To Some Arabs, Iraq War Means Freedom

By Max Gross

Published February 21, 2003, issue of February 21, 2003.
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Hatem Mukliss’s family comes from Tikrit, Iraq — Saddam Hussein’s hometown. And like the Iraqi leader, Mukliss is a Sunni Muslim.

The similarities end there.

Mukliss’s father was an official in the Iraqi government until 1993, when he was murdered by Saddam’s regime. The killing inspired Mukliss to dedicate his life to deposing Saddam.

“I saw what [Saddam] did to the people… torture, disfigurement, only caring about himself and his palaces,” said Mukliss, head of the Washington-based political office of the Iraqi National Movement, one of many opposition groups dedicated to overthrowing Saddam. “He ironically called [his palaces] the people’s palaces. The people have been starving.”

Mukliss, who left his native country in 1977, is one of several prominent Iraqi exiles bucking the majority of American Arab and Islamic organizations by speaking out strongly in favor of an American invasion.

“A lot of Arabs don’t like to hear what I have to say,” Mukliss said.

Mukliss and several other Iraqi-Americans interviewed by the Forward said that the lack of intimate contact with Saddam’s brutal regime, plus several misconceptions and misguided priorities, accounts for mounting Arab and Muslim opposition to a war.

The Iraqi people have already demonstrated their desire for a regime change in Baghdad, according to Zainab al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress, who cited the popular rebellion inside Iraq at the end of the Gulf War in 1991 as proof of his claim.

“We rose up [and liberated 14] out of 18 provinces,” al-Suwaij told the Forward, referring to the provinces seized by anti-Saddam rebels. “The Iraqi people are eager to liberate, eager to live in freedom.”

A frequent argument made by opponents of war is that the Iraqi people will suffer from an American invasion, but at least one pro-war Iraqi-American disagreed.

“A lot of Arabs wrongly think an attack on Saddam is an attack on Iraq,” said Laith Kubba, a founding member of the main opposition umbrella group, the Iraqi National Congress. But Kubba, who came to the United States from Iraq 25 years ago, described such thinking as a “fatal error.”

During the late 1980s, when Saddam was actively supported by Washington, Kubba was leading anti-Saddam protests at universities across the country. “The biggest curse on Iraq is Saddam,” Kubba said.

Still, despite condemnations from Iraqis who have suffered under the current regime, as well as numerous reports of massive human rights violations, Saddam remains a popular figure among many Arabs throughout the world.

Mukliss attributed the Iraqi leader’s popularity to his support of the Palestinian intifada. “Saddam has really exploited it so much,” Mukliss said. “He gives money to Palestinians, but he’s doing it for himself. He’s not doing it for Palestine.”

Also, Mukliss observed, the Arab and Muslim publics are sensitive to what they perceive as America’s inconsistent Middle East foreign policy: It ignores Israeli violations of United Nations resolutions, he said, as it prepares to wage war to force Iraq to comply with them.

“This kind of double standard is what they’re looking at,” Mukliss said.

Most of the Iraqi exiles contacted by the Forward, however, argued that the main reason for Saddam’s Arab support was widespread ignorance of how horribly the Iraqi people have suffered under the dictator’s rule.

“Many who are in the Muslim world are not aware of how [badly] Saddam is treating his people,” Suwaij said.

Such theories were rejected by several Arab- and Muslim-American figures opposed to war.

“I resent the way the discourse around this is shaped,” said Sinan Antoon, an author and doctoral candidate who teaches Arabic language and literature at Harvard University. “If you’re against the war, then you are for Saddam — this is exactly the way Saddam shaped his discourse during the Iran-Iraq war: You are either for the war or a traitor.”

Antoon acknowledged that Iraqi exiles are more likely than other Arabs to favor war, but he charged that the White House does not share their commitment to improving post-Saddam conditions.

“Many if not most Americans —and that includes Iraqis who are living in the U.S. — are not fully aware of what the administration has in store for Iraq: military occupation and direct control of the country’s resources,” Antoon said. He added that this would translate into “lip-service to social programs and to fixing the country’s infrastructure.”

Antoon also said that several hundred Iraqi exiles had signed petitions against the war.

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said that opinion within the Iraqi-American community is mixed.

“Among those who are not in favor of war, it is not because of a love for the regime [but because of what the] impact of war will be,” Zogby said. “My opposition, and the opposition of many other analysts, is based more on the impact of the war on our country.”

Zogby warned that a war could lead to the collapse of pro-American governments in Jordan and Pakistan after the invasion. “Wanting to do something real bad is not a justification for doing it,” Zogby said. Destabilizing the region, he argued, could prove a boon for only one man: Osama bin Laden.

In rejecting such gloomy predictions, pro-war Iraqis pointed to the semi-autonomous Kurdish state that was established in northern Iraq after the Gulf War.

“You have after 1991 up until now semi-independence [because of the] United States’ and Great Britain’s no-flight-zones,” said Mohammed Sabir, Washington representative for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two factions that control northern Iraq.

Sabir said that the Kurds have seized the opportunity to build an ideal Middle Eastern country. The Kurdish government has rebuilt 80% of the villages that Saddam destroyed during the Iran-Iraq war and the Gulf War, as well as hundreds of schools, clinics and even Internet cafés, Sabir said.

“We’re very thankful,” Sabir said. “But it’s very fragile — like a bubble. The Kurdish people have suffered too much. We need a permanent solution.”

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