"Do you know when?" It is the question on all minds these days--those of stockbrokers, journalists, financiers, world leaders, soldiers and their families. When will the United States lead a coalition to end Saddam Hussein's tyranny over Iraq?
The answer matters most to the tyrant's subjects--like the man who asked the question of his friend in an early-morning phone conversation on Monday, February 24. The call came from Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq, to the home of an Iraqi exile in suburban Detroit.
It used to be that Iraqis trapped inside their country would speak to each other and to friends outside in veiled language. For years, Saddam's regime has tapped the phone lines of all those suspected of disloyalty, so an inquiry about the timing of a possible attack would be concealed behind seemingly unrelated questions. On what date will you sell your business? When does school end? When are you expecting your next child?
But few Iraqis speak in puzzles anymore. They ask direct questions. Here is the rest of that Monday morning conversation:
"Do you know when?"
"I'm not sure."
"Are you coming?"
"Yes. I am coming. We will . . . "
The second speaker, an Iraqi in Michigan, began to provide details but quickly reconsidered, ending his thought in mid-sentence. He says he was shocked by the candor coming from Iraq. "Never in the history of Iraq do people talk like this," he said later.
"Why are you silent?"
"I'm afraid that you'll be in danger."
"Don't be afraid. We are not afraid. This time is serious."
"I am coming with the American Army."
"Is there a way that we can register our names with the American forces to work with them when they arrive? Will you call my house at the first moment you arrive? I will help."
For more than a year now, the world has been engaged in an intense debate about what to do with Saddam Hussein. For much of that time, the focus has been on the dictator's refusal to get rid of his weapons of mass destruction, his sponsorship of terrorism, his serial violations of international law, and his history of aggression.
Those arguments have in common an emphasis on interests, on threats. Absent from this debate--or at best peripheral to it--is the moral case for ending the rule of a tyrant who has terrorized his people for more than two decades. It's a strange oversight since, by some estimates, Saddam Hussein is responsible for more than 1million Iraqi deaths since he took power in 1979.
Advocates of his overthrow are fond of pointing out that "he gassed his own people," but this often has the feel of a bulleted talking point, not an argument. Their opponents readily concede that "Saddam is a brutal dictator," and that "the world would be better off without him." But they usually grant these things as a rhetorical device, as if to buy credibility on their way to opposing the one step sure to end that brutality--removal by force.
Those who oppose taking action say we can safely ignore Saddam Hussein because he is "in a box." Even if they were right and Saddam were no longer a threat, they would ignore this other urgent problem: the 23 million Iraqi people who are in the box with him.
No one wants war. "I am a pacifist," says Ramsey Jiddou, an Iraqi American who has lived in the United States since the late 1970s. "But it will take a war to remove Saddam Hussein, and of course I'm for such a war."
Iraqi Americans overwhelmingly agree with Jiddou. Many of them are recent arrivals who came here after the Gulf War left Saddam in power in 1991. And many are in regular contact with friends and relatives still trapped in Iraq.
The views of those Iraqis back home "are the same as the Iraqi Americans," says Peter Antone, an Iraqi-American immigration lawyer in Southfield, Michigan. "They are not free to speak, so we speak for them."
ONE OF MY HOSTS had another question for me as we walked up to a modest one-story home in Dearborn Heights on the snowy afternoon of Saturday, February 22.
"Do you know the decisionmakers?" asked Abu Muslim al-Haydar, a former University of Baghdad professor and one of three English-speakers in the group of 20 Iraqi Shiites assembling here to talk with a reporter about Iraq. His tone was urgent, almost desperate, as he repeated himself. "Do you know the decisionmakers?"
The Iraqi Americans who live in suburban Detroit, some 150,000 of them, are the largest concentration of Iraqis outside Iraq. That's saying something, since according to the United Nations, Iraqis are the second-largest group of refugees in the world. Some 4 million of them have left their homes since Saddam Hussein took power--an astonishing 17 percent of the country's population. Despite the size of the Iraqi-American population, and despite the fact that no one is better acquainted with the ways of Saddam Hussein's regime, their voices have largely been missing from the national debate. In the course of dozens of interviews over the last two weeks, it became plain that this oversight is a source of endless frustration to this community. Iraqi Americans have a lot to say, and the decisionmakers, in both the media and government, are not listening.
