In general, Arabs are of two minds when it comes to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. I'm in the minority. We "liberals" condemn him for the atrocities he has inflicted on his people. We hope that the outcome of the war in Iraq will be the end of his dictatorship. Yet, we also worry that Saddam's demise doesn't justify the vast military might being unleashed on Arabs by U.S.-led coalition forces.
I'm a staunch advocate of democracy, but I'm skeptical about institutionalizing democracy in Iraq because democracy remains an alien concept in our region. Before all the Bush administration talk about planting democracy in Iraq, the U.S. made few attempts to push even its staunchest allies in the Middle East to democratize or respect human rights.
For most of my Arab neighbors, the heavy bombardment of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities has turned Saddam into a hero defending his nation -- and Arabs in general -- against a foreign imperialistic invasion. They believe there is no need to oust Saddam to create a democratic regime in Iraq. Although democracy is desirable to them, they reject the idea that it should be imposed through "violent and foreign" means. Besides, they remind me, the U.S. has long backed authoritarian regimes in the region simply because they are durable allies and facilitate U.S. policies.
My friends and neighbors believe this war is immoral and unjust, that it is primarily motivated by the U.S. need to secure Iraq's oil fields, and that it represents America's zeal for power and dreams of aggrandizement. They deny its legality because the U.N. Security Council -- indeed, the international community -- didn't endorse the use of force against Iraq. To them, diplomacy was never given an adequate chance to deal with Saddam and his reputed weapons of mass destruction. The desire to rid the region of weapons of mass destruction has not been extended to Israel, and in the Iraqi case, the U.N. weapons inspectors never found any. Thus, America's war is a belligerent breach of international law, the U.N. Charter and all Security Council resolutions on Iraq, which emphasize Iraqi sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity.
Regardless of our differing views on Saddam, we are united on certain issues. Saddam's regime may pose a threat to our region's stability, but it cannot be compared with the continuing real threat posed by Israel. Israel has nuclear weapons, occupies vast portions of the West Bank and regularly invades Gaza, routinely demolishing houses of Palestinians when not killing them. It has violated the sovereignty of Lebanon and Syria and ignored U.N. resolutions and international treaties. Yet, the U.S. administration incomprehensibly backs whatever Israel does. It urges us to support the "liberation" of Iraq but condones the colonization of the West Bank.
We are also united by our sense of shame that our Arab leaders could not stop this war from happening. Twenty-two Arab regimes have been unable to reach a common position. The Arab League is its usual impotent political self. The region's Arab leaders seem more interested in preserving their power than in democratizing their governments or respecting human rights. The growing tensions between them and those they govern may soon pose an unprecedented challenge, and their only means of containing their restive populations may be sheer force and repression, not democracy. What will the Americans do then?
These are geopolitical concerns. It's the personal that worries me most. Watching on television the hundreds of missiles and bombs falling on Baghdad, I wonder what havoc the untold death and destruction will cause in Iraq. Iraqi civilians have suffered through 12 years of U.N. economic sanctions and, before that, the Gulf War and the eight-year war with Iran, all during the 20-plus years of Saddam's dictatorship. Unless the U.S. keeps its pledge, unlike in 1991, to stick around for a while, a humanitarian disaster will surely come. Are the U.S. and Britain prepared to finance the rebuilding of Iraq's oil industry, the reconstruction of its infrastructure and electrical power and attend to its humanitarian needs? Most important, what will it take to reconstruct the shattered lives of Iraqis or contend with the potential effects of all the "new and improved" military technologies on the health of Iraqis?
In my neighborhood, America is the villain in this war. President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair haven't convinced members of my family and my friends of their "noble and democratic ideals." Their disrespect for international bodies and world opinion that disagree with them has fueled anger and made potential supporters step back. Their air forces' "precise and intelligent" targeting has not won over many hearts and minds here.
Last week, news reports said that Saddam had drawn a red line around Baghdad and that when coalition forces cross it, he planned to use chemical and biological weapons against them. Some political commentators said that such an act would make Bush's argument for him and alienate the Arab world that Saddam seeks to cultivate.
The sad reality of this war, especially for those like me who are horrified to think that any country is even allowed to possess weapons of mass destruction, is that such an act by Saddam, should he have such weapons, would find many Arab supporters. So intense is their anger at Americans' use of unprecedented force against Iraqi cities and their citizens that the use of chemical or biological weapons would be seen by them as a justifiable defense against foreign invaders. Many of my friends feel that Saddam and the Iraqi people are being backed into a corner with no other choice but to use chemical weapons to stop the aggression. And that these weapons would help to close the huge force gap between a superpower and a country that has been in constant turbulence for more than 20 years.
In the midst of all this, coalition forces are surprised that Iraqis are fighting back. They expected them to fall all over each other giving up after the "shock and awe" campaign. Who would fight for a "thug" like Saddam, they asked.
Yet, no nation willfully welcomes invaders. No nation allows its lands to be occupied, its integrity and sovereignty humiliated. Iraqi refugees, so far, are not flooding Jordan and Syria. Maybe it is not the wish of the Iraqi people to see Saddam continue in power. Instead, it may be their wish to change him through other means.