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Iraqi Resistance

March 29, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: By many accounts, coalition forces moving toward Baghdad have been surprised by one unexpected development in their march. In many cases, the Iraqis they came to liberate are fighting back. What is at the root of that resistance?

For some of the answers, we turn now to Ahmed al-Rahim, who teaches Arabic language and literature at Harvard University. He was raised in Iraq, but left in 1978, and is now an American citizen — and Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Middle East history and director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Chicago; He is of Palestinian descent. Mr. al-Rahim, Vice President Cheney said before these hostilities began, we will be greeted as liberators. That was his description of how U.S. and coalition forces would be greeted once they went into these cities on their way to Baghdad. What happened?

AHMED AL-RAHIM: Well, I think there was a problem with the strategy. I think if the U.S. Army would have focused and the British army would have focused on Basra — on liberating Basra and showing the rest of Iraq that they have actually liberated the second largest city in Iraq, then I think the reaction of many of the residents in the other cities would be different. They would be willing to come out much more in support of the troops.

GWEN IFILL: So there’s a communications problem that sending a signal from Basra instead of bypassing Basra as evolved would have changed what we see now?

AHMED AL-RAHIM: Well, the problem is that Saddam has put many of his troops — the Fedayeen and the Republican Guards in Najaf, in Nasiriyah and other cities including Basra. But the idea of just passing Basra by, heading towards Baghdad and somehow that the fall of Baghdad would signal to the rest of Iraq that it — that things have ended and that they are free now, I don’t think that’s the case because he has again put Republican Guards and Fedayeen in these other cities and these troops are willing to fight to the end whether Saddam falls or not it seems.

GWEN IFILL: Is it possible also Mr. Al-Rahim that the people who were supposed to be throwing rose petals and rice in the paths of the incoming coalition soldiers are scared, as U.S. officials say, so scared and so in fear of Saddam that they don’t feel they can rise up?

AHMED AL-RAHIM: Absolutely because what is happening is you’re having Republican Guard units; you’re having Fedayeen moving into the suburbs into Basra, into neighborhoods and taking up residence there. It’s not possible for these people to come out. They are afraid. And as long as Saddam is able to broadcast his image and his message on television, on the Iraqi television that signals to the Iraqi people that he is alive and well and that they should be afraid of doing anything.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Khalidi, why do you think this plan didn’t quite come together?

RASHID KHALIDI: I think it was based on false assumptions — firstly that Iraqis even though they hate the regime would look on American forces as liberators. Some I’m sure might but I think others — including people who may loathe the regime — seem to look on United States as an occupation force. I think that this was a military plan driven by ideology, driven by ideas held by people in Washington that had very little relation to facts on the ground as the intelligence services, Defense Intelligence Agency, the State Department, could have said had they been allowed to get a word in.

GWEN IFILL: Who are the people who were making these estimates, these grand projections?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, these are the people in the Pentagon, civilian leadership, and the White House, the ideologues who brought us this war, people who listened to Iraqi exiles rather than listening to people in Iraq who — as I think is generally the case — do not like their regime but might not want to see an American army of occupation particularly given the kind of fears that Iraqis have about what might happen to their oil resources and particularly given the history of Iraq with foreign occupation, which has been a bitter and hard history.

GWEN IFILL: Did the U.S. and the Britons overestimate the power — overestimate the appeal of liberation theology, if it were and underestimate the desire to defy Saddam?

RASHID KHALIDI: They underestimated or rather overestimated the brittleness of the regime and they underestimated Iraqi nationalism. This is a strong regime. It’s a brutal, dictatorial regime. There’s no question that some people are terrified of it, intimidated by it.

But at the same time it’s calling on Iraqis and appealing to Iraqi nationalism as I have heard on NPR, as I’ve heard on PBS, as I’ve heard on some of the good reports from western reporters there. The same people who will tell you that they loathe the regime say we do not want an American army of occupation. So I think there were serious mis-estimations at the political level in the Pentagon and the White House among people who were just carried away by fantasies that have no relation to reality.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Al-Rahim, first of all, I want to know whether you agree with that, also, but do you think there’s a potential of backlash against the U.S. because in 1991 when that war was over Saddam Hussein was still in power?

AHMED AL-RAHIM: Well, let me say that certainly nationalism does play a role in Iraq. But I would say by and large that nationalism in Iraq has brought the Iraqi people death — whether it’s the war against Iran or it was the invasion of Kuwait in the name of nationalism. So I would say by and large that the majority of Iraqis are not so influenced by nationalism. Certainly there are some who are and these will fight and they’ll try to protect the honor and the territory of Iraq.

Now as far as the backlash, I would say that Iraqis are a bit hesitant about coming out and supporting the U.S. particularly in the South in Najaf and Karbala, where in ’91 President Bush, Sr. had asked the Iraqi people to rise up and they did and stood by while Saddam was allowed to use his helicopters to slaughter them. So I think the South in general is a bit hesitant. They are worried about rising up against Saddam and being left alone to pay the consequences, particularly when we hear reports of Rumsfeld and others who are claiming to be negotiating with leadership in Baghdad, and perhaps replacing Saddam with somebody else because that same person, perhaps it would be another Baathi, somebody from the military or the military elite in Baghdad would put these revolts down again and again, the Iraqis in the South, I think, would be hesitant to do that.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Khalidi the U.S. administration including the special envoy to the region, Zalmay Khalilzad, and Donald Rumsfeld have been really tiptoeing around this notion of encouraging uprising. In fact, they seem to be actively discouraging that. Does that also work against the desire of people who are living in the country and have a desire top join in the effort overthrow Saddam, does this also turn them off?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, I would agree that the fact that the United States encouraged the Iraqis to revolt and left them in the lurch in 1991 has an impact on people. I think the fact that there’s a bureaucratic struggle in Washington over which Iraqi factions to support and about the course to be followed in the wake of an American victory and in the wake of a military occupation has reverberated and is heard in Iraq. People know that there’s a clutch of exiles who have been living high off the hog on our tax dollars and who don’t have much of a following in Iraq whom a faction in the Pentagon want to put into positions of power and authority over them There are of course other exiles who have a following inside Iraq.

But the fact that the United States would bring a government in on the back of tanks in the view of one group, the Pentagon in particular – with civilian leadership — is probably something that is chilling to many Iraqis. I think that the fact that we, Americans, the American government, has not decided what it wants to do in a post war Iraq has probably had an influence on Iraqis. They know that there’s a bureaucratic battle going on in Washington and if they are wise, they’ll wait until it’s over before they commit themselves

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Ibrahim, is there a bureaucratic battle going on between the opposition groups, is there a splinter that kind of makes it more difficult for the U.S., The coalition to get a unified uprising if it’s just to support the troops coming through?

AHMED AL-RAHIM: Well, I think one issue is the U.S. Has committed itself to taking out Saddam Hussein. And I would say that by and large the Iraqis think that is a good thing, but they’ve also been left on the sidelines. They haven’t been told what role they should play in this, what role the opposition should play. So far the administration seems to be saying that Iraqis should just wait. They haven’t encouraged them to rise up. They haven’t spoken about the specifics of any support for that. There is opposition on the ground in the North which is willing to go into Baghdad, into other cities and fight Saddam. Now the U.S. has not responded clearly to them. They seem to be working with the Kurds in the North but as far as the south is concerned and Baghdad the U.S. Hasn’t said anything about working closely with the Iraqis

GWEN IFILL: Ahmed al-Rahim and Rashid Khalidi, thank you very much for joining us.