The New York Review of Books
March 27, 2003
In Amman, the capital of Jordan, the waiting is intense. "It is the uncertainty that's killing us," said a young woman in one of the city's ministries as freezing rain lashed the streets outside. When is the war going to start? How long will it last? What will happen? Everyone wants to know, but nobody has the answers. Amman is heavy with journalists, spies, and diplomats. Jordanians are angry and frightened by the prospect of war, but the many Iraqi exiles living there are excited, although apprehensive. They are daring to hope that the days of the "Saddamites," as they call them, are truly numbered.
In the bar of the Hyatt hotel I talked with Ibrahim Janabi, a leader of the Iraqi National Accord (INA), one of Iraq's opposition groups, which was set up in 1990 and includes many defectors. He wore a dramatic white scarf and a brown leather jacket, and reminisced about his time as an Iraqi agent in London in the late 1980s. He had been posted there to coordinate the operations of Saddam Hussein's various intelligence organizations. "My cover was to be a graduate student in information science." Something went wrong, though. Mr. Janabi was recalled to Baghdad and thrown into jail. A few years after he was released he fled to Jordan and joined the opposition.
Mr. Janabi was in a state of high excitement. He told me that he had just received word from a courier that men from his organization, working together with Americans operating undercover in Baghdad, had set off "three or four" bombs in buildings belonging to different intelligence services. They had exploded at night and only a few people had been injured. Naturally, he said, the government of Saddam Hussein was keeping the incidents quiet because otherwise Iraqis would think that the security services were losing their grip. Now, he chuckled, intelligence organizations were at each other's throats, each blaming the other.
Mr. Janabi went on to explain how "our men still inside the regime" would, when the right moment came— and he thought that that would be very soon—"start to do their duties, to capture all the important locations." He said they would take over the army and security forces and, "at the same time, not let Saddam or his close circle use chemical or biological weapons against the Iraqi people or allied forces." He did not say just how. But he added darkly that "top people" in Baghdad "know that if they are not with us they will die." He also predicted that once the military campaign began, whole towns and regions would immediately go over to the opposition.
As Mr. Janabi rapturously described his view of the coming liberation of Iraq and the campaign, which he said had already started, I was quite aware that I could not check on a word he said. As for the bombs, the story might be true, but it might equally be a fantasy or part of a deliberate disinformation campaign, the aim of which might be to begin to get such stories circulating inside Iraq. A diplomat I talked to said he did not believe a word of it. As for Mr. Janabi's description of a regime that was so rotten it would collapse at the first push, this may or may not turn out to be true, but it is the sort of thing one expects Mr. Janabi and his friends to say.
There are believed to be up to 300,000 Iraqis living in Jordan. Most of them are from modest backgrounds, laborers and their families, but there are also tens of thousands of educated middle-class families who have been forced to flee Iraq, either for political or economic reasons, or both. At the moment, thousands more are coming because they want to get out of the way of the bombs or the chaos in the aftermath of the expected fall of Saddam. Because of this influx the price of renting houses and apartments is shooting up in Amman.
On the outskirts of the city is a district where taxis and buses arrive from and leave for Baghdad, a drive of some twelve hours. The Iraqi taxi drivers are looking for business and some of the buses have portraits of Saddam plastered onto their front windshields. None of the drivers I spoke to seemed to think there would be a war because, said a driver called Zubeidi, "all the countries are with Iraq." Still, he added, if there was a war, "children and men will all fight the US." Another man, a cleric called Sheikh Majid al-Masadani, said, "We will fight with Saddam. He is our flag and our boss. If someone came to take your country, would you accept it?"
Later, in a restaurant, I told Ahmad, the young Palestinian who ran it, what the Iraqi drivers had said. Ahmad is passionately against a war but he said, "To tell you the truth all the Iraqis hate Saddam, but those drivers, they come and go and don't know who works for the police. That is Saddam's success, to make people afraid." But things may be changing. At least Jamila, an exile who left in the 1970s, thought so. She told me that over the last few weeks, talking by phone to her family and friends in Baghdad, "the fear has gone." She told me that the people she talked to were asking, "When are they coming?" meaning the Americans. Until now, she said, no Iraqi would talk openly on the phone because they were frightened that the Mukhabarat, the secret police, were listening. Now she said they were excited. "They are not afraid of bombing, their fear is that the US will pull back and that Saddam will stay."
In Jamila's house I met a group of other Iraqi exiles, all of whom had come to Amman in the past few years. I was told their views were fairly typical among the exiles, but of course that would be hard to know. Because they knew one another and trusted Jamila they agreed to talk to me so long as I did not use their real names. One of the group had fled to Jordan in 1999 because the Mukhabarat had asked him to go abroad and kill a member of his family who was involved in opposition politics. Apparently this is not uncommon. The logic is that it is easier for a trusted family member than for an unknown assassin to see the intended victim and then kill him.