As we approached the house in Dearborn Heights, I told al-Haydar that with luck, some decisionmakers would read my article. On the porch, I added my shoes to a mountain of footwear, which, with a winter storm raging, had taken on the appearance of a snow-capped peak. We stepped inside. The room to the right contained a big-screen television (wired to the satellite dish on the roof) and a sofa. The room on the left was furnished with overlapping oriental rugs and, on the floor along the wall, colorful cushions that would serve as our seats for the next two and a half hours.
The group was all male and all Shiite, primarily from southern Iraq. In other ways, though, it was diverse--ranging from farmers to religious leaders to a former general in Saddam's Republican Guard. The ages went from early twenties to perhaps eighties. Some came dressed in three-piece suits, some in tribal robes.
I proposed moving clockwise around the room for introductions and brief personal histories, a suggestion that prompted much discussion, all of it in Arabic. In what could be considered a bad omen for a democratic Iraq, my ad hoc translator, a young man named Ahmed Shulaiba, explained that elders and religious leaders generally have the option to speak first. But after more discussion, the introductions proceeded according to the suggested plan.
One elderly man in a flowing brown robe, however, gave up his turn, saying he preferred to speak last and that he wanted to make a statement. When he did, he passed me his Michigan State I.D. card as he began speaking.
"I want to introduce myself and ask a question. Are you ready? I am Mehsin Juad al-Basaid. For many years I was a farmer in Iraq. I was involved in the uprising in 1991. American pilots dropped leaflets telling us to start an uprising against Saddam. And we did. We sacrificed. I lost three family members. Fifteen days later the American Army was removed from the South, and left us to face Saddam alone. Now, I'm willing to go with the American Army. But what happened in 1991 must not happen again."
Nearly everyone in attendance had spoken of his own involvement in the uprising. It's worth spending a moment on what happened at the end of the Gulf War, because it influences the way many Iraqis, particularly the Shiite majority, see the United States.
After the devastating U.S. air campaign, American ground forces made quick work of the few Iraqi soldiers who put up a fight. At the same time, the U.S. government dropped leaflets and broadcast radio messages urging all Iraqis to overthrow Saddam. Ahmed, my translator, who was 15 in 1991, told me how he had learned that the Americans wanted Iraqis to revolt.
"I remember George Bush said, 'There is another way for the bloodshed to stop. It's for the Iraqi people and the Iraqi military to take matters into their own hands . . . '"
I interrupted to ask him if he was quoting the former president.
"Yeah, I remember that's what he said."
I interrupted a second time to ask him if he remembered how the message was delivered--radio, leaflets? His response was terse.
"Yes. I'll tell you after I finish."
With that, he resumed his word-for-word recitation of the president's exhortation:
"'It's for the Iraqi people and the Iraqi military to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside, comply with the United Nations Resolution, and rejoin the family of peace-loving nations.' That's what he said."
Many Iraqis, both in the largely Kurdish north and the Shiite south, took this advice. American pilots bombed Iraqi weapons depots, allowing the rebels to arm themselves. As the Iraqi Army withdrew from Kuwait and retreated towards Baghdad, the rebels made significant gains. The numbers are disputed, but at the height of the uprising, opposition forces may have controlled as many as 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces.
Just as the pressure on the regime intensified, however, American and Iraqi military leaders met near the Iraq-Kuwait border at Safwan to sign a cease-fire. As the negotiations drew to a close, the Iraqi representative, Lt. Gen. Sultan Hashim Ahmad, had a request, recorded in the official transcript of the meeting. "We have a point, one point. You might very well know the situation of the roads and bridges and communications. We would like to agree that helicopter flights sometimes are needed to carry some of the officials, government officials, or any member that is needed to be transported from one place to another because the roads and bridges are out."
