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Voices From The Iraqi Street


As this briefing paper went to press, all eyes were on the United States and United Nations, the weapons inspectors, war preparations and the Iraqi regime's posture toward them. Yet, as has been true throughout this crisis, the unknown variable in the equation is the view of the Iraqi population. Living under a highly repressive and closed regime and bereft of genuine means of expression, the Iraqi people have largely appeared to the outside world as passive bystanders in a crisis that is bound to affect them more than anyone else. Speculation about how Iraqis view the current crisis has varied widely, with assessments often tailored to buttress political arguments regarding the wisdom of a U.S.-led war.

Proponents of regime change typically assume that the Iraqi people would favour or even welcome an invasion leading to the overthrow of the regime. For example, making the case for an American military operation and referring to the Iraqi regime's record of repression and human rights violation, Professor Ajami asserted: "We shall be greeted, I think, in Baghdad and Basra with kites and boom boxes". But concern for the Iraqi people and their suffering also has been cited in support of the opposite case. Under this view, ordinary Iraqis are believed to oppose any military intervention – and military intervention by the U.S. in particular – based on fear of its inevitable human and material costs, patriotic rejection of outside interference, and longstanding resentment of the U.S. for its sanctions policy. The goal of this briefing paper is to go beyond such assumptions and offer a snapshot of what Iraqis on the ground are saying about the ongoing crisis, their immediate concerns and their visions of the future.

On-the-ground research is constrained, of necessity, by several factors. The nature of the regime is a key consideration. Outside researchers face significant obstacles, and security concerns are critical – those of the interviewer as well as those of the interviewee whose anonymity must be preserved. Moreover, the Iraqis interviewed for this briefing paper do not constitute a scientific or representative sample. ICG has sought to talk to individuals from different backgrounds, belonging to various age brackets, walks of life, and religious groups. Nevertheless, a majority of the dozens of Iraqis who were interviewed at some length and in a number of cases on more than one occasion came from urban areas, principally Baghdad and Mosul. This paper and the statements made by Iraqis should be read and filtered with these limitations in mind.

Still, during the course of a three-week field-visit undertaken in Baghdad, Mosul and Najaf in September-October 2002, ICG found virtually all Iraqis with whom it spoke to be far more willing then expected – and surprisingly more willing than on prior occasions – to talk openly and shed some light on their attitudes toward the regime, the opposition, and a possible U.S.-led war. This fact alone is a strong indication of the regime’s diminished ability to instil fear and of the feelings shared by many Iraqis that some kind of political change is now unavoidable. ICG also found unanticipated homogeneity in the views of those it interviewed. The most notable conclusions to be drawn from ICG’s interviews are:

The Iraqi regime is embarked, its diplomatic efforts aside, on a multi-faceted endeavour both to co-opt large segments of the population and to tighten its control.

For many Iraqis, a U.S. strike now appears inevitable, and preparations are being made in light of it. Indeed, in a number of instances, Iraqis seemed to be making life-plans based on that assumption, dividing between pre- and post-intervention periods.

Attitudes toward a U.S. strike are complex. There is some concern about the potential for violence, anarchy and score settling that might accompany forceful regime change. But the overwhelming sentiment among those interviewed was one of frustration and impatience with the status quo. Perhaps most widespread is a desire to return to "normalcy" and put an end to the abnormal domestic and international situation they have been living through. A significant number of those Iraqis interviewed, with surprising candour, expressed their view that, if such a change required an American-led attack, they would support it.

Thoughts about a post-Saddam Iraq remain extremely vague and inarticulate. Iraqis at home appear genuinely uninterested in topics that currently are consuming both exiled Iraqis and the international community – such as the make-up of a successor regime and the question of federalism as a means of accommodating the conflicting political aspirations of Iraq’s various communities, in particular the Kurds. The Iraqi regime’s repression has devastated civil society and any autonomous form of political organisation. The result is a largely depoliticised and apathetic population. The opposition in exile, touted by some in the international community as the future foundation of Iraq's political structure, is viewed with considerable suspicion and, in some instances, fear. The notion of leaving the country’s destiny in the hands of an omnipotent foreign party has more appeal than might be expected – and the desire for a long-term U.S. involvement is higher than anticipated.

It should not be assumed from this that such support as might exist for a U.S. operation is unconditional. It appears to be premised on the belief both that any such military action would be quick and clean and that it would be followed by a robust international reconstruction effort. Should either of these prove untrue – if the war proved to be bloody and protracted or if Iraq lacked sufficient assistance afterwards – the support in question may well not be very long sustained.

Nor does all this mean that another war is either advisable or inevitable. Even in the event some significant "further material breach" is established within the meaning of UN Security Council Resolution 1441, the costs of military intervention – in terms of loss of life, material and economic damage, regional spillover effects, hardening the attitudes of future generations of Arabs and distracting from and even complicating a war on terrorism that, as recent events demonstrate, remains unfinished – must be carefully balanced against potential benefits, with the impact of intervention or non-intervention on the credibility of the UN itself of course having to be part of the calculation.

What ICG's field findings do say, rather, and in stark terms, is that a wide gulf separates the attitude of Iraqis from that of much of the rest of the world. For the international community, the principal question today is whether war should or should not be waged. For the Iraqi people, who since 1980 have lived through a devastating conflict with Iran, Desert Storm, a decade of sanctions, international isolation and periodic U.S./UK aerial attacks, a state of war has existed for two decades already. The question is not whether a war will take place. It is whether a state of war finally will be ended.

Amman/Brussels, 4 December 2002


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