Go slow on Iraq, Pa. town says

Doubts: People in Pottsville, Pa., generally want Saddam Hussein toppled, but they're uneasy about any early, go-it-alone U.S. military action.

August 31, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

POTTSVILLE, Pa. - The people of Pottsville don't need convincing. They believe Saddam Hussein is an evil man. And, in general, they think he poses a threat to Americans and should be toppled from power.

But they have a message for President Bush: Not so fast.

Residents are uneasy about the notion of attacking Iraq soon. They seem worried that America's allies do not favor forcibly removing Hussein, which would mean the United States would at this point have to act alone.

"Plant the American flag there and take the country over," said Tom Hollywood, a 46-year-old welder and registered Democrat. "But our allies, they should help. We have got to have at least a certain percentage of them with us, because we don't want to be policing the world alone."

The opinions expressed in about 20 random interviews here, in the hills of east-central Pennsylvania, underscore that although Bush might have conditional public support for a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, he has yet to allay the nagging concerns many people have.

This week, administration officials, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, have laid out their most comprehensive arguments yet for removing Hussein. Cheney cautioned against the risk of inaction, warned that Hussein would "fairly soon" have nuclear weapons and said United Nations weapons inspectors had failed in the past and were no longer a reliable way to monitor Hussein's activities.

In Pottsville and around the country, the vice president's remarks were seen by many as a signal that the White House is close to deciding - if it has not already done so - to attack.

Pottsville, where American flags fly from many porches, is home to the nation's oldest continuously operating brewery - it makes Yuengling beer - and to people who do not always vote predictably.

Known for the Molly Maguires, the legendary 19th-century Irish-American miners, it is a swing area in a swing state that gets close attention from the White House and frequent presidential visits. Bush narrowly lost the state to Al Gore in 2000.

Pottsville, the county seat in Schuylkill County, which narrowly backed Bush over Gore, elected a Republican senator, Rick Santorum, and a Democratic congressman, Tim Holden.

Iraq came up in a recent debate between Holden and a fellow incumbent, Rep. George W. Gekas, a Republican. (They were forced to run against each other after districts were redrawn.) Mindful that voter sentiment on Iraq is not fully formed, both adopted a nuanced approach, expressing support for an attack, but only one that would follow diplomatic efforts.

Many in Congress say Bush and his foreign policy team have not made their case for why it is urgent to invade Iraq, an opinion shared by many in Pottsville.

"I'd like to see a nationwide address [by Bush], for an hour or 45 minutes, explaining our options," said Bill Magnotta, a Republican who manages a downtown bank and voted for Bush. "If the president wants our support, people need to know enough."

Bush is expected to speak at length about Iraq in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 12.

In a recent Gallup poll, a bare majority - 53 percent - said they would support sending forces into Iraq. But, like the Pottsville residents, most respondents who said they favored military action said it should be initiated only with the support of at least some allies.

There were other concerns in Pottsville, among Democrats and Republicans, Bush supporters and skeptics. Some said they feared that an attack would provoke Hussein to retaliate against neighbors such as Israel.

Others said a U.S. military offensive would serve to stoke anti-American sentiments in the Arab world. Some said the United States should wait until its campaign in Afghanistan is finished, to ensure that U.S. forces are not spread too thin.

David Strausser, a 36-year-old restaurant dishwasher, said he worried that Bush was too focused on Iraq and perhaps not enough on making sure that Pottsville, an old mining town of 16,000 people, does not lose jobs in the economic downturn.

"I'm more worried about the economy," said Strausser, a Republican.

The doubts expressed in Pottsville suggest that nearly a year after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Americans might be unwilling to give Bush blanket authority to send the military around the world to fight terrorism. Bush has argued that one reason for ousting Hussein is that otherwise, terrorists could obtain weapons of mass destruction from his government.

Anna Mollick, an 81-year-old widow who lives off her Social Security checks, said Bush, whom she voted for, should be paying more attention to other issues, such as reforming Social Security and combating poverty.

"Iraq is a little dot on the map, and Saddam is scared to death," Mollick said. She suggested that nations in the Middle East, if anyone, should try to wipe out the Iraqi threat.

"Why don't they fight their own battles over there? Let them take care of themselves."

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