SAFWAN, Iraq – A week after American tanks rolled through their
town, a group of Shiite Muslim men here is making a daring move to
open a new mosque.
Saddam Hussein’s henchmen for years denied permission to do this,
in line with his decades of ruthless suppression of the Shiites.
The men now are emboldened by America’s invasion.
Yet as they defy the Iraqi regime, they also are ambivalent about
embracing an America they deeply mistrust.
“I don’t like Saddam Hussein, but I like Iraq,” said farmer Hamed
al-Anizi, 45, ranting against U.S. bombing and praising
paramilitary forces waging resistance against U.S. forces as
He and fellow farmers laughed at the notion of working with America
to establish a democracy in postwar Iraq. The only power they’ll
respect in the future: “Allah,” the men say, nodding in
The situation in this farming town of 24,000 offers an early look
at Iraq and the forces shaping what may be a longer war than many
Safwan is fearful, volatile and far from grateful for the allies’
presence. Local officials loyal to Hussein struggle to retain
control, directing fighters that military officials say are capable
of launching ambush or suicide attacks on U.S. supply lines.
They badger the townspeople who are thirsty and reduced to looting
as the first Kuwaiti aid convoys approach their scattered mud-brick
and cement-block houses, wilting green vegetable patches, and
dilapidated, mile-long main street. One minute, young men riding in
pickups flash thumbs- up for America, begging for water and
cigarettes. Next minute, they lapse into singing for Hussein:
“Saddam a good man!”
This might be a moment for trying to sway hearts and minds – a
crucial part of the Bush administration plan to rebuild Iraq into a
beacon of democracy for the Middle East.
But American humanitarian workers have stayed out, with southern
Iraq deemed potentially deadly. U.S. troops now skirt Safwan and
other southern towns as they move north toward Baghdad. America is
visible only as a distant, green-black-and-brown-splotched boa of
gun-topped war machines.
The Pentagon has claimed control over more than 30 percent of
Here, British troops find control is tenuous at best. On Saturday,
Col. Chris Vernon, a British military spokesman, announced a new
counterinsurgency campaign that will run parallel to fighting the
war. Iraqi forces that continue to fire low-trajectory missiles
regularly at Kuwait probably are based in southern Iraq, Vernon
At first “Safwan did not pose a threat,” but now strengthened
patrols will try “to win the people and appear non-oppressive to
them,” Vernon said.
The most vulnerable here simply cower.
“I am afraid,” said 10-year-old Salwah Ganem, who was barefoot,
wearing a yellow dress and squatting in a dusty field about 5 miles
north of Safwan as a helicopter swooped about 100 feet overhead.
Tears streamed down her face. Finally, her three barefoot brothers
and mother, clad in black, arrived. The mother hoisted an emergency
Red Crescent box of water and food on her head, and they walked
away into the hot, gritty haze.
While a dozen or so patrolling British soldiers spoke into headset
microphones, Kuwaiti Red Crescent workers unloaded hundreds of
these boxes. More than 500 Iraqis rushed to the scene, lined up,
then began pushing, fighting and shouting.
Standing back by his battered Toyota pickup, tomato farmer Mohamad
Khalid, 33, said Hussein “has left us with nothing.” He clutched
two nearly empty vials of insulin, hoping to find a doctor who
could supply more.
Some Iraqis will support Americans, Khal
Iraq’s neighbors warn of backlash
Syrians and Jordanians: ‘Democracy does not ride in on top of American tanks’
DAMASCUS, Syria – Arab students at the Fakhresham Language Center
spend hard-won family savings to fulfill the school’s promise:
“Speak English as Fluently as Americans Do.”
They hone their accents in halls festooned with red, white and blue
“Let Freedom Ring” banners that director Moutaz Kalam bought
during a visit with relatives in Denver.
But now these admirers of America in Syria – a country the U.S.
government labels a sponsor of terrorism – cry betrayal at the
prospect of war against neighboring Iraq. Kalam, 32, worries that
students will quit if he sticks with his American imagery, and he
ponders a new “learn the language of the enemy” pitch.
“Be ready for the reaction” to a war on Iraq, Kalam said. “Maybe
your government takes their decision because they think American
people don’t care. But if the outcome is hatred, it’s going to be a
big loss for your nation.”
Such are the signs of backlash across the Arab-
Muslim world, where 1.2 billion people increasingly reject a
once-revered America because it seems to be letting them down. Many
who previously were drawn to U.S. culture and democracy now see
America primarily as a bully gluttonous for oil.
The tilt is not in favor of Saddam Hussein but rather against U.S.
power. Arabs interviewed in Syria and Jordan this past week oppose
war without United Nations approval as unfair. They question U.S.
targeting of Muslim Iraq while America also aids Israel against
Palestinians, tolerates North Korean missile tests and downplays
what they consider the root causes of terrorism. Mostly, they
mistrust America’s promise to ensure democracy in Iraq and beyond
when they are looking down the barrel of a gun.
“Democracy does not ride in on top of American tanks,” said Ali
Orsan, president of the Arab Writers Union, which represents public
opinion leaders in 16 countries. “What’s changing is the
trustworthiness of America. Before, America really was fighting for
democracy. Now, America is fighting for its own interests under the
name of democracy.”
Syrian President Bashar Assad has led Arab-Muslim opposition to a
war, denouncing U.S. “pretexts” for “domination of the region.”
Syria serves as a lifeline for Iraq, allowing oil experts via
Mediterranean ports that bring billions to Hussein’s regime.
