U.S. Attack on Iraq Angers Arabs

KILOMETRES down the highway, past the hordes of media, the satellite trucks and multiple army checkpoints, the man with the violin is standing alone at the Iraqi border, shivering in the gathering desert darkness.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 31, 2003

U.S. Attack on Iraq Angers Arabs

KILOMETRES down the highway, past the hordes of media, the satellite trucks and multiple army checkpoints, the man with the violin is standing alone at the Iraqi border, shivering in the gathering desert darkness. The crossing at Jordan's eastern frontier is open, the road to Baghdad still passable for those courageous or foolhardy enough to disregard the threat of American fighter jets and the fiery rain of cruise missiles that awaits them at the other end. Tom Little-Moore, a ponytailed elementary school teacher from Rochester, N.Y., is determined to offer his body as a human shield. He departed from home the night before George W. Bush announced that war had begun, maxing the credit card and leaving his wife to explain things to their three daughters and his bosses. "I hoped to go to Baghdad to cheer people up," the veteran activist says. "Play my violin, sing, dance - make the most of being human. If I can in a small way give people in this region the sense that all Americans aren't against them, I will have succeeded."

Saddam Hussein's men at the border are not easily charmed by folk tunes. Sticklers to the end, they have sent Little-Moore back to Amman to beg for a visa. But as the war intensifies, it will take more than small gestures of goodwill to convince Iraqis and many of their neighbours that Americans - whether they bear arms or musical instruments - have their best interests at heart.

The "shock and awe" images of flaming mushroom clouds rising over the Baghdad skyline, spilling from television sets each evening, have hardened already skeptical Arab opinion about British and U.S. efforts to depose Saddam and his henchmen. The first days of military action sparked violent protests throughout the Middle East. In Sanaa, Yemen, a crowd of more than 3,000 tried to storm the U.S. embassy, chanting "Death to America!" Two demonstrators were shot dead. Police in Cairo, Bahrain, and Lebanon also clashed with protestors.

In Jordan, crowds of students, union members and lawyers defied government restrictions, marching through the streets of Amman and chanting anti-U.S. slogans. After Friday prayers, 7,000 residents of the Whidat Palestinian refugee camp, just outside the capital, gathered on an athletic field, chanting, "Where are the Arab armies?" and "We will not give up on Saddam." Youths and riot police exchanged stones and rubber bullets. Seven people were arrested.

Perhaps more than any other Arab nation, Jordan is engaged in a precarious balancing act between the interests of its close ally America and the emotions of its population. Steering a radically different course from his late father's during the first Gulf War, King Abdullah has opened his country's airspace and military bases to coalition forces (the numbers are being kept secret, but best estimates suggest that some 6,000 U.S., British and, reportedly, Israeli special forces personnel have been deployed along the 150-km border with Iraq). The number of missions being launched from Jordan seems certain to grow. In return, it is expected that the U.S. may more than double the US$460 million in military and economic aid it gives the kingdom each year. Enough to make up for the loss of cheap Iraqi oil (Baghdad had given Jordan a sweetheart deal) that has subsidized the local economy.

But the King has set himself a grand task in convincing Jordanians that actively backing the U.S. is the best way to further the country's interests. Public anger was already running high over the 30-month Palestinian intifada, which many see as a direct result of America's pro-Israel foreign policy (about half of Jordan's population of 5.3 million are Palestinian refugees). There are also close historic ties to Iraq. A January poll showed 88 per cent of Jordanians were opposed to lending any aid to a U.S. attack.

Last week, King Adullah took to the airwaves to plead for calm and understanding. "We used all our relations with influential countries in this world and worked with all possible means to avert this war and its catastrophic ramifications," he said. "I know the pain and anger you are feeling because of the suffering and the ordeal that the Iraqi people are facing. But let us all be one hand, one family, one heart, and let us work in the spirit of one team in order to preserve our security and stability."

The sentiment on Jordan's streets, among both rich and poor, suggests the King and his government are rowing against the tide. Beneath the hot anger of the demonstrations, there is weariness, frustration and a deepening sense of disconnect between the rulers and the ruled. In the al-Hussein Palestinian refugee camp near the centre of Amman, shoppers and merchants at the market are universal in their condemnation of the war on Iraq and Jordan's part in it. Applying a cleaver to pieces of goat on his butcher's block, Abdul Munnem Oyshi struggles to put his emotions into words. "It's a crime," he says, pausing to wipe his hands on his blood-stained coat. "Bush says he wants to do this for peace, but all he is doing is separating the Christian and the Muslim world. Nothing good will come from this."

Outside, on the street, Mohammed Bilal is stacking crates of dirty tomatoes. Tall and slight, with a thin moustache, he wears a Palestinian-flag headband and talks with the bravado displayed by most 18-year-old boys. "All that we hope is that the government will open the border and let us go fight," he says. "We will eat the Americans alive. I will even take my mother to fight."

