From Its Palaces, Iraq's View Is of a World Filled With Allies
By JOHN F. BURNS
New York Times - 20 October - BAGHDAD, Iraq, Oct. 19: As Iraq confronts the possibility of a new war with the United States, its leaders appear to have concluded that they have one decisive advantage that they lacked during the countdown to the Persian Gulf war 12 years ago: this time, they seem convinced, the world is on their side and against the United States.
"The world has abandoned America; it has become isolated," Saddam Hussein's No. 2 man, Izzat Ibrahim, boasted as he announced the result of this week's election: Iraqis, by official reckoning, had re-elected Saddam Hussein to his position of absolute power as president with 100 percent of the 11.4 million votes cast. Along with other leaders in Baghdad, Mr. Ibrahim accused the United States of warmongering, threatening not only Iraq but the entire Middle East.
Mr. Hussein's inner circle has also taken heart from the United States' inability to win United Nations backing for a resolution threatening military action against Iraq. In 1991, by contrast, a broad coalition of more than 30 nations formed under American leadership, and under an unambiguous Security Council resolution, to trounce Iraqi occupation forces in Kuwait.
Iraqi leaders said this week that France and Russia, with their holding action in New York, were proving the depth of their "friendship" for Iraq and their unwillingness to accept American "hegemony."
But amid the speeches, news conferences and newspaper headlines boasting Iraq's defiance, there was also a sense that Baghdad's aging leaders, a tight circle of men that has changed hardly at all since the gulf war, were busy trying to persuade themselves that they could somehow ride out the most serious threat yet to their power. In this, there were strong echoes of the months before American bombs started falling in 1991, when Baghdad seemed to think it could bluff and maneuver its way into hanging on to Kuwait.
Without doubt, the international mood seems better for Iraq than it has in years. Opprobrium over the Kuwait invasion has long since faded, although Baghdad has defied many of the terms imposed on it by the United Nations after the war. In addition to frustrating weapons inspection teams, Mr. Hussein has deftly manipulated the issue of United Nations economic sanctions, impressing much of the world with claims that a million Iraqi children have died from malnutrition brought on by the embargoes — one of several allegations that people who have traveled around Iraq regard as gross exaggerations at best.
Looking around the Arab world, Mr. Hussein finds that there is not a single country backing American military action, not even gulf states like Kuwait and Qatar that would be likely bases for American aircraft in a new war. In the West, the United States has only one unambiguous ally in its threat of military action, Britain, and there is much wavering elsewhere. In Baghdad's newspapers on Saturday, headlines trumpeted the announcement that Spain's top diplomat in Baghdad, Fernando Valderrama, had resigned in protest over Spain's "subordination to the American government" in the crisis.
The theme of America's isolation was prominent in Mr. Hussein's inaugural speech on Wednesday. In his usual rambling fashion, heavy with references to Allah and Satan, the Iraqi leader ran with satisfaction through a checklist of countries and concluded that Iraq has the backing not only of "those aggressed against by the Zionist alliance" — Palestinians and their supporters — but also "by freedom lovers all over the world." Together, Mr. Hussein said, these nations would "cause the arrows of aggression to go astray" and doom America to end up "despised, condemned and defeated" in a war with Iraq.
But as the Kuwait crisis showed in the fall of 1990, opinions that are against America, or only lukewarm, can shift as the weeks go on, a possibility that Iraq faces if the Security Council surmounts its current differences and approves a new, tougher mandate for the weapons inspectors.
Iraqi officials have said that they will make no announcement of their attitude towards a new weapons-inspection program until they see the text of a new resolution. But their record raises serious doubts that they will be ready to accept, for example, the immediate and unconditional access to Mr. Hussein's many palaces that the United States has demanded.
Beyond this, it is not clear if Iraqi leaders have grasped the wider changes in the world since 1991. When Mr. Hussein plunged into the gulf war, the "unipolar hegemony" of the United States that many in Europe and the Middle East condemn these days was yet to evolve. Iraq's handling of the weapons inspection teams, if they come, could depend on the judgment Mr. Hussein and his advisers make of the Bush administration's readiness to go to war without the broad coalition that backed action over Kuwait.
Given the secretive nature of the Baghdad elite, it is impossible to know how these issues are weighed and how realistic the advice being given to Mr. Hussein may be. The fact that his lieutenants could organize a referendum result that had virtually no prospect of being taken at face value outside Iraq — and Mr. Hussein's own description of the 100 percent vote as an expression of the "indescribable love" shown for him by the country's 22 million people — suggest that the leadership may be disposed only to hear what it wants.
Mr. Hussein, in particular, may have to struggle to grasp the realities of the world outside Iraq. He has given no interviews to Western reporters since before the Persian Gulf war and has not traveled outside the country. In the face of several assassination plots originating with his own armed forces and state security forces, he has become increasingly reclusive, moving within his vast array of palaces and underground bunkers. When he does appear, as he did for the inaugural, the only voices he is exposed to are those of Iraqis shouting, "Saddam, Saddam, we are ready to sacrifice to you our blood and our soul."
The government's fondness for compliant voices was only one of many similarities to the old Soviet Union that struck visitors in the past week. Baghdad's best hotels overflowed with more than 2,000 foreign guests, most of them eager to interrupt official news conferences with their praises of Mr. Hussein and their condemnation of the United States. As the referendum results came in, the guests were mostly a throwback to Soviet days — Ukrainian Communists, Moroccan socialists, Mexican laborites and Muslim clerics, all brimming with a visceral anti-Americanism.
The visitors included men of past eminence, like Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia's former long-term president and a hero of Africa's liberation struggles in the 1950's. The Iraq Daily, Baghdad's state-controlled English-language newspaper, quoted Mr. Kaunda as saying "this democratic practice" — the referendum — "reflects the strong relationship between the Iraqi people and their brave leadership."
But much else in Baghdad suggests that ordinary Iraqis may not be of quite the uniform mind that their leaders would like the world to believe. Along with public displays of fealty to Mr. Hussein, some have privately begun to show signs that they may be beginning to look to another kind of Iraq.
The signs are small — nothing that remotely resembles open dissidence, because that invariably ends with imprisonment or worse. But some rules for visitors that in the run-up to the gulf war were nearly ironclad have now been quietly eased, and satirical remarks that would once have earned a stern reproof now sometimes get a knowing smile.
The changes seem to hint that the Iraqi state, as fearsome a machine for marshaling obedience as any in the post-Soviet world, may be retreating, at least in small things. And from small things, larger things can follow. In the months after the Kuwait invasion, but before the American-led bombing began in January 1991, it would have been improbable in the extreme to enter a cafe and find Iraqis not sitting silent, rapt, before a television carrying a speech by Mr. Hussein. But on Wednesday, during his inaugural speech, customers in one cafe were too busy chatting or playing dominoes to play the TV broadcast much heed. Perhaps, in ways outsiders can only guess, real changes in Iraq may already be under way.