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Iraq: Interview -- Arab Historian Says Iraqi Pride, Skepticism Of U.S. Intentions, Fueling Resistance

Historian Youssef Choueiri is a leading authority on modern Arab states and Islam and the author of several books, including "Arab Nationalism: A History" and a two-volume study entitled "Islamic Fundamentalism." Choueiri, who teaches at the University of Exeter's Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in England, spoke to RFE/RL about the state of Iraqi society under Saddam Hussein and why, in his opinion, coalition forces are meeting resistance in their quest to "liberate" the country.

Prague, 3 April 2003 (RFE/RL) --

RFE/RL: In the days before the start of the coalition's military campaign, some analysts predicted incorrectly that Iraq's southern regions, including the city of Basra, which is populated mainly by Shi'ites, would put up little resistance to U.S. and British forces. In general, most experts have stressed what they say is the fractured nature of Iraqi society. How do you explain the fact that Shi'ites and Sunnis are apparently working together in their resistance to coalition forces? Is it because Shi'ites fear the U.S. might once again betray them if they rose up against Saddam Hussein, as happened in 1991? Or are there other factors? Has too little importance, in your opinion, been attached to the differences between Iraqis rather than what might draw them together?

Choueiri: There is an element which has been ignored by almost all commentators, which is a new national Iraqi identity, which is very pronounced and has nothing to do with the regime itself. But I think the sanctions [imposed by the United Nations in the wake of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990] have served to a large extent to make this feeling more intense and more concrete. All Iraqis have had to suffer the same ordeals, the same tribulations, the same punishing measures. And they were all brought together and felt that they belonged to one single territory, which was being singled out.

RFE/RL: Did the first few days of the war help shape the resistance we are now seeing?

Choueiri: This initial encounter, which was met with stiff resistance, emboldened various groups in the country to take the initiative themselves, in the sense that they thought that perhaps now they would be fighting on the winning side -- and there is no point in welcoming an invader who might be losing the war. And then there is a feeling, in Iraq, which is, I think, even more important than in purely tribal societies like Saudi Arabia: a feeling of shame, in the sense that you cannot appear to be cooperating with a foreigner, even if you wish to. This is related to a sense of honor, a sense of dignity, especially if someone else is watching.

RFE/RL: A sense of honor and patriotism seems to drive some Iraqis, but there have also been reports of Iraqi civilians being forced into combat by Saddam Hussein's special forces. Are some Iraqis motivated to resist out of fear they or their families will be killed or tortured by the regime if they cooperate with coalition forces?

Choueiri: I'm sure there are cases where these things do happen, but they do not explain everything. I think now the regime is able to do this by remote control, in the sense that it doesn't have to do it physically, on the spot. It could simply make certain gestures or insinuations that something could happen [if orders are not obeyed]. It is no longer obliged to resort to these techniques because it has managed to refine its message because of its past history. People have gone through this experience [of past terror and torture]. So now, people are simply told to do things and they do them -- or they for some reason have become convinced of them.

RFE/RL: How could anyone become convinced to sacrifice their life for an undeniably bloody regime that is eventually almost certain to fall? Are there that many "true believers"?

Choueiri: You see Saddam Hussein everywhere. For you [as an Iraqi], he exists under your bed, behind the door, in your garden, in the street. Wherever you go, you feel his presence. So I don't think this is simply a matter of terror. You have to understand the psychology behind it. And it is this inability to understand the cultural, psychological, propagandist aspect of the battle which may be hindering this relationship between the coalition forces and the local population.

RFE/RL: Are you saying the British and Americans should have devoted more time and energy to trying to "win over" Iraqis psychologically before the ground war even began?

Choueiri: Particularly the Americans -- it seems to me that they have a direct approach to things, which is purely military and technical. And we have not seen any cultural, political, or psychological message which could actually break down these barriers. Just one example: People are not convinced so far -- inside Iraq and outside Iraq -- that the Americans are actually there to build a democratic regime. They don't see it this way. Only a tiny group of Iraqis believes that this is going to happen. Most people think that this is a military campaign designed to control Iraqi oil and to turn Iraq into an American satellite regime.

RFE/RL: Does the coalition, in your view, still have a chance to "win over" the Iraqis? Or does the continued fighting in and around many of Iraq's cities complicate matters?

Choueiri: I think this has created a totally different situation, which wasn't planned for and was unexpected, and has soured all possibilities of building natural relations with the local population. It is a major issue that people are now being bombed in residential areas, so many civilians have died or been injured as a result. This news travels fast, and once you kill Shi'ites or Sunnis or other elements -- even one person is enough to sour your relationship with the rest of the community.

RFE/RL: U.S. forces tried and apparently failed to kill Saddam Hussein in the opening day of the campaign. Do you think at this stage a strategy of "decapitation" should be the coalition's focus? Does the regime's existence hinge on Saddam's survival? Or is it more resistance than that?

Choueiri: It is too late to say that the whole political situation is being held together by one single man. It's no longer the case. You have to first of all take the Ba'ath Party -- the ruling party -- very seriously. It is a large party. It exists throughout Iraq. It's built on different cell structures. It's well-organized. It has a very coherent ideology. It owes its allegiance not just to Saddam Hussein but to its own goals and aims and program, and it sees itself as the vanguard of the Arab nation, not simply Iraq.

RFE/RL: Is there anything else you would advise coalition commanders as their forces approach Baghdad?

Choueiri: There is something that should be taken into account: The regime itself has distributed arms to almost everyone in Iraq and particularly in Baghdad. So, in a sense, this is, to them, the final battle. It doesn't matter who takes up arms now because they either achieve a decisive victory or they go down, and this will be the last time they'll have a chance to defend themselves. In this sense, I think it's going to be very difficult to distinguish between paramilitary and civilian fighters -- if Baghdad is invaded or the coalition forces try to take it over by force.