The Mind Of The Iraqis

It's impossible to know exactly what hit the Shaab market in Baghdad last Wednesday morning. The Iraqi government says the explosions killed at least 14 civilians, and dozens of others were injured. Having visited the site a few hours afterward, I have no reason to doubt those figures. The dead and wounded had been taken away, but agitated residents pointed out pools of blood, severed body parts, even the spot on the ground where some swore they had seen a severed head. "We are all civilians, and yet many people were killed here," said Hamdia Ahmed Hussein al-Reccabe, a 35-year-old schoolteacher in a flowing black abaya. "My brother, his wife and my mother are all injured." Then she blurted: "All Iraqis are Fedayeen [freedom fighters] for President Saddam Hussein--God bless him!"

Al-Shaab is a working-class Shiite area, the kind of place where U.S. military planners expected strong grass-roots support for the war to topple the Iraqi dictator. It might have been that kind of place before the bombing. Now its residents are cursing the Bush administration for attacking their homes and families. Survivors told me that a U.S. warplane had fired two missiles into an empty oil tanker parked in the street. American military spokesmen said they doubted that the explosion was the Coalition's doing, and suggested that it might have been Iraqi antiaircraft fire or even an intentional strike by Saddam to cause civilian casualties. "I think it's entirely possible that this may in fact have been an Iraqi missile that went up and came down," said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks the next day at a Central Command press briefing. "Or, given the behavior of the regime lately, it may have been a deliberate attack."

Friday evening an even bloodier explosion ripped through a crowded market in Al-Shoala, another working-class Shiite district. Nearly 60 people were reported dead, and scores were injured. Once again the Iraqis blamed the Americans, and once again the Americans denied targeting any civilian neighborhoods. By the next morning, the scene and its surroundings were effectively sanitized of any bomb fragments or other evidence. For some reason, dump trucks and backhoes were busy removing a fetid mountain of trash from a lot nearby.

In at least one respect, it doesn't make much difference who bombed the two markets. Either way, Iraqis are blaming the Americans, and Saddam Hussein is reinforcing his position among his people. It's easy for foreigners to underestimate his intelligence because of his repeated miscalculations about matters of war and peace. But when it comes to manipulating the minds of his countrymen, Saddam Hussein is a malevolent genius. He understands intimately the intricacies of the Iraqi psyche: the tribal loyalties, the stubborn sense of national pride, the painfully learned distrust of America's promises and, above all, the power of fear. For 35 years, first as head of Iraq's secret police and then as president, he has programmed an almost superstitious sense of terror into his people. When he dies, few Iraqis will entirely believe it unless they see the body with their own eyes--if then. He knows exactly which themes to strum, and which dark fears to evoke. Now he's using those skills in the fight of his life.

The Iraqi president isn't merely surviving. He's started looking like himself again. In his second televised speech since the war's beginning, he seemed healthy, relaxed and far more confident than he did in his shaky first appearance, just a few hours after a U.S. air strike failed to kill him. (The speaker seems to have been Saddam himself, not a double, although he may have been taped.) Last week he taunted the U.S. forces, promised his people a speedy victory and singled out several of his frontline commanders by name for special praise. To Iraqi ears it was more than an expression of gratitude: it was a threat. I know exactly who and where you are, Saddam was saying. If you are loyal, you will be rewarded. If you betray me, you will regret it.

Some Iraqis throw up their hands at the Americans' evident failure to see how Saddam maintains his power. "Why don't the Americans bomb the television station?" complains a frustrated Iraqi. "It's just making advertisements for him. All day he tells Iraqis to fight and to stay united. Why don't the Americans take over the TV? Or at least get him off the air?"