In the plaza in front of Amman's historic al-Husseini mosque, a group of labourers are sipping tea. They uniformly denounce U.S. and British efforts to tie the war to a new "road map" for peace in neigbouring Israel and the occupied territories. "They're only mentioning it now because they want to divert the attention of the Arab world and divide opinion in the streets," says Rahim Abdullah Rahim, 74, a Palestinian whose family left Nablus more than a generation ago. "Because of the policies of the Bush government, it's not going to be the Arabs against the United States, it's going to be the world against America," predicts his friend Abullah Khanin.

In Sweifieh, an upscale neighbourhood of western boutiques and cafés, an older man in a traditional burnoose is taking shelter from the rain, admiring the Cartier watches in a jeweller's window. In perfect English - the by-product of an M.A. in California and an engineering Ph.D. in Colorado - he explains his opposition to the war. "It's true that the Iraqi people would be better off without Saddam," he says, "but this is not the way to go about it, by destroying Iraq." He expresses admiration for the people of the United States, but hatred for its "devilish" government. "I'm indignant - this is an illegal war not only against Iraq, but the UN as well," he says. "And I am ashamed of what my government has done. This isn't a democratic regime. It's not representing the interests of the people." He will not give his name.

Abd al-Latif Arabiyat, elder statesman of the Islamic Action Front, the largest political party, says the protests will grow both at home and abroad. "We have only a few centimetres of freedom here," he says, pinching the air between his thumb and index finger. "We are using it." People in the Arab world are beginning to stand up to their rulers, he says, to express their desire for a unified opposition to U.S. Mideast empire-building. "It's very clear to me that the Americans had a plan long before Sept. 11," says Arabiyat. TV footage of U.S. marines raising, then quickly taking down, the Stars and Stripes over the Iraqi port city of Umm Qasr on the weekend exposed their true plan - occupation, not liberation, he says. "In the last century, the British and the French colonized in a very devious way by promising to free us from the Ottomans and educate our people. This time, in this cowboy manner, it's not clever at all. People here are starting to awaken to what is going on."

While Arabiyat and his colleagues in the IAF are committed to change through peaceful democratic means, there is concern among Western governments that such rhetoric and emotion, along with the television pictures from Baghdad, could help feed a backlash against diplomats, expatriates and journalists working throughout the Middle East. Most foreign airlines have cancelled their service to the region, and citizens of the United States, Britain, Canada and most European countries have been advised to curtail travel. Those working here have been counselled to leave, or, if that is impractical, to at least keep a low profile and stay away from such public places as bars, health clubs and shopping malls.

The U.S. and British embassies have suspended all services, and tanks and heavily armed police guard the streets outside the fortress-like diplomatic compounds. The Canadian embassy is maintaining a skeleton staff. Eric Mercier, a local spokesman, said the vast majority of Canadians have elected to stay put for the moment. "Most of our citizens in this country are of Jordanian descent and feel equally at home here as in Canada," he says. "And to date there haven't been any reports of problems."

Security concerns aside, in coming weeks the biggest issue for Jordan and its international partners is the prospect of a humanitarian crisis in Iraq that could send tens of thousands of refugees eastward seeking sustenance and shelter. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Society, and the UN's International Organization for Migration, have begun work on two camps to hold up to 30,000 people outside the dusty town of ar-Ruwayshid, about 60 km west of the Iraqi border. So far, the demand for the white canvas tents and cinder-block washrooms set up on the rocky black-and-tan plain has been slim. Late last week, the only activity at the UN camp was workers erecting portraits of King Abdullah and a high-wire fence around the perimeter.

By mid-weekend, fewer than 500 refugees, all from third countries like Sudan, Somalia, Chad and Egypt, had crossed the border, and the flow appeared to have stopped as bombing intensified in Baghdad and U.S. forces started taking control of the highway. The Jordanians were not allowing Iraqis to cross, but few had tried - about 15 people were stuck in the kilometre-wide no man's land between the two countries, waiting for permission to enter.

In the cool wind and rain at the Red Cross "transit" camp, several hundred foreign workers from Baghdad were preparing to board buses to Amman's airport and flights for home. Most had started their 11-hour journey to the Jordanian frontier after the first night of bombings. They described a terrifying drive without headlights down a deserted highway, punctuated with glimpses of American fighter planes in action. "The cruise missiles were just coming in. There were no air defences," said Amin Mohammed, a Sudanese national who was working as a construction labourer in the Iraqi capital. "We didn't see any Iraqi forces anywhere along the road. Maybe they are hiding." Abdu Herse, a Somali merchant who has lived in Baghdad for the past 20 years, decided to seek safety with his wife and four children. He predicted that the Americans would meet tough resistance from Saddam's Republican Guard: "There's going to be a horrible battle in the city. It's going to be street-to-street fighting. The Iraqis are really dug in."