General Norman Schwarzkopf, representing the United States, playing the generous victor, told his counterpart that so long as no helicopters flew over areas controlled by U.S. troops, they were "absolutely no problem." He continued: "I want to make sure that's recorded, that military helicopters can fly over Iraq. Not fighters, not bombers." Lt. Gen. Ahmad pressed the issue. "So you mean even helicopters that is [sic] armed in the Iraqi skies can fly, but not the fighters?"
"Yeah, I will instruct our Air Force not to shoot at any helicopters that are flying over the territory of Iraq where we are not located," Schwarzkopf replied, adding that he wanted armed helicopters to be identified with an orange tag.
This moment of magnanimity would prove costly. Saddam's soldiers used the helicopters to put down the rebellion, spilling the blood of tens of thousands of Iraqis to do so. On the ground, allied troops had reversed course and were now taking weapons from any Iraqis who had them, including the rebels. In the end, it was a massacre, with conservative estimates of 30,000 dead.
"Along Highway 8, the east-west route that ran from An Nasiriyah to Basra, the American soldiers could tell that Saddam Hussein was mercilessly putting down the rebellion," wrote Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor in The Generals' War: The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf, considered the definitive account of the war. "The tales at the medical tent had a common theme: indiscriminate fire at men, women and children, the destruction of Islamic holy places, in which the Shiites had taken refuge, helicopter and rocket attacks, threats of chemical weapons attacks."
The men who gathered that snowy afternoon in Dearborn Heights, many of them from Nasiriyah, were among those attacked by the Iraqi military in 1991. Several spoke of their confusion as they looked up to see Iraqi helicopters strafing the masses of refugees, and above the Iraqi aircraft, American F-15 fighter planes circling in the sky but doing nothing to stop the slaughter. (These images have contributed, perhaps understandably, to numerous conspiracy theories discussed widely in the exile community. One propounds the preposterous notion that American aircraft escorted the Iraqi helicopters responsible for killing Iraqi rebels and ending the uprising. As that hypothesis goes, the United States wanted to keep Saddam Hussein in power as its puppet dictator. Put together American support of Saddam throughout the '80s with these vivid memories, and from the perspective of the Iraqis on the ground, the theories don't seem terribly far-fetched.)
When we ended our formal Q and A, one man handed me a photograph of his son, who was killed in the uprising. Others gave me photographs and handwritten, homemade business cards. Someone gave me a plan, in Arabic, for postwar Iraq. Several men passed me their Michigan drivers' licenses and state ID cards. Six gave me letters or prepared statements, some in Arabic and others in English. Mohammed al-Gased, who speaks only Arabic, must have had help translating his letter:
My name is Mohammed Al Gased, my family and I are refugees in the United States of America. I lost my nephew Haydir Ali Abdulamir Al Gased (the spelling of the name may be different). He was a participant in the 1991 Iraqi Uprising against Saddam. On March 18, 1991, he was wounded in the battle against Saddam's army. In the same afternoon of the same day, he was transferred to one of the American military units located in Talillehem in the governate of Annasriya in southern Iraq. He was treated there; then was taken by American Military helicopter for a further treatment. The location is still unknown for us. After the fail of the uprising, most of us were forced to flee our homes. When we arrived to Saudi Arabia as refugees. I wrote a letter to the Red Cross asking if they have any information about him, and we got no answer. I also wrote to the Saudi Ministry of Defense. My brother, his father, was tortured by Saddam's secret police so viciously it caused his death. His mother and the rest of the family are now residing in Sweden as refugees. In the name of humanity, we are asking you to help us find out weather or not he is still alive and where his about.
With the letters and statements and photographs came torrents of additional charges meant to demonstrate the brutality of Saddam's regime. One man insisted that he knew the precise location of a mass grave, and provided very specific directions. He urged me to give these coordinates to the U.S. government but not to report them, lest Saddam dig up the grave and repair the ground. He said that Iraqis are well aware of these mass graves and predicted they will be found throughout Iraq when the current regime is out of power.
It must be said that many of these claims, including that one, are unverifiable. But they are consistent with Saddam Hussein's long history of violence. As the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Iraq put it: "Extreme and brutal force is threatened and applied without hesitation and with total impunity to control the population."
