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Waiting for the War

1.

In Amman, the capital of Jordan, the waiting is intense. “It is the uncertainty that’s killing us,” said a young woman in one of the city’s ministries as freezing rain lashed the streets outside. When is the war going to start? How long will it last? What will happen? Everyone wants to know, but nobody has the answers. Amman is heavy with journalists, spies, and diplomats. Jordanians are angry and frightened by the prospect of war, but the many Iraqi exiles living there are excited, although apprehensive. They are daring to hope that the days of the “Saddamites,” as they call them, are truly numbered.

In the bar of the Hyatt hotel I talked with Ibrahim Janabi, a leader of the Iraqi National Accord (INA), one of Iraq’s opposition groups, which was set up in 1990 and includes many defectors. He wore a dramatic white scarf and a brown leather jacket, and reminisced about his time as an Iraqi agent in London in the late 1980s. He had been posted there to coordinate the operations of Saddam Hussein’s various intelligence organizations. “My cover was to be a graduate student in information science.” Something went wrong, though. Mr. Janabi was recalled to Baghdad and thrown into jail. A few years after he was released he fled to Jordan and joined the opposition.

Mr. Janabi was in a state of high excitement. He told me that he had just received word from a courier that men from his organization, working together with Americans operating undercover in Baghdad, had set off “three or four” bombs in buildings belonging to different intelligence services. They had exploded at night and only a few people had been injured. Naturally, he said, the government of Saddam Hussein was keeping the incidents quiet because otherwise Iraqis would think that the security services were losing their grip. Now, he chuckled, intelligence organizations were at each other’s throats, each blaming the other.

Mr. Janabi went on to explain how “our men still inside the regime” would, when the right moment came—and he thought that that would be very soon—“start to do their duties, to capture all the important locations.” He said they would take over the army and security forces and, “at the same time, not let Saddam or his close circle use chemical or biological weapons against the Iraqi people or allied forces.” He did not say just how. But he added darkly that “top people” in Baghdad “know that if they are not with us they will die.” He also predicted that once the military campaign began, whole towns and regions would immediately go over to the opposition.

As Mr. Janabi rapturously described his view of the coming liberation of Iraq and the campaign, which he said had already started, I was quite aware that I could not check on a word he said. As for the bombs, the story might be true, but it might equally be a fantasy or part of a deliberate disinformation campaign, the aim of which might be to begin to get such stories circulating inside Iraq. A diplomat I talked to said he did not believe a word of it. As for Mr. Janabi’s description of a regime that was so rotten it would collapse at the first push, this may or may not turn out to be true, but it is the sort of thing one expects Mr. Janabi and his friends to say.

There are believed to be up to 300,000 Iraqis living in Jordan. Most of them are from modest backgrounds, laborers and their families, but there are also tens of thousands of educated middle-class families who have been forced to flee Iraq, either for political or economic reasons, or both. At the moment, thousands more are coming because they want to get out of the way of the bombs or the chaos in the aftermath of the expected fall of Saddam. Because of this influx the price of renting houses and apartments is shooting up in Amman.

On the outskirts of the city is a district where taxis and buses arrive from and leave for Baghdad, a drive of some twelve hours. The Iraqi taxi drivers are looking for business and some of the buses have portraits of Saddam plastered onto their front windshields. None of the drivers I spoke to seemed to think there would be a war because, said a driver called Zubeidi, “all the countries are with Iraq.” Still, he added, if there was a war, “children and men will all fight the US.” Another man, a cleric called Sheikh Majid al-Masadani, said, “We will fight with Saddam. He is our flag and our boss. If someone came to take your country, would you accept it?”

Later, in a restaurant, I told Ahmad, the young Palestinian who ran it, what the Iraqi drivers had said. Ahmad is passionately against a war but he said, “To tell you the truth all the Iraqis hate Saddam, but those drivers, they come and go and don’t know who works for the police. That is Saddam’s success, to make people afraid.” But things may be changing. At least Jamila, an exile who left in the 1970s, thought so. She told me that over the last few weeks, talking by phone to her family and friends in Baghdad, “the fear has gone.” She told me that the people she talked to were asking, “When are they coming?” meaning the Americans. Until now, she said, no Iraqi would talk openly on the phone because they were frightened that the Mukhabarat, the secret police, were listening. Now she said they were excited. “They are not afraid of bombing, their fear is that the US will pull back and that Saddam will stay.”