America wants Arabs “with beating hearts and nonworking minds,”
Assad said, rallying fellow rulers at a recent summit in Egypt.
This followed Turkey’s refusal to admit U.S. troops headed for war
on Iraq. Anti-war protests in Morocco, Turkey and Pakistan have
intensified. On Wednesday, Turkish troops fired shots over
protesters in the port of Iskenderun, where U.S. troops were
unloading war supplies.
Authoritarian governments in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan, which
quietly support U.S. war preparations, also face popular anger. In
Jordan’s capital, Amman, the opposition Muslim Brotherhood last
week denounced military action in Iraq, demanded that King Abdullah
cut Jordan’s ties with Israel, and called for sharia, or Islamic
Some U.S. advocates of a war contend Arab-Muslim backlash is
inevitable, the result of pent-up rage in dysfunctional societies.
“There will be assaults on America,” said Lebanese-American
professor Fouad Ajami of the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced
International Studies, who has advised White House and Pentagon
But critics contend that backlash could disrupt the volatile Middle
East and that making Americans safer from terrorism ought to take
priority over ousting Hussein now.
Arab governments that U.S. officials rely on for help catching
terrorists “will be constrained by public opinion if it is
increasingly hostile to the United States,” said Ambassador Phil
Wilcox, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in
Washington, D.C., and former coordinator of U.S. counterterrorism
Invading Iraq now “will weaken our efforts to identify and
apprehend terrorists,” Wilcox said. “And it will create a climate
of hostility in which new terrorists can breed.”
U.S. diplomats around the Middle East are bracing for action.
Family members have moved. Embassy duck-and-cover drills heighten
awareness of regular bomb threats in Jordan.
In Syria, diplomats anticipate government-organized demonstrations
if war breaks out. After the 1998 missile attacks on Iraq, a mob
barged into the U.S. Embassy compound in Damascus, sacked the
ambassador’s residence, cornered his wife in a safe room, and began
burning her out before Marines came to the rescue.
The coalition of “the willing” that President Bush has sought
simply isn’t shaping up in the rocky hills where Bedouins herd
sheep or the working class, urban living rooms where 24-hour
television news blares, or the cafes where intellectuals sip
Consider the Kattan family in their basement apartment here, where
creamy white curtains and a massive chandelier lend regal elegance
to the room in which brothers Oday, 7, and Layth, 9, play with
their baby sister, Judi. Al-Jazeera images of Palestinians fighting
Israeli tanks flash.
Young Layth has concluded that “Americans just want to get oil out
of Iraq to America.” He asks: “Why does your American government
help Israel to kill Palestinian women and children?”
His mother, Louay, 36, nodding at the television, laments that war
on Iraq will bring more images of blood and destruction into her
home – unsettling her children with what feels like an attack
against Muslims, she said.
Husband Mohamad, 36, a construction engineer, warned that the
outcome of war “will be worse for the United States than Iraq.
This will unite Arabs,” he said, and held up two parted fingers.
“Victory for Muslim people.”
Many Arabs distinguish between American people and their
government. Images of U.S. anti-war demonstrations – more massive
than what governments permit here – made an impression. Some also
know that Muslims live happily in America.
“We love the American people, when they visit us and when we visit
them,” said Muslim preacher Waleed Haq, 43, perched on cushions at
his riverside central mosque recently after leading the evening
Yet the Bush administration’s “public diplomacy” to mobilize
opposition to Saddam Hussein is failing. When Jordanians refer to
“that crazy man,” they mean Bush. Down the steps from hillside
apartments, in Amman’s Theater Internet Cafe, dread of the damage
Bush could cause drowns out talk of local affairs. Here, men from
around the Middle East, visiting Muslims from London, and
occasional Iraq-bound activists converge for $1-an-hour Internet
“This stupid man! He will kill millions in Iraq! He thinks he the
policeman for all this world,” fumed owner Essam Awayes, 27,
serving tea at his counter beneath a portrait of Jordan’s King
Awayes said he once loved America.
“I always saw American movies. I wanted to go and see if it was
true how people were living. I always thought American people were
He worked awhile for IBM in Jordan before moving for better money
to Dubai on the Persian Gulf.
“Now go to America?” he said. “No. Not now. Because they elected
this crazy man.”
Some Arabs now are considering whether they should join Iraqis
fighting Americans. Out on Syrian’s basalt-streaked desert steppe
near the border with Iraq, Bedouin herders Ahmad and Kald Alden set
up a “Bagdad Caf” to augment their earnings from sheep. They give
out hand-painted flat rocks as business cards. They once sold many
trinkets to tourists who flocked to Roman ruins at Palmyra. U.S.
talk of war on Iraq has killed their business.
If only Bush and Hussein would stop here for coffee, said Kald, 30.
“I’d sit them down at a table in the back for a private peace
The Aldens are devout Muslims, adhering strictly to the Koran –
“like a constitution for us,” said Ahmad, 31, ducking into the
cafe after adjusting a rattling oily generator that powers their
water pump and light.
“In the Koran it says we should fight those who fight us.
Otherwise, do not be the aggressor against those who are peaceful.
The Israelis are fighting us. We must fight them. And if the
Americans fight the Iraqis, we have to fight back. We have to
So Ahmad may cross the desert and enter Iraq to fight off American
aggressors, he said. “If not me, my brother.”
The problem he sees is that “America’s real intent is not only
Iraq,” he said. “It wants to control the region. So, if U.S.
troops attack, we have to help defend Iraq. Syria will be next.
Then, the whole Arab world.”