Of more immediate concern is the likelihood that Saddam will use civilians as human shields in the event of war, as he did during the first Gulf War. Bush administration officials are well aware of his willingness to sacrifice his own people, and they take seriously reports that he has begun preparations to do so.
One such account comes from Ali al-Sayad, an Iraqi American who reported to Defense Department officials a phone call he received last week from his cousin, a guard at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. The guard told al-Sayad that on February 11, Saddam's agents began methodically moving thousands of prisoners from their cells to the dictator's hometown of Tikrit, where many officials believe Saddam will take refuge when combat begins.
That's a move that wouldn't surprise Riadh Abdallah, a former general in Saddam's Republican Guard. Gen. Abdallah served on Saddam's personal security detail in Baghdad during the Gulf War. His brother, Abduli Alwishah, a member of the Iraqi parliament from 1984 to 1991 and head of a prominent southern Iraqi tribe, was a leader of the uprising at the end of the war. When Iraqi intelligence reported back to Baghdad that Alwishah had agitated against Saddam, Gen. Abdallah lost his position in the Republican Guard and was put on probation, then transferred to a teaching job and ordered to report to authorities once a week to show his face.
It could have been worse. Five other generals, including Barak Abdallah, a hero from the Iran-Iraq war, were executed for plotting against the regime.
By 1993, Alwishah and his family had left the Saudi refugee camp that they called home for 14 months and had resettled in the United States. That's when his brother, Gen. Abdallah, was arrested and charged as an anti-Saddam conspirator and sent to a small prison in Baghdad for high-ranking officials accused as traitors. I asked him about the experience.
ABDALLAH: I was in jail for eleven months. There was no judge. They just put you in. If one was to be executed or put in jail, no judge. They put us in the same room as those five generals who were executed. And they were killed with big knives. Those people were killed with big knives hitting them on the neck. And the room had blood everywhere.
SH: Did you think you might be next?
ABDALLAH: Yes. I thought that they would do the same thing to me. Every day they told me that I will be executed.
SH: How long?
ABDALLAH: Eleven months. Intimidation every day. At that time they found out about a conspiracy by another person who was a big general, a doctor actually, from the same town as Saddam. His name was Raji al-Tikriti. It's a very famous story in Iraq. And they made him a food for dogs.
SH: You were in prison when this happened? You heard about this?
ABDALLAH: They showed me these prisoners that were eaten by wild dogs. They made us--that was one kind of intimidation--they brought all of the generals and officers in the prison to watch it, to intimidate us. . . . They took us from jail and they put some blindfolds on our eyes and they took them off and we saw him. Before the dogs ate him we saw them read the judgment and they said why they were going to kill him. He was the head doctor for all the military, and he was the personal doctor for Saddam Hussein and for former Iraqi president Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr.
SH: Was he killed before this happened?
ABDALLAH: He was alive when these wild dogs . . .
SH: Do you remember what month this was?
ABDALLAH: It was the wintertime, but I can't remember exactly because for 11 months I didn't see the sun, nothing--I didn't know what time. There was only spider webs in the room, so I didn't know if it's day or night. [Pause] Probably what you're hearing is impossible to believe, but that's what happened. And all that you're hearing is nothing compared to everything else.
Abdallah later explained that Raji al-Tikriti was dressed in "prison pajamas" with his hands and feet bound when this was done to him. Abdallah and seven other prisoners were forced to watch. The five dogs, he said, "were like big wolves."
Abdallah returned to teaching after his surprising release from prison. He taught with other senior military officials who, he said, ran terrorist training operations at Salman Pak and Lake Tharthar. The activities at Salman Pak are well known. Satellite images show an airplane, and defectors have revealed extensive training in terrorist operations--including hijacking--that have gone on there for years. Lake Tharthar, however, is new. Abdallah calls it the "Salman Pak of the sea," where terrorists were instructed in "diving, how to wire, how to put charges on ships, how to storm the ships, commando operations."