When I asked him if he would support an American-led attack, he shifted uncomfortably and said, "Do the American people really want to help the Iraqi people and install democracy? I doubt it." However when I pressed him he said, "If they are just coming to free the Iraqi people then all the Iraqis will be behind them; but, if they are coming to stay, every Iraqi will fight. We don't know their intentions."
Another man, whom we agreed to call Mohammed, had been in Jordan for a year. One of his brothers had been in a sensitive government job, but he had made some incautious remarks about Saddam. The Mukhabarat arrested him at his office and he was shot soon afterward. They claimed that he had been trying to escape. For more than three months his family couldn't find his body. Finally his father was summoned to the Mukhabarat and told that his son had been a "traitor and criminal." He was given a death certificate allowing him to collect his son's remains. But the Mukhabarat had sent the body to a morgue under a false name, and that is why the family had not been able to find it.
Mohammed was a military technician. In his field there had been a number of fatal accidents with military equipment. The reason, he said, was that the equipment was old and lacked spare parts. However, the authorities needed a scapegoat and because of his brother he was likely to be accused. The investigator into the accidents was friendly though, and tipped him off, giving him enough time to flee.
Mohammed's view of the possible coming war was this: "Imagine I have cancer in my hand. I want to eliminate it. Whether the doctor is American, English, or Jewish, all I wish is for the doctor to carry out the operation and rid me of this cancer. After I am cured this surgeon wants to be paid, and I will happily pay him and we will remain friends. But if his fee for curing me is [for me] to give another part of my body, then no way." Although he was talking in metaphors, Mohammed's explanation seemed consistent with what the others in the group thought. In the view of most of them, the Americans would be welcome to free Iraq from Saddam. They could make deals over oil, but any attempt to take more permanent control of the country or its oil would quickly turn Iraqis against their liberators.
In the group of seven Iraqis only one said he was against an American attack. Ali, a Shiite from Najaf in the south, said he had participated in the "intifada" in Iraq against Saddam after the Gulf War ended in 1991. He had been in Amman since 1998. The 1991 uprising had been encouraged by Bush senior, but, fearing both the disintegration of Iraq and an Iranian-backed Islamic revolution, Bush had backed off and allowed Saddam's troops to regroup and crush the Shiites in the south and the Kurds in the north.
After the intifada, Shiite men were rounded up and imprisoned and many were killed. However, the authorities did not know exactly who had taken part in it and who had not. Ali was picked up and crammed into a cell with fifty-seven others. The guards then tossed in scorpions and said they would kill anyone who tried to kill one. In the next cell, Ali said, men were forced to "sit" on bottles.
Ali told me that he did not want the Americans to invade because of the experience of 1991. He said that American planes had bombed the rebels, a claim which provoked protests from the other Iraqis present who said that while American planes had been flying and had let Iraqi helicopter gunships do the killing, the US planes had not actually done the bombing themselves. Whether they did or did not remained a matter of dispute. Still, Ali stuck to his guns. The Americans were only after Iraqi oil, he said, they wanted to break a link in a chain of countries —Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Iran— "whose people don't want peace with Israel," and they did not want "Muslim rule in the area." He said that after Saddam was gone, Shiites, who make up some 60 percent of the population, "should rule Iraq," though others could have a voice in a new legislature. The others present loudly objected once again.
Next to Ali was Ahmed, a quiet man, a pious Shiite, I was told, who was also from Najaf. He had been in Amman since 1997. After the intifada, in which he had also taken part, he had been thrown into jail. Before he went in he weighed 190 pounds but, eleven months later, when he came out, he weighed only eighty-four. He demonstrated how his hands had been tied and he had been beaten while hung on the back of a door. He told me that he had also been hung upside down and beaten, and that bones at the bottom of his legs had been chipped by the beatings.
I asked him what he thought Shiites would do in case of an American attack. He replied that men like him would do exactly as they were told by their grand ayatollah, Sayyid Ali Husaini Sistani. But, I asked, since the Ayatollah is a public figure in Iraq, wouldn't he be expected to tell his followers to support Saddam? Ahmed said, "He has a system of representatives and agents to give us his real comments. I think he will say get rid of Saddam." Ahmed's view was that the Americans were "a necessary evil," but, like the others, he warned that they should not overstay their welcome.
Mariam came to Amman in the year 2000. She had been a secretary before she left Baghdad and was not involved in politics. Her parents and sister had already left, and she wanted to join them. She said that Iraqis "want the regime gone once and for all." Mariam is a member of Iraq's ancient Chaldean Christian minority and she wore a crucifix around her neck. She said that after 1991 the general situation in Iraq had deeply deteriorated, adding that this was also true for relations between Muslims and Christians there. But some of the other Iraqis present began shouting that this was not true.