That's not so easy. Thursday night a Coalition missile nailed the Iraqi TV transmitter at the Information Ministry complex. An hour later the station was back on the air, apparently broadcasting from a mobile unit. Programming resumed with a film about the 12th-century Islamic hero Saladin, a Kurd from Saddam's hometown, Tikrit. "The Iraqis have confiscated so much transmission equipment from foreign TV crews that they can stay on the air for a long, long time," joked one European TV reporter. The signal may now be reaching only Baghdad and its suburbs, but that's the audience that really matters to military planners on both sides. "Eventually [the Americans] will have to come to Baghdad," the Iraqi Defense minister, Sultan Hashem Ahmed, told a recent press conference. "And we'll be waiting for them here. We all know where the final battle will be."

There's been no sign yet of any American competition for Iraq's airwaves. "U.S. and U.K. soldiers are trying to take physical control of the television station in Basra," says an Iraqi who works at the Information Ministry, "but so far they haven't been able to put their propaganda on the air." That may be no great loss. Months of concerted American sales efforts, public and private, have elicited nothing but derision from many Iraqis. A few weeks ago I interviewed Prof. Huda Ammash, the only woman among the 16 members of the ruling Baath Party's highest decision-making body, the Iraq Regional Command. She described getting a phone call urging her to defect. "It was a recorded message made by someone with a strong American accent," the U.S.-educated biologist told me. "Couldn't they at least have found a fluent Arabic speaker? Surely there are Iraqi exiles who could be paid to do the job. But if they want to be clumsy in their propaganda, then good. I won't tell them how to do their job."

One way the Coalition sabotages itself is by offending the Iraqis' sense of national honor. There's still no guarantee that the Americans have learned from their blunder two weeks ago in Umm Qasr, when U.S. Marines celebrated their landing in the southern port city by raising the American flag. Their officers quickly ordered that the flag be taken down, but that wasn't the only incident of its kind. A European journalist described another encounter in the south between U.S. troops and a group of Iraqis, apparently friendly and even welcoming at first. Given the chance, the Iraqis themselves might have begun tearing down the giant portraits of Saddam Hussein that dominate every public space in Iraq. But the Americans beat them to it--and the Iraqis took the gesture as an insult.

Even in zones under Coalition control, Iraqis are reluctant to show how much they hate the dictator. His agents are practically everywhere, especially the ruthless militia known as the Saddam Fedayeen. But the Fedayeen are only part of what scares Iraqis. Everyone remembers what happened in 1991. Back then, Saddam Hussein was history. Rebels had seized control in 14 towns and cities across southern Iraq, and the Iraqi Army was running for its life. As a correspondent in the area at the time, I helped a group of about 60 Iraqi soldiers --find a U.S. military unit so they could surrender. One group, fresh out of military school and decked out in dress uniforms and plastic sabers, surrendered in formation. But suddenly, after occupying a chunk of southern Iraq for about two weeks, American forces withdrew, leaving the rebels to their fate. Pro-Saddam forces quickly regained control and punished the entire region mercilessly for the revolt. "The people in the south are afraid the same thing will happen to them again," says an Iraqi acquaintance whose initial exuberance about the U.S. advance has dissipated into a wary waiting game. "They're afraid the Americans will stop the war and go away, just like they did in 1991."

Already, many southerners think the Americans are abandoning them again--this time in the rush to reach Baghdad. My NEWSWEEK colleague Rod Nordland saw how fast the welcome faded in Az Zubayr, about 12 miles outside Basra. He had followed the first military convoys up from Safwan, where young men danced in the streets, and smiling people on the roadside flashed the V sign at the passing columns. By the time he reached Az Zubayr, the greetings were more subdued. People in the crowds were grumbling about the slowness of aid deliveries and insisting, "The Americans are just here to take our oil."

Within days, the city was practically a no-go zone. Four British soldiers had been killed there, and a shipment of food and water had to be distributed under the protection of troops with fixed bayonets. Saddam's enforcers are back in business. In the first days of the invasion they kept a low profile, evidently thinking they were in danger of being hunted down by Coalition troops. But the force's main body just kept going, leaving only small detachments to guard the rear. The loyalists came out of hiding, and the intimidation resumed.

