Every time I arrive in Iraq, the experience is a shock. The place always seems exactly the same, only worse. More bare-faced corruption. More overblown monuments and palaces and portraits of Saddam Hussein. More gory displays of patriotic fervor. Lately, demonstrators have been painting anti-Bush banners with pints of their own blood. On Oct. 15, the day of last week's one-candidate presidential "election," thousands of voters bloodied their fingers with pins to mark the yes box for seven more years of Saddam Hussein. One old man apparently had no pin, so he used a paper clip. To draw blood he had to stab himself over and over, as the TV cameras drank up the spectacle. Such gestures were utterly voluntary, insisted Iraqi official A. K. Hashimi: "If we had told them to do that, then everyone would have voted with their blood."
But not with their hearts. It has always been possible to find a few Iraqis who would criticize Saddam in private, defying the ubiquitous secret police. This time I keep tripping over them. Dissent is as dangerous as ever, but people are fed up. I have met one Iraqi after another courageous enough to express their dissatisfaction with Saddam's rule--quietly and often indirectly. One told me he has no portrait of the dictator in his house. Another confided that his son was planning to leave the country to avoid military service. "If the Americans invade, [the Iraqis] won't fight," says a Western diplomat. "They are so tired of the sanctions and the madness and the hardship, they'll just withdraw to their houses and families and wait till it's over." That attitude has spread to the regime's top levels. Another diplomat says: "You have a few drinks--even with a minister here or there--and pretty soon they're saying, 'Tell the Americans to do it quick'."
Iraqi officialdom hasn't lost its breathtaking capacity for self-delusion. Baghdad's official line is that Iraq won the war in Kuwait. Iraqis have to be very careful how they explain this notion; it's a tricky idea, and muddling it up could get them hauled off to jail and possibly killed. Hashimi does it well. He directs the Organization for Peace, Solidarity and Friendship, a sort of liaison agency for Iraq's foreign sympathizers. In 1990, he says, the United States began surrounding Iraq, and Saddam realized that an invasion was imminent. "We entered Kuwait as a defensive move and we succeeded, thank God," Hashimi explains. Here he chooses his words with care: "That's what forced Bush to ask for a unilateral ceasefire from Iraq." Now you know.
Baghdad's account of the war is almost plausible, compared with its spin on last week's presidential referendum. Perhaps, as the Iraqis claim, the vote was unanimous. The ballots were numbered to correspond to the voters, so only the hopelessly suicidal would have voted against Saddam. The regime has often punished the disloyalty of individuals by killing their families. But Iraq says its latest presidential election was more democratic than America's. "George Bush was elected by less than 50 percent of the electorate," said the English-language Iraq Daily, "whereas Saddam Hussein was elected by 100 percent."
One other thing has not changed: as always, Iraq is on the verge of war with the United States and its allies. Most Iraqis seem convinced it's going to happen this time. Even so, some diplomats in Baghdad continue to hope otherwise. "Given that all Saddam Hussein has ever cared about is his own survival, there is still a third way," says one. "If he has to choose between humiliation and survival, he'll choose survival." By cooperating with U.N. inspectors, Saddam might risk losing all his weapons of mass destruction--but he could win an end to sanctions. And when his oil wells go back into full production, and the inspectors have gone home, he won't need long to rebuild his arsenal.
Many Iraqis are privately praying their president will avoid a war. "I cannot speak," said one professional man, the father of a large family, "but my heart is full." Like most Iraqi men of his generation, he wasted a decade and a half in the military, fighting wars Saddam started and ultimately lost. He sounded pretty eloquent to me.