenge aircraft over no-fly zones in southern and northern Iraq, found no favor in Washington. “The Iraqis were hoping that sooner or later, if they did not provoke Washington, the U.S. and its Arab allies would realize they need a strong Iraq to counterbalance Iran,” says a diplomat in Baghdad. The Iraqis were bitterly disappointed by the new U.S. policy of “dual containment” enunciated by Martin Indyk, senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council. He smashed Iraqi hopes that the West and other Arabs would once again build Iraq up as a bulwark against Iran. Indyk argued that Iraq and Iran were equally inimical to American interests in the Middle East, and suggested that the U.S. back the ineffective Iraqi opposition-in-exile.

But if Iraq was seeking better relations with the U.S., why would it plot to assassinate George Bush? Though most found the circumstantial evidence compiled by U.S. intelligence to be compelling, Iraqi officials claim the plot was fabricated by the Kuwaitis and seized upon by Clinton to raise his standing at home — a suspicion widely shared by foreign diplomats in Baghdad, who harbor reservations about U.S. Ambassador Madeleine Albright’s presentation to the Security Council. “The proof given by the Americans was not very convincing,” said the senior diplomat. “Confessions of people still on trial are not acceptable.”

“In the 2 1/2 years since the Gulf War, American policy toward Iraq has been ineffective,” notes a European diplomat. “They were aiming to get Saddam Hussein out of power. They have not. They wanted to compensate Kuwait and finance U.N. operations through oil sales; they have not. Furthermore, American propaganda has failed to convince the Iraqi people that the sanctions are the fault of their own government.”

So despite the Tomahawks that hit Baghdad last week, Saddam is likely to remain in power, even as his people become more dispirited. Says a diplomat in Iraq: “The more you beat him, the stronger he becomes.” That is a dilemma Bill Clinton seems no closer to resolving than George Bush was.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com