An Iraqi lieutenant colonel in civilian clothes approached Nordland in Az Zubayr. The officer said that on the first day of the invasion he was in a vehicle trying to escape from the front when he heard jets approaching. He jumped out and ran, and a missile destroyed his vehicle. He found a U.S. unit and tried to surrender, but the soldiers had no facilities for prisoners and turned him away. Walking back into Az Zubayr, he found the town full of Saddam supporters openly agitating against foreigners. He begged Nordland to help him find a Coalition unit where he could surrender. Otherwise he was sure Saddam supporters would get him. "Everyone ran away, they just ran away," he said. "There's no percentage in fighting for Saddam." His relief was visible when he was handed over to a British Black Watch Regiment detachment that was guarding several other Iraqi prisoners.

Saddam has virtually no support in northern Iraq--and American forces got a much warmer reception there. NEWSWEEK's Babak Dehghanpisheh talked to residents of the Kurdish areas outside Baghdad's control, where 1,000 members of the 173d Airborne parachuted in last week to join hundreds of U.S. Special Forces already on the ground. The noise of American planes has meant some sleepless nights for Hussein Salih, a shopkeeper who lives near the Bakrajo airstrip outside the Kurdish city of As Sulaymaniyah. Not that Salih is complaining. The only thing that bothers him is trying to understand why southern Iraqis haven't risen up and joined the Americans.

Some Kurds admit they're worried the American presence may invite retaliation from Baghdad. Fereydoon Khorsheed, 28, a shopkeeper in the city of Harir, strolled to work on Thursday morning and was surprised to see hundreds of American soldiers at the nearby airstrip. "The Americans bring danger into our area, but it's a risk we're willing to take." says Khorsheed. "We want to end the Saddam regime." Other Kurds have taken to the hills. Jeyran Mohammad Sohrab, 83, is living in a plastic tent about 45 minutes from the front-line city of Chamchamal. "We're afraid of chemical weapons," she says. "We don't know what to expect from Saddam. We can only wait until the Americans finish him. Then I will sacrifice a sheep for a celebration." Down in the city, a Kurdish frontline commander rubbed his hands in glee after Americans hit an Iraqi-government position nearby. "We want more," he said. "Give us more bombs."

--The inhabitants of Al-Shaab and Al-Shoala had seen enough bombing. On Wednesday afternoon I rode out to the scene of the first explosion. The highway ran directly past two blazing oil pits, roaring fires that spewed immense plumes of greasy black smoke into the sky. Baghdad's worst dust storm in years had become a cold, muddy rain. At the scene of the explosion, jagged chunks of shrapnel littered the roadside, along with the burned-out remains of more than a half dozen passenger sedans, some of them upside down. A row of car-repair shops was a gutted ruin, the wreckage all gunmetal gray against the orange sky. Next door was the house where Hamdia's brother lived. Another relative led me through the place. Every window was smashed, and there was blood on the glass-strewn floor.

Many of the victims were taken to a small private hospital nearby in the sprawling Shiite slum known as Saddam City. At least seven children were among them, said Dr. Sermed Al-Gailani. "Two of them were just 3 or 4 months old," he said. "One was bleeding from the ear, and the other had shrapnel in his skull." There was a sense of betrayal in the doctor's voice. "What they say about precision weapons isn't true," he said. "These are my people. It's my home. No one wants a foreigner to come and attack one's home." I supposed it was possible that a U.S. pilot could fire on an oil tanker, mistaking it for a missile launcher in the smoke, the dust and the rain. The next day I went back to the site. There was no sign of an oil tanker amid the charred metal.

Stray bombs aren't the biggest worry for some Iraqis. What really frightens them is the idea that America might again pull out and leave Saddam in power. "Some people think America is still supporting Saddam, the way it did in the '80s," an acquaintance told me last week. "They wonder if this is a way to get rid of his enemies once and for all." It was a twisted, paranoid thought--but it fit right into the scary, surreal world that Baghdad has become.

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