Amid rubble, Iraqis cry victory Support for Hussein increases as he again defies U.S. and survives

December 21, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

QORNA, Iraq -- Iraqi President Saddam Hussein claimed victory yesterday in his war with the United States, and so did Moueid Salah, standing outside his bombed-out home in southern Iraq.

Hussein, in a taped public address to the nation, attributed the victory to the resolve of the Iraqi people.

"You were up to the level that your leadership and your brother and comrade Saddam Hussein had hoped you would be at so God rewarded you and delighted your hearts with the crown of victory," the president said yesterday in a statement broadcast by Qatari television Al-Jezira.

For Salah in his southern Iraqi village, it didn't matter that the back half of his small stucco house was a heap of rubble. Or that the nearby post office had been leveled.

The Iraqi nation survived four days of hammering during the American and British airstrikes, said the 51-year-old teacher, "because it has a mind and dignity, and we believe in God."

In Washington, U.S. officials produced a list of targets destroyed or damaged. But the American-led military campaign aimed at weakening Hussein's command of this country of 20 million appears to have strengthened his support at home and hardened his resolve against the international weapons inspectors he has confounded at every turn.

"Anything related to inspections, monitoring and weapons of mass destruction is behind us. If they believe these [weapons] are there, they have already hit them all," said Iraq's vice president, Taha Yassin Ramadan.

The Iraqi leadership hopes that the strikes, opposed by U.S. allies in the region and across the globe, help persuade the United Nations to end eight years of crippling economic sanctions.

"I would not rule anything out, for the worse or for the better," said a political observer close to the diplomatic community here.

President Clinton and other U.S. officials have said that they want to see another regime in Iraq and will work toward that goal.

The majority Shiite Muslim population in the southern coastal plains of Iraq provides the source of one of the country's two opposition movements. The fundamentalist Shiites, the impoverished majority of the Iraqi population, have long been at odds with the ruling Sunni Muslims and Hussein's secular Baath Party.

A rebellion in the south after the Persian Gulf war of 1991 was brutally crushed. Hussein's forces remain a clear and present danger in the marshy flatlands. A government-sponsored tour of Basra and surrounding areas yesterday showed the extent of the military presence among the Shiite tribes.

The road to Basra is lined with low bunkers manned by Iraqi gunners. Several bunkers had "Down USA" stenciled in English on their walls. Armored personnel carriers were dug in in the sandy soil.

Though Shiites have tried to overthrow the regime and establish their own Baghdad government, in the presence of government minders and patrolling soldiers yesterday, many Shiites young and old voiced only praise for Hussein in his showdown with the United States.

They waved tribal flags in support of Hussein and chanted in Arabic for the television crews, "Saddam, America fears your name."

"Our president, we love him, we need him," said Ali Odai Hassan, a garage mechanic in the crowd. "Saddam loves Basra, and we're Iraqi, all of us."

Sheik Faleh M. Sa'ad, 55, a religious leader among the group, said the Iraqi people's "steadfastness and patience" led to their victory over the United States. He said Americans failed in their mission because "they didn't separate the people from the leaders."

"The president is the people, and the people is the president," he said.

The extensive damage to infrastructure did not persuade Kadum Azak that Iraq was the loser in this confrontation.

"Let them destroy it," the 30-year-old driver boasted. "We'll rebuild it again."

The Iraqi government has given only a partial accounting of sites damaged in the attacks. In some cases, officials refused to acknowledge that sites were hit, though any passing motorist could clearly see the damage.

For example, the tour to Basra promised a visit to an oil refinery that reportedly was damaged by airstrikes. But when the international news media arrived there, they were refused entrance.

"They won't accept us," said a government employee who led the group.

For some in the international community, the goal of the U.S. military campaign remains unclear, despite Clinton's stated aim.

"Most, 99 percent, [in Baghdad's diplomatic community] are still asking themselves why this happened," said a political observer. "For what? Because punishment is a concept which is not endorsed by international law unless there are conditions which can be respected. And the punishment itself is politically ineffective."

Now that the strikes are over, many have asked the question, "What now?" If the Shiites were to rebel and march to Baghdad, would the United States support a Shiite government?

"This was a preparatory mission to weaken the regime and prepare for a more concerted and dramatic effort in the future," said Ghassan Attiyah, editor of the London-based Iraqi opposition report Iraqi File.

But he noted, "If something starts in the Shiites and is crushed, then Saddam will be more deeply entrenched than ever."

At the Victory Monument in Baghdad, a tribute to the Iraqis who fought in the eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, a group of young soldiers assessed their commander in chief's future.

"If Saddam Hussein stays, Iraq will stay," said Amar Mohammed, 24. "If anything occurs to President Saddam, we will fight to the last man. We wouldn't surrender easily. We will leave Iraq in ruins."

As proof of his loyalty, Mohammed pulled from his pocket a letter he had written to the president. The handwritten note, in which the soldier pledged to defend his homeland, was signed and imprinted with five bloody fingerprints.

Pub Date: 12/21/98

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