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Tuesday, 17 December, 2002, 09:43 GMT
Iraqis forsake opinions for safety
Fear prevents Iraqi people from voicing their opinions
Fear prevents some Iraqis from voicing their opinions

It's almost impolite to ask Iraqis about their hopes for a new year - one of those questions with too grimly obvious an answer now.

But in Baghdad, at least, they always seem to hope - to feel viscerally that there is, there MUST be, a point at which things get so bad, they turn the corner and get better.

That point, many sense, will come in 2003.

By this time next year, either the government will have convinced the outside world that they have no dubious weapons programmes, and Iraq will have resumed its place at the table of profitable commerce and re-joined the club of international respectability.

Iraqis are the driftwood on the sea of events

Or - more likely - there will be a new Washington-approved regime enjoying the marbled palaces of Saddam Hussein.

And it wouldn't be too cynical to say that for many Iraqis, either outcome is equally acceptable.

Don't be fooled by the displays of fanatical loyalty, the blood in which many voters marked a cross next to "Saddam Hussein" in October's presidential referendum, the chest-beating and the chanting.

If there were a new leader tomorrow, he would get the same adulation: it's a mixture of fear, and a cold-eyed calculation of what keeps you safe and healthy.

I remember on my first visit to Baghdad in 1990, being shown the huge spiral tower on one side of a four lane highway - "the Monument of the Unknown Soldier" - and on the other side a gigantic statue of the president on his horse.

Iraqis attend a Saddam rally in Baghdad
Iraqis attend a Saddam rally in Baghdad
"And here," said my official guide, arching his eyebrow "is the monument of the well-known soldier."

But it would be equally foolish to say that there is no regard amongst Iraqis for a man who has spent the past decade tweaking the tail feathers of the eagle in Washington, and is still standing.

That Iraq, almost alone in a uni-polar world, refuses to do what America says it should, is, frankly, a source of pride for many.

I don't think many Iraqis know or care whether their leader has biological or chemical weapons. "Doesn't Israel have a nuclear bomb?" I heard many times.

It's only 15 years since the mindless slaughter of the war with Iran ended. And when a country has lost its sons on that extraordinary World War I-scale, the idea of "mass destruction" holds no special terrors.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein
Saddam has an iron grasp on Iraq
Don't take any of this too far. Whenever I have asked Iraqis what they think about what is happening, most are non-plussed; why is anyone interested?

That reaction is followed swiftly, of course, by concern about who is listening, and making sure they get the approved line correct.

Yet for these people their real views are beside the point; they live in a world where it makes no difference what they think.

They are the driftwood on the sea of events, and the prevailing winds and tides come from palaces and offices they have never seen.

Cowed and canny

The key decisions in their lives are made by people they have never met.

In this the Iraqis are not alone; if the Americans do manage to install a democratically-accountable government in Baghdad, it will be something unique in the Arab world.

Sanctions have deprived some Iraqis of the means to feed themselves
Sanctions have left some Iraqis dependent on food aid
And the Americans may not like the real views of real Iraqis, any more than they like the attitudes of their current president.

The truth is that nobody knows what Iraqis really think - they are too cowed and too canny to let any outsider figure them closely.

But it may just be that the years of enforced isolation, the sanctions they are told are the reason their incomes and nutrition have been radically cut back, and the bombs that periodically drop on their heads have not made them predisposed to love what the West stands for.

And if the Americans think regime-change and democracy will remove the Iraqi problem, they may be in for a nasty shock.

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See also:

10 Nov 02 | Middle East
14 Oct 02 | Middle East
15 Oct 02 | Middle East
01 Oct 02 | Middle East
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