Waiting for War

Do Iraqis want an American invasion to free them from Saddam Hussein? An American journeys to Iraq, where he finds a people battered by twenty years of war and sanctions and 30 years of Saddam Hussein’s rule praying an invasion does not come.

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. In a far corner of the yard, two large fish, filleted and rammed onto iron spikes, cook slowly on the outer edge of a fire circle in a Sumerian style of smoking meat that is over six thousand years old. “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.” Quassem's yard, edged with olive, banana, and citrus trees, houses a small sculpture garden, with exquisite works in bronze and marble, and inside the middle-class home, a gallery displays fifty paintings and sculptures by Iraqi artists. “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. Kareem Mahood, who sells televisions and appliances in a brightly-lit, air-conditioned store on Karrada Street in Baghdad's upscale commercial district, asks, ”We have not attacked the US, so why are they planning to attack us? Look,” he continued, ”we have oil, and you have money. You want the oil; well, we do not want to drink our oil. Why can't we just do business?” Salah Dinar, a music store owner, echoes these sentiments. “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.”

There can be no doubt that Iraqi people do not like having their human rights violated by their government, but even the threat of war is a further erosion of those rights. Noor Skaik, a primary school teacher in Basra shakes her fist and asks, “Why is your government threatening us? What about our human rights?” Many Iraqi families have chosen not to enroll their children in school this fall, preferring instead to put money for registration and supplies towards preparation in the event of a war. Other families have sent their children to live in uncertain circumstances in Jordan or Syria, thinking they will at least be safe from US bombs. Shop owners in Baghdad report that business has dropped in the last two months. “People are watching the news, and waiting,” says Tamal al-Hussein, who sells crystal and other fine glass ware. Not surprisingly, he reports, people are stockpiling emergency items—food, water, batteries, kerosene. Luxury items, such as televisions and crystal decanters, gather dust on shelves.

Zainab Fartous, an English teacher and mother of four with a quick smile and lively eyes, knows firsthand the grave consequences of war. She is the center of gravity in an extended family of 25 people, all living under one roof in the al-Jumeriyyah neighborhood of Basra. 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 talk is cheerful, mostly about a group of Americans whom we both know and who lived in the neighborhood for two months in the summer of 2000. Stories are told. 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, 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.

Like millions of very poor people in Iraq, there is little that Zainab and her family can do to prepare and protect themselves from war, and the risks that war presents are enormous. “Of course war will be hardest on people who are poor,” says Tourben Due, head of the UN World Food Program in Iraq. Consider that most of Iraq's 24 million citizens depend heavily on a monthly food ration distributed by the government and monitored by the UN Oil-For-Food Program. UNICEF recently termed it “almost total dependence.” For some families, the Spartan contents of the ration—flour, sugar, rice, lentils, cooking oil, tea, soap—comprise their entire income. According to Due, people actually spend their food to obtain medicine or clothing. Because this food is imported, distribution begins at the ports, and continues overland through an elaborate countrywide system. Disruption of this system, especially if it occurs over a period of months, will imperil people. An aerial assault targeting civilian infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and the electrical grid, could provoke a humanitarian catastrophe. “Pregnant and lactating women as well as young children are the most likely victims,” a UNICEF report stated in 2002.

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, an almost meaningless sum, and food prices in Iraq are extremely volatile. After the September 11th attacks, when prices rose sharply, the World Food Program had to intervene. According to UNICEF, “chaos” will be the “immediate effect” of a war that interrupts the distribution of food in Iraq. “Famine on a large scale” and widespread starvation are possible consequences. 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.”

Dr. Assad Essa, Chief Resident at Basra Pediatrics and Maternity Hospital, considers war inevitable. "The hospital is preparing. Besides the health sector, we should be preparing in every aspect of society, because we know that America wants to attack. If it is not today, it will be tomorrow.” He also sounds a note I hear from many Americans. “Invading Iraq will be bad for Iraq and for America. It will not make Americans safer from violent acts.” And like many Iraqis, he believes the US government is “making pretexts for war.” He offers this straightforward analysis: “The US wants to control the resources of other countries, especially rich countries.” Dr. Nazar al-Ambergy, Law School Dean at Baghdad University, elaborates. “At some point, the US will claim non-cooperation with weapons inspections or support for terrorism. It is under no real obligation to provide proof, because it lives by the law of the strongest.” I asked Dr. al-Ambergy what he thought of possible long-term US military presence in Iraq, after an invasion. “What you describe,” he said, “is occupation.”

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,” Mohammad, a taxi driver who fought in the Iran-Iraq war, explained. “Everyday 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, just as they suffer directly from the economic embargo and no-fly-zone bombings. As Dr. Essa put it, “The US government does not care about any people. The sanctions and this war are anti-human.”

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