Even more than a refugee crisis, the hundreds of international aid workers poised for action in Jordan fear the results within Iraq of a protracted U.S. and British bombing campaign. Impoverished and weakened by more than a decade of international sanctions, the country has few resources to carry the general population through a long conflict. "All the indicators are already in the red zone, and we are very, very concerned," says Véronique Taveau, a spokeswoman for the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq. "The situation is already bad and we'll soon be facing a catastrophe." Even before the hostilities, 60 per cent of Iraqis were fully dependent on international aid groups for food, according to the UN. The quality of water, even when treatment plants are up and running, is questionable. So far, the international community, including Canada, has committed just over US$20 million to relief efforts, far short of the US$60-million short-term needs.

Geoffrey Keele, a 34-year-old from Saskatoon who was working for UNICEF in Baghdad until his evacuation earlier this month, says the situation for Iraqi children is even more dire. One in eight die before they reach the age of five. "That's a child mortality rate that is worse than Haiti, Eritrea or Sudan," he notes. One million children are malnourished. In anticipation of a war, UNICEF had been working to distribute high-protein biscuits and milk to children's hospitals, as well as install backup generators for water treatment and sewage plants. Now Keele and his colleagues are gathered in Amman, awaiting clearance to return to Iraq to begin to face the even bigger challenges that loom in the future. "We have left behind a lot of very professional Iraqi colleagues," says Keele. "It's a very traumatic time for them. The bombs are falling, people are scared. But they're still getting up every morning and going to work, trying to make a difference."

On the barren 280-km stretch of highway between Amman and the Iraqi border, what little traffic there is can easily be divided into three categories: the white four-by-fours that have become the internationally recognized choice of aid workers, battered taxis ferrying journalists to and from the frontier, and the dilapidated trucks and cars of Iraqi travellers, determined to return home. At the rest stops in the few villages along the way, they congregate at the kebab stands and tea shops, exchanging scraps of information. In al-Sawafi, Mahmoud Awad is sitting in the cab of his rusting gasoline tanker truck, smoking. It's been 10 days since he left his family in ar-Ramadi, 120 km west of Baghdad. To date, there hadn't been much action around his town. "I don't know what will happen - only God knows," he says, before driving away. "I just hope the Americans lose."

Further down the road toward Amman, Mohammed Rimawi, another trucker trying to get back to Iraq, asks a reporter in a tea shop if he's American. "Not that it matters," he's quick to add after receiving a negative reply. "As long as you're a civilian." Rimawi has two wives and 16 kids waiting at home. "I know I won't be able to get back to Jordan, but I want to make sure my family is OK." He doesn't want to answer questions about what's at stake, or the possibility of life after Saddam, issues far outside his daily experience. "It's all about politics and it seems to be a very dirty game," he says. "This time we just hope something good will come out of it." The fighter jets scream overhead, drowning out the rest of his answer. They're heading east, the same direction he is.


Iraq is rich in oil but divided along religious and ethnic lines. Roughly 60 per cent of its 23.3 million people are Shia Arabs, but under Saddam Hussein Iraq has been controlled by Sunni Arabs who make up only 20 per cent of the population. (Sunni Kurds account for most of the remaining 20 per cent.) The Sunni Arabs have benefited the most from oil sales.


Where is Saddam Hussein? In the opening salvo of the war, the U.S. fired a barrage of cruise missiles into a leadership compound in Baghdad. Saddam appeared on television the following day, but analysts believe the broadcast was previously recorded. He was not seen again, raising speculation that he may have been injured in the attack. There were also rumours that U.S. officials were negotiating with Saddam through a French emissary about leaving his country and accepting exile in Mauritania. Other developments:

- To ensure the U.S. does not take control of Iraq's rich oil reserves, Russia and France want the UN to administer Iraq following the war. Canadian Foreign Minister Bill Graham agreed, telling the House of Commons the UN, not the United States, should be in charge of rebuilding the country.

- Reports claimed Turkish commandos had crossed into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. But the Turkish government issued a denial, saying that if the army does cross the border it will be to control an expected flood of Kurdish refugees into Turkey.

- A much-feared ecological disaster was largely avoided with the capture of oil fields. A few wells were set on fire by Iraqi forces, but in the north, U.S. soldiers captured the massive Kirkuk fields, while in the south British and U.S. forces also captured fields as well as Umm Qasr, Iraq's only deep-water port, where it had been feared Iraqis might let oil flow directly into the Persian Gulf.

Maclean's March 31, 2003