In late September, as the Bush administration continued its deployment of weaponry and military personnel to the Middle East, I traveled with seven other Americans on a fact-finding mission to Iraq. How do the people of Iraq view the threat to invade their country? How has this threat affected their lives? And how will they be affected if there is an invasion? These are some of the questions I brought with me as I talked with Iraqi parents and children, shopkeepers, teachers, doctors, and artists.
Quassem Alsabti, a man who has moved comfortably in Iraqi literary and artistic circles for decades, stands in the center of his lawn among a group of international friends, Italian, French, American. In front of him, a table spread with Middle Eastern appetizers and drinks beckons. “This is what I love,” he says, “bringing people together to eat and drink and laugh, and to talk about art and life.” Later, in private, he apologized for the small turnout. “People are not going to gallery openings or receptions now. They are preoccupied with war.”
“I have an exhibit of paintings opening in three weeks,” he continues. “I am not going to stop my work. But let me tell you something. If the US invades, I will send my family to Jordan and sit here in my yard with my gun and wait.”
The Bush administration portrays itself as acting on behalf of the Iraqi people, characterizing its military plans as a “war of liberation,” but Quassem Alsabti isn't alone in opposing a US-led invasion. Salah Dinar, a music store owner, says, “We want to be independent, to control our own resources, to live in peace.” Some people, like Waleed Mohammed, are more blunt. “Leave us alone. It is our problem.”
Zainab Fartous, an English teacher and mother of four with a quick smile and lively eyes, knows firsthand the grave consequences of war. As I step through a crowd of children into her home, she lifts her expressive face and says, “Welcome! Welcome. This is your home.” There is no furniture. For two hours, we sit on the floor. Children come and go. The concrete walls amplify our laughter and the voices of children. Throughout, Zainab is a gracious hostess—arranging for tea and pillows, smiling, answering questions—and an attentive mother, playing, comforting, responding. Then, in one private and unexpected moment, she drops her guard. Turning an intense, wide-eyed face toward me, she asks, “What is the mood in the US. Do you think they will attack?” My response eclipses the light in her face.
On January 25, 1999, a US warplane fired a guided missile that exploded in Zainab's neighborhood in Basra, killing five children including her 7-year-old son, Heider, and permanently injuring her other son, Mustafa. The block she lives on is now referred to as “Missile Street,” because so many houses were damaged or destroyed in the explosion. An Air Force spokesperson informed me later that year that the “missile went off course” The “problem,” he added quickly, “has been corrected.” But Zainab knows well that if there is war, other bombs will stray, other children will die.
I ask Zainab what she needs. “We need clothes for the children, especially coats for winter, and shoes. We need food and medicine.” Daily life under sanctions remains a battle for survival that war will only intensify. As a school teacher, Zainab earns less than $5 per month, and food prices in Iraq are volatile. We give Zainab money our delegation collected in the US for her family and for a neighborhood emergency fund. We renew our friendship and promise to return to the US and continue to oppose the war. “Inshala,” she says anxiously, “God willing.”
People in Iraq have lived through two decades of war, beginning with the Iran-Iraq conflict and continuing to this day with the warfare of economic sanctions and no-fly-zone bombing, which Iraqis view as a continuation of the Gulf War. They are, without question, weary. “You have to understand,” said Mohammad, a taxi driver who fought in the Iran-Iraq war. “Every day we live not knowing what tomorrow will bring. If my car breaks, can I repair it? Will there be medicine for our children when they are sick? And now, will there be an invasion? We do not want more war. We want peace.”
I met with Iraqi people privately, away from government minders, in a wide variety of situations. No one I spoke with welcomes an invasion by American forces. It is not only the need to heal that prompts their opposition to war against their country, but also a sense of justice. In their minds, a pre-emptive attack is clearly unjust. They are frightened, angry, and aggrieved. They know innocent civilians will bear the brunt of this war.