In Jamila’s house I met a group of other Iraqi exiles, all of whom had come to Amman in the past few years. I was told their views were fairly typical among the exiles, but of course that would be hard to know. Because they knew one another and trusted Jamila they agreed to talk to me so long as I did not use their real names. One of the group had fled to Jordan in 1999 because the Mukhabarat had asked him to go abroad and kill a member of his family who was involved in opposition politics. Apparently this is not uncommon. The logic is that it is easier for a trusted family member than for an unknown assassin to see the intended victim and then kill him.

When I asked him if he would support an American-led attack, he shifted uncomfortably and said, “Do the American people really want to help the Iraqi people and install democracy? I doubt it.” However when I pressed him he said, “If they are just coming to free the Iraqi people then all the Iraqis will be behind them; but, if they are coming to stay, every Iraqi will fight. We don’t know their intentions.”

Another man, whom we agreed to call Mohammed, had been in Jordan for a year. One of his brothers had been in a sensitive government job, but he had made some incautious remarks about Saddam. The Mukhabarat arrested him at his office and he was shot soon afterward. They claimed that he had been trying to escape. For more than three months his family couldn’t find his body. Finally his father was summoned to the Mukhabarat and told that his son had been a “traitor and criminal.” He was given a death certificate allowing him to collect his son’s remains. But the Mukhabarat had sent the body to a morgue under a false name, and that is why the family had not been able to find it.

Mohammed was a military technician. In his field there had been a number of fatal accidents with military equipment. The reason, he said, was that the equipment was old and lacked spare parts. However, the authorities needed a scapegoat and because of his brother he was likely to be accused. The investigator into the accidents was friendly though, and tipped him off, giving him enough time to flee.

Mohammed’s view of the possible coming war was this: “Imagine I have cancer in my hand. I want to eliminate it. Whether the doctor is American, English, or Jewish, all I wish is for the doctor to carry out the operation and rid me of this cancer. After I am cured this surgeon wants to be paid, and I will happily pay him and we will remain friends. But if his fee for curing me is [for me] to give another part of my body, then no way.” Although he was talking in metaphors, Mohammed’s explanation seemed consistent with what the others in the group thought. In the view of most of them, the Americans would be welcome to free Iraq from Saddam. They could make deals over oil, but any attempt to take more permanent control of the country or its oil would quickly turn Iraqis against their liberators.

In the group of seven Iraqis only one said he was against an American attack. Ali, a Shiite from Najaf in the south, said he had participated in the “intifada” in Iraq against Saddam after the Gulf War ended in 1991. He had been in Amman since 1998. The 1991 uprising had been encouraged by Bush senior, but, fearing both the disintegration of Iraq and an Iranian-backed Islamic revolution, Bush had backed off and allowed Saddam’s troops to regroup and crush the Shiites in the south and the Kurds in the north.

After the intifada, Shiite men were rounded up and imprisoned and many were killed. However, the authorities did not know exactly who had taken part in it and who had not. Ali was picked up and crammed into a cell with fifty-seven others. The guards then tossed in scorpions and said they would kill anyone who tried to kill one. In the next cell, Ali said, men were forced to “sit” on bottles.

Ali told me that he did not want the Americans to invade because of the experience of 1991. He said that American planes had bombed the rebels, a claim which provoked protests from the other Iraqis present who said that while American planes had been flying and had let Iraqi helicopter gunships do the killing, the US planes had not actually done the bombing themselves. Whether they did or did not remained a matter of dispute. Still, Ali stuck to his guns. The Americans were only after Iraqi oil, he said, they wanted to break a link in a chain of countries—Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Iran—“whose people don’t want peace with Israel,” and they did not want “Muslim rule in the area.” He said that after Saddam was gone, Shiites, who make up some 60 percent of the population, “should rule Iraq,” though others could have a voice in a new legislature. The others present loudly objected once again.

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