What Do Iraqis Think? In Climate of Fear, Few Clues


Saddam Hussein’s brutal thrust into Kuwait has been etched in black throughout the world, but there is no certain sign showing how it plays on the streets of Baghdad.

Anti-war protests, or even murmurs, are unknown in the capital, whatever might be on the Iraqis’ minds.

Hussein’s is a silent society, cowed by knock-in-the-night internal security. But in troubled times it can also be strongly nationalistic, streaked with pride over the country’s hard-fought war that drove an Iranian enemy into submission in the 1980s.

What do ordinary Iraqis want? How do they see themselves in the world?


For visitors to Iraq, the answers are difficult to plumb, because most Iraqis have been conditioned to display exaggerated caution around outside influences--a sort of safe-side xenophobia. Alert to the watchful eyes and keen ears of security agents and their informers, very few will speak with foreigners outside the demands of their jobs.

“Some Iraqis may now be wondering what they are doing occupying Kuwait, the country that helped them most in their war against Iran--but if so, they are not wondering out loud,” one Western diplomat who was based in the Persian Gulf region for years said in an interview Saturday.

Another diplomat who was stationed in Baghdad throughout the Iran-Iraq War agreed. “You could never get close to ordinary Iraqis,” he said. “The only ones we could talk to without putting them in jeopardy were our drivers, cooks and maids--and they were all government agents.”

But some signs emerge, often contradictory. For instance, educated and informed Iraqis often expressed disgust over the high-handed antics of Kuwaiti men who trekked north to Basra and Baghdad for whiskey-filled weekends, banned in their own country. For tradition-minded rural Iraqis, such behavior was even more shocking.


Nevertheless, as Hussein opened the doors to small private business over the past two years, Iraqi merchants knew what their countrymen wanted: all the luxury items that filled the shops of the neighboring Persian Gulf sheikdoms.

Along the broad streets of Baghdad, entrepreneurs stocked shelves with the latest household conveniences, import cosmetics and other symbols of the Western world. The Iraqis cannot afford the prices, and many good-life boutiques have gone sour, but customers still press against the windows for a covetous look.

There is perhaps no sharper example of Iraqi desires than the long lines at embassy visa offices. After nearly a decade of banning foreign travel, Hussein--who has not visited a Western capital in more than a decade--relaxed the restrictions last February. Tens of thousands have jumped at the chance.

“Wouldn’t you?” a retired chemist told a visitor soon after the ban was lifted. “I want to go to the States.”


One benefit of Hussein’s regime, which he describes as Arab socialist, has been a sharp jump in literacy in Iraq, making it one of the best-read nations in the Arab world. In art, architecture and literature, the country of 17 million produces at a worldly level. Galleries display abstract and Arabic-evocative paintings that have won critical praise in Europe.

At the same time, because they have been repeatedly drawn in by wars throughout their history, “they really do take pride in seeing themselves as the hard men of the Arab world,” a Western diplomat said.

But the long years of Hussein’s jingoism--he has formally been in power since 1979--his insistence that Iraqi culture is superior and his glorification of the ancient Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations have a dark side as well.

One shameful example is the Iraqi treatment of the millions of foreign workers who have kept the economy running both during and after the war with Iran.


Asian workers--Filipinos, Thais and Pakistanis--are treated shabbily in many Arab countries. The Iraqis have extended the behavior to their Arab brethren, Egyptians and Sudanese, as well. In a common scene at Baghdad’s International Airport, hundreds of Egyptian laborers are forced to sit in the hallways while other travelers take chairs in half-empty lounges.

And Hussein’s regime can be equally brutal to its own people.

Early in the gulf war, when things were going badly for Iraq and the strain was beginning to show on the populace, Hussein came up with a way to lower what was said to be a high rate of desertion from the Iraqi army.

Any deserter who was caught--and that was most of them--was taken to his home and executed in front of his family, which was then made to pay for the bullets used to kill him.


One French diplomat, leaving Baghdad after several years there, had this to say: “This is a very heavy place. The things that are natural in most places are unnatural here. To take a picture, to go outside the city, to be irreverent--all these are forbidden. When you see someone smile, you think you have made a big discovery.”

“The one thing that unites (Iraqis) is fear--fear of their government,” Augustus Richard Norton, a Middle East expert at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., declared.

But even the Iraqi leader cannot get it all his way, and in times of economic stress--like these--the government line is to blame the outside world. Iraq’s crushing foreign debt, for instance, is portrayed in the controlled press as an alien imposition, a view credited in part for the invasion of Kuwait, which rejected an Iraqi demand for erasure of its war debts.

And occasionally hairline fissures appear on the surface of the ordinary Iraqis’ hard shell. A few years ago, when the war with Iran was going badly for Iraq and casualties were high, an American visitor in Baghdad was surprised by the number of young men who nervously approached him to ask for help in obtaining a U.S. visa.


It was 1986, the year of the “black flags"--a symbol of mourning--and there were so many war dead that virtually every residential street in the Iraqi capital was aflutter with them. Alarmed at the effect this sight was having on morale, the government banned the display of these homemade flags.

But as the death toll mounted and food shortages worsened, the flags reappeared in spite of the ban--a small but, in the Iraqi context, exceedingly brave display of defiance.

These small gestures of dissent did not last long, however: The tide of battle began to change, for one thing, in part because of Iraq’s then-widespread use of poison gas. But 1986 also was the year that Iraq passed a law making criticism of the government punishable by sentences ranging from seven years’ imprisonment to death.

The grim joke at the time was that, if you got sentenced to seven years, you might get lucky and have the punishment commuted to death.


Now, the president’s ego flows over his country in nightly newscasts: Hussein hosts Arab leaders, talks tough to the West, tours country villages surrounded by adoring children and a uniformed, black-bereted bodyguard.

What do the Iraqis think of it? How do they see their place in the world? No polls will be taken to tell. He is not appealing for support of himself or his policy. Hussein lays down the law, and his countrymen keep their counsel.

Williams reported from the United Arab Emirates and Ross, who spent many years covering the Middle East in Cairo, from Washington.