Hussein's fiery reaction echoed by ordinary Iraqis

January 14, 1993|By Susan Sachs | Susan Sachs,Newsday

BAGHDAD,IRAQ — BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Saddam Hussein's farewell message to his nemesis in the White House was chilling, bitter and unrepentant.

"Damn the American aggressors and their agents!" he said in a live television address four hours after allied warplanes bombed military targets in southern Iraq yesterday. "Let Iraqi skies be filled with fireballs and flames against the aggressors from south to north, from east to west.

"The criminals," he declared, igniting, in his words, a holy war.

"Let every plane be a target for you," the Iraqi president told his people. "Just mention God's name and it will be destroyed."

a nation that has never acknowledged defeat, despite all the evidence to the contrary, Mr. Hussein's bombast in the face of international condemnation stirred pride -- even exhilaration --in the hearts of many Iraqis.

"We are not worried about the possibility of a war," said Daoud al-Asoud, a frail 70-year-old Baghdad lawyer who professes himself ready to sacrifice his three sons to the defense of Iraq's national pride. "We believe that anyone who dies will go to paradise. So we are not afraid of death."

At the long lines into gasoline stations, in the newspapers and on the street, Iraqis cursed President Bush with a fervor matching their leader's.

"Repulsive and nauseating Bush wants an excuse to attack Iraq in order to satisfy his sick genocidal mind," wrote a well-known commentator in the government newspaper al-Thawra, in its morning edition.

Even in his final days as president, Mr. Bush is not spared in Iraqi conversations. "I meet every day with many people," Mr. VTC al-Asoud said. "And no one blames France or Britain or Russia for Iraq's misery. They all blame Bush and America."

In the countdown to the allied attack, Baghdad was a mix of the surreal and the mundane.

Customers shivered in the shabby open-air restaurants along the Tigris River, where national tradition demands that waiters beat gasping river fish to death with clubs before cooking them over coals for dinner. Television sets were turned on above the cash register. Nobody was watching.

In Liberation Square in central Baghdad, the news ticker scrolled a digital message that seemed to come from another place and time. "To keep the capital clean is everyone's responsibility," the neon bulletin scolded. "Baghdad is a green garden, so keep it clean."

At al-Sa'ah restaurant, one diner was Ayad Azawi, a 28-year-old doctor who stopped in for fried chicken and french fries after his hospital shift. The hospital was not on alert. He had not heard about the bombing raid, but the news did not surprise him. Nor did it appear to rattle him.

"Frightened? Of course not," he said. "We are ready to die. We want to sacrifice ourselves."

And for what? he was asked.

"The United Nations went too far," Dr. Azawi said, jabbing at his fries. "We had to say 'no.' America hates us. They hate all Arabs. We know that America wants to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Not us. We want him to stay."

That fondness for a strongman explains much of Iraq's tenacity in the face of two years of economic sanctions, war and isolation. Patriotic songs have been written about the country's ability to reconstruct its power plants, factories, bridges and roads after the Persian Gulf war two years ago.

Even after being driven from Kuwait by a 33-nation coalition, Iraq continues to talk of its victory and predict that its designs on its tiny neighbor will be fulfilled.

Just yesterday, Hussein's press spokesman wrote in another Iraqi newspaper that "George Bush knows Kuwait will eventually come back to Iraq."

Such certainty is not limited to the ranks of the paid faithful Zahara Abbas, a doe-eyed 12-year-old Baghdad girl, has no doubt that her country is the victim in a grand plot.

"Iraq won the war," she said with a smile when asked what sh learned in school about the war. "America chose the war. Iraq wanted Kuwait but without the war."

All the U.N. attempts recently to penalize and hem in Iraq only strengthened the reflex to venerate Mr. Hussein as the symbol of Iraqi national pride. The allied bombing raids are not likely to tarnish his star.

The no-fly zones in the south and the north, created by th United States and its European allies to handcuff the Iraqi air force, are easily portrayed as neo-colonial attempts to steal Iraq's sovereignty. To emphasize the point, Iraqi television has been broadcasting a rousing film about the 1922 revolt against British rule.

When Iraq moved its anti-aircraft missiles, sparking the conflic with the West that culminated in yesterday's bombing, the people were told it was simply the expression of Iraq's right to organize its own air defenses.

The U.N. Security Council may condemn the forays by Iraqi worcrews into territory that once was Iraq and now is Kuwait. But few Iraqis have any sympathy or liking for Kuwaitis. They have even less tolerance for the idea of losing land to their neighbors.

L "It's our land," said Zahara's mother. "We will die for it."

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