I said that in the West we often read that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, especially children, have died because of UN sanctions—deaths that Saddam could have prevented by spending oil money on food and medicines, not arms and palaces—and that one of the main anti-war arguments was that Iraqis should be left to get rid of Saddam themselves. To the first she said that sanctions were the fault of Saddam for occupying Kuwait. As for getting rid of Saddam, she said incredulously, "Yes, but how can we do this without help from outside? We don't have the power." I then asked her if she wanted a war to get rid of Saddam. She paused and then said, almost in a whisper, "Yes."
When I asked the Iraqis in exile about dire predictions from some humanitarian and anti-war organizations that tens of thousands or more might die in an attack, they had several responses. First they said that people were already dying today under Saddam. Secondly they said that, from their experience of the last war, precision-guided missiles were, on the whole, accurate, and as for long-term postwar consequences this did not seem to worry them either. Jamila told me that the people she spoke to on the phone or who had just arrived from Baghdad "think the war is going to be very short." If that is the case, she said, then the country would rapidly be opened up for aid and reconstruction. She also told me that people she spoke to said they feared what Saddam might do to them following an attack—i.e., he might create a humanitarian crisis for the sake of a propaganda coup, beyond what American or British bombs could do.
As for the huge anti-war demonstrations in the West and the fact that most Arabs and Muslims are also against a war, they said simply, and bitterly, that it was easy for them since they didn't have to live under Saddam.
Taher Masri is a former prime minister of Jordan, a former foreign minister, and former parliamentary speaker. Like 60 percent of Jordan's 5.32 million people, he is of Palestinian origin. I told him that I had seen the anti-war demonstration in London two days earlier in which, depending on whom you believed, anywhere between 750,000 and two million people took part. He said he had been delighted to observe this, and the other demonstrations, because it meant that there were now "two Wests. Europe is now a different West from America and luckily Europe is taking this position because it is preventing, or delaying, the clash of civilizations, so anti-Western feeling is directed toward the US and its policies." He added that he had been surprised by the tone of the demonstrations in Europe because "we thought it was just us, but we saw in Europe that they were not pro-Iraq but anti-American, so it seems this is spreading all over." (He did not mention the large demonstrations in the US.)
What Mr. Masri, an urbane and sophisticated man, told me represented the views I was to hear from virtually all the working- and middle-class Jordanians and Palestinians I spoke to in Amman—views which, of course, led to dramatically different conclusions from those of most of the Iraqi exiles I had spoken to. Mr. Masri told me how his generation had aspired to "catch up with the twenty-first century" in all fields, economically, politically, and socially, but what they had got instead was simply "humiliation." He dismissed the rumors that Saddam Hussein might be offered exile in another Arab country. "This is not about Saddam, it is about Iraq, American hegemony, Palestine, the threat to Arab sovereignty, and the control of a major source of income—oil."
"If the US occupies and controls Iraq and uses its oil," Mr. Masri went on, "this will add to the frustration in this region and the feeling of humiliation will increase, just like the Palestinians feel...; so this will be translated into a lot of terrorist activity." He explained, as everyone else had, including the Iraqis I had met with, that there was anger about what was seen as the US's double standard in dealing with Iraq on the one hand and Israel on the other. "Sharon is destroying Palestine, and killing all kinds of life, and not just Sharon, and that has been going on for a long time. The core problem is still Palestine."
What worried him most, he said, was not the short-term repercussions of any attack but the far-reaching ones. Following Saddam's defeat, for example, the US might attempt and even succeed in forcing Palestinian leaders to accept "aborted solutions" on terms favorable to Sharon, but since they would not be just solutions they would only result in "a lull for a few years but then the cycle of violence will start again." He also said that a US occupation of Baghdad, "a major Arab and Islamic city for centuries," would conjure up images of Hulagu Khan, the Mongol warlord who destroyed Baghdad in 1258, and lead to disastrous consequences for America and the Arab world. "All these factors boil inside us: it is bad for you and bad for us."
Mr. Masri did not want to talk about Jordan's domestic politics but he sent me to see a friend of his, also a former minister, who agreed to talk so long as I did not mention his name. I asked this man why, if Jordan, like other Arab countries, was so strongly against the war, there were US troops here and why the government did not simply stand up to Washington and say no. He replied: "We are weightless. We claim to be friends and to be influential in Washington but really we are only recipients of US aid and advice. The government must lie and say there are no American troops, but in the east [of Jordan] they can see them. But we can't ask them to leave." The reason, he said, was that the fate of the government was too closely tied to the US and this was true of many other Arab countries.
The joke I often heard in Amman is that Jordan is caught between "Iraq and a hard place"—the latter being Israel and the Palestinians. But the situation is even more complex than that. Of course, Jordan has close and valuable ties to the US, but it also has extremely close economic ties to Iraq.