I asked him if the facility was used primarily for military training or terrorist training. "Terrorist. Not for the military. They were not Iraqi. They were all from other countries--maybe just a few Iraqis. And it's very confidential."
Tharthar is the largest lake in Iraq, constructed on the site of the Great Dam. That dam regulates a waterway that connects the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Tharthar is also the site of one of the largest of Saddam's numerous palaces. In 1999, at a celebration of the president's 62nd birthday, Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan opened a resort on the lake for the regime's VIPs. The complex came at a cost estimated at hundreds of millions, and includes luxurious accommodations, several beaches, and an amusement park, complete with a merry-go-round and a ferris wheel.
Saddam Hussein and his allies blame the United States for the "genocide" caused by 13 years of U.N. sanctions. They claim that these sanctions, and the resulting shortages of food and medicine, have led to the deaths of more than 1 million Iraqis. Even leaving aside the vast resources Saddam has used to rebuild and conceal his deadly arsenal, the resort at Lake Tharthar helps put those charges in context. As Taha Ramadan noted at the resort's ceremonial opening, "This city was built in the age of Saddam Hussein and during this period of sanctions. . . . This shows our ability to build such a beautiful city and to fight as well."
A resort city, terrorist training camps, and a hungry population--all of this, says Abdallah, makes Saddam Hussein "the father and the grandfather of terrorists."
THE DAY AFTER my meeting in Dearborn Heights, some 300 Iraqi Americans gathered at the Fairlane Club in suburban Detroit to hear from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and, finally, tell their stories in the presence of a high U.S. official. Wolfowitz had been invited by the Iraqi Forum for Democracy, a nonaligned, anti-Saddam, pro-democracy association of Iraqis in America. Television cameras--I counted nearly 20--lined the room. A handful of print reporters were there, too. Signs on the wall declared "Iraq United Will Never Be Divided" and "Saddam Must Go--Iraqis Need Human Rights."
Wolfowitz is viewed as something of a hero here. Several Iraqi Americans I spoke to were aware that he was wary of Saddam Hussein as far back as the late '70s, and remained so even as the U.S. government embraced the Iraqi dictator in the '80s. Others credited Wolfowitz with expediting U.S. rescue operations when the Iraqi government put down the 1991 uprising.
"The U.S. Army had orders to leave Basra," recalls Ahmed Shulaiba. "We were going to be crushed by the Iraqi Army, and we heard that one man from the press--we don't know who he is--he called Paul Wolfowitz and told him about 30,000 people will be crushed if the American military leave them. And he [Wolfowitz] called [Secretary of Defense] Dick Cheney and they helped move us to the camp of Rafha [in Saudi Arabia]."
Wolfowitz later confirmed this account, though he downplayed his role. "The rebellion had basically been crushed," he said. "It was a Sunday afternoon and I got a call at home from a reporter. I think it's okay to name him, it was Michael Gordon [of the New York Times]. One of my kids answered, told me who it was, and I regretted the day I'd given him my unpublished number at home. I said, 'Tell him I'm not interested in talking to him.' My kid, whichever one it was, told me that Gordon was calling from Safwan [Iraq], and he says it's important."
Gordon told Wolfowitz that he had been interviewing U.S. troops in southern Iraq. Saddam's forces were continuing to brutalize the Iraqi people. American soldiers, says Wolfowitz, "had been ordered not to do anything about it. Gordon said it was breaking their hearts." Wolfowitz called Cheney and, after overcoming some internal resistance, they arranged to have allied forces expedite the refugees' journey to camps in the Saudi desert.
Now, addressing those gathered in suburban Detroit, Wolfowitz spoke of the coming liberation of their country. It was a well-crafted speech, packed with details about the expected conflict and postwar Iraq (available on the web at http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Feb2003/t02272003_t0223ifd.html). He was interrupted repeatedly by enthusiastic applause, including several standing ovations. At one point, the audience broke into song, in Arabic, to celebrate the imminent end of Saddam's rule. The Iraqi farmers who the night before had handed me photographs of their dead relatives were dancing with local religious leaders.