Bassem Awadallah is Jordan's minister of planning. For the last few months he has been flying around the world looking for help in case of war, which he says will cost Jordan dearly. In the wake of Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, Jordan became Iraq's opening to the world and its port of Aqaba has flourished thanks to Jordanian business with Iraq. Jordan also threw in its lot with Saddam during that war, something that many Gulf states especially have not forgotten. And neither has a grateful Saddam. All of Jordan's oil comes from Iraq. Every year it imports oil valued at between $900 million and $1 billion worth, but of that, says Mr. Awadallah, $500 to 600 million is either "free or at a discount." The $400 million that Jordan then needs to find to pay for the balance is not paid to Iraq in cash but rather through barter with products from Jordanian factories, many of which survive on this trade alone.
In a post-Saddam Iraq, its sanctions lifted, all of this Iraqi largesse, the free oil and the jobs and exports that come with the barter trade, will be lost. The immediate impact of this shock will cost the Jordanian economy, whose size is about $7 billion, according to Mr. Awadallah, about $1.5 billion. Citing a single example, Mr. Awadallah said that of 11,000 Jordanian trucks, not including oil tankers, 3,500 carry goods to and from Iraq.
Mr. Awadallah said that the Iraqi oil and barter trade was allowed by the UN, a view that was questioned by a Western diplomat I spoke to. He said that it had been more of a case of turning a blind eye in order to help Jordan. He also said, however, that he had "not much sympathy" with the Jordanian argument because the country had made so much money from smuggling in violation of sanctions, and especially from Palestinians who had been expelled from the Gulf states after Saddam's occupation of Kuwait, and who had then had to pay dearly for land and houses when they arrived in Jordan. He added that after any war Jordan would indeed go through a tough transition, especially since "on the open market the Iraqis won't be buying the shoddy goods they get from Jordanian factories now." Today Iraq is Jordan's top trading partner. The US comes second.
Mr. Awadallah expects that when the final figures for 2002 are in, Jordan's real growth for the year will have been 5 percent. He told me that unlike in 1991, when there had been a lot of support from ordinary people for Saddam himself, "I don't think there is now." He said, "Now they are concerned about the Iraqi people and the Iraqi state and its survival. They are concerned about the plight of the Palestinians and their malnutrition, poverty, and unemployment, but not so much by the fate of Arafat. They are concerned about the plight of Iraqis and Palestinians, but uppermost in our minds is the idea that only a stronger Jordan can serve Palestine and Iraq better. Otherwise we will be a weak link and won't be able to help."
Downtown in Amman the economic crisis has already hit. Just when the economy began to turn downward depends on whom you ask. At the Folklore Museum, built into the side of the city's Roman amphitheater, I saw only one other foreigner. The man at the door told me that there had been virtually no tourists for the last two months. In a shop selling rugs and coins and other things that tourists might buy, Asem, the owner, told me that business had never recovered after September 11. Shopkeepers who sold household goods told me that the current Palestinian intifada had been devastating. Before that, Palestinians who worked in Israel often came here to spend their money. Now they were locked out of Israel and there was no work in the West Bank either.
Shops selling food appeared to be doing well and people told me that many were stocking up in anticipation of war. This is not because they don't expect there to be enough food but because they expect price hikes with the end of subsidized and free oil from Iraq.
Things are noticeably quieter in districts where shops are selling non-essential goods. I was invited for tea with Samir Fouad, who sells cloth. "Business has not been good since about 1990." I thought I had misheard, but his view was that everything had gone downhill from the moment Saddam invaded Kuwait. Did that mean, I asked him, that it would be good to get rid of him? He did not like Saddam, he said, but he did not like American policies either. "The US wants to have the whole world under its control. Look at North Korea. They say they have nuclear weapons but the Americans don't care because North Korea does not have oil." There was no democracy in the Arab world, he said, and this was the fault of the US because if people could elect their governments freely they would elect Islamic parties and the US and Britain did not want this. As for changing the Saddam regime, he said, "This is not the business of the US."
I asked both Jamila, the Iraqi exile who had left in the 1970s, and Ahmad, the young Palestinian who runs a restaurant, how the Iraqis would react to American troops. Jamila expected US troops to be welcomed with the traditional greeting of rosewater. What made her nervous was the fear that, lacking international support, the US might just back off at the last moment. "If he is left there now this megalomaniac will think he is God and those in the non-Iraqi Arab world will worship him as the man who stood up to the Americans and won."
Ahmad, on the other hand, said about the arrival of American troops, "Some may be happy to see them, but other Iraqis will fight against the US Army,...not because they like Saddam. In the Arab world we consider our land like our honor. No one can touch it. Everyone will hate the US—they do already—they will do something, crazy things, I don't know what."
—Amman, February 26, 2003