When Wolfowitz concluded his remarks, it was the Iraqis' turn to speak to the world. Some spoke in English, some in Arabic.
"My name is Abu Muslim al-Hayadar. I used to be a university professor back in Iraq, but now I am working in social services to help refugees. I want to assure you and all other people around the world that we suffered so much and we are willing to work towards democracy as we are--most of us want to work in two phases. The liberation phase and the rebuilding phase. So please, please take it seriously, and we want it fast. Fast, as fast as you can. Thank you. Liberate Iraqi people please."
Moments later, a man named Ahmed al-Tamimi stepped to the front of the stage with a young boy.
"I welcome you here. You are here in Dearborn and next month we welcome you in Baghdad and Iraq.
"In every heart here, in every person here, there is a scar on our hearts. But we can't show the people in the world our scars on our hearts, but we can show the scars on the face of this young guy. He was, in that time in 1991, just one year. He was a child, and this is the father and his uncle, they participated in the uprising. . . . They beat the father, his father, his mother, and his wife. While they are beating the family they hear the cry of the child and they say who is the child? The wife said this is my child. They start beating him with their boots until the blood was all over and he had brain damage, partly brain damage.
"When [the father] came from Saudi Arabia to America, the first thing he did, he took the phone and talked to his wife and he said I want to talk to my son. And she started to cry. And she told him he is not talking, he is not talking. What happened? She told him, something happen in 1991. I can't tell you. After that he find out what happened to his son."
The program ended and the crowd gave Wolfowitz another standing ovation. They rushed to the stage and surrounded the speaker, a former academic unused to being treated like a rock star. It was a moving scene--perhaps a foreshadowing of the greeting American troops will get when Saddam Hussein is gone--but few people saw it.
Although several major newspapers covered the event, television networks mostly took a pass. Why? Certainly the language difficulties made live television coverage all but impossible. But the reactions of a producer for a prominent international broadcast network suggest another possible explanation. She said the event was "weird" and thought the Iraqis seemed "uncomfortable."
"It was a pre-selected audience," she inaccurately claimed. "Everyone here agrees with the administration."
Pro-war propaganda, she concluded--never once considering the possibility that Iraqi Americans might actually be near-unanimous in their desire to get rid of Saddam Hussein.
It should be noted, however, that there were at least two Saddam sympathizers in the crowd. Before the speech, as TV crews checked their microphones and Arabic-speaking Iraqis studied translated copies of Wolfowitz's prepared remarks, one Iraqi pointed out two men he said were "Saddam's agents." Regardless of whether that much is true, they plainly were not enjoying themselves. Each time their fellow Iraqi Americans saluted the dictator's coming demise, these dour fellows sat expressionless.
After the meeting with Wolfowitz, journalists were asked to leave the room as the Iraqis met privately with representatives from the Pentagon for perhaps an hour. Defense officials explained to the Iraqis the various ways they can participate in the coming conflict. Many will accompany U.S. troops, serving as intermediaries between the Iraqis and their liberators. Others will join something the Pentagon is calling the "Free Iraqi Force," a unit that will support combat operations inside Iraq. Still others will focus on a post-Saddam Iraq.
Later, Wolfowitz returned to the room and spent another hour talking with individual Iraqi Americans, answering their questions, and most important, listening.
One Iraqi American had a message he hoped protesters would hear:
"If you want to protest that it's not okay to send your kids to fight, that's okay. But please don't claim to speak for the Iraqis. We've seen 5 million people protesting, but none of them were Iraqis. They don't know what's going on inside Iraq. France and whoever else, please shut up."
Another, Hawra al-Zuad, is a 16-year-old student at an Islamic academy in suburban Detroit. Her sky blue headscarf seems to coexist comfortably with her marked Detroit accent. Although she doesn't remember her family's flight 12 years ago, she is eager to return to her native Iraq. "I'll go visit right away," she says. "I want to go see how it is over there. I forgot everything about it. I want to see my house, where I used to live when I was little."
A good way to spend summer vacation, I suggest. She quickly corrects me.
"Spring break. I hope it's spring break." Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.