'Support the people in freeing themselves'

October 18, 2002

Although they consider Saddam Hussein a tyrant, many Iraqi exiles view a US invasion of their homeland with ambivalence. Three academics share their reservations with Chris Bunting

Mohammed Hassan has been here before with Saddam Hussein and the Americans. They dance a mean tango, he says: always looking daggers drawn, sometimes at each other's throats but never quite getting round to killing each other. They do, however, manage to kill plenty of Iraqis.

In 1991, the end had seemed near for Iraq's veteran dictator. Hassan, a veterinary scientist at a southern Iraqi university, joined the uprising against Saddam's regime that swept the country at the end of the Gulf war. Hopes were high.

"We thought we had control of 14 of the 18 major cities in Iraq. I was helping people with surgical operations. We had taken over some medical stores that had been hidden by the government, and we were distributing supplies to people. The army was running from its positions, and the Americans were saying they were on the border and half a day's drive from Baghdad.

"Then, suddenly, the Americans just stopped. They let Saddam's special guards get back to Baghdad. They betrayed us and they will betray us again," Hassan says. He believes the US government decided to leave a cowed Saddam in power rather than risk a popularly supported government in a country whose majority population, like in the neighbouring radical Islamic republic of Iran, was Shia Muslim.

A solution to the "Iraqi problem" was also undesirable from a US perspective, he believes, because it would have focused the attention of Arab governments and the rest of the world on the Middle East's other problem: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Whatever the motives, the consequences of the "betrayal" were horrific. "Saddam's people were tying people up and burying them alive. Two (Iraqi) missiles fell on two streets near me and there was mass slaughter. Women and children who had sheltered in schools and public buildings were attacked."

When the regime's grip was restored, people were ordered to assemble on a main road outside Hassan's city. Most of the men were killed immediately or taken into detention. Many have never been seen since. "Fortunately for me, I had my Veterinary Association card. I showed it at the checkpoint and they treated me like a professional. I had to go into hiding soon after because I was told there was film of people who had taken part in the uprising," says Hassan, who spent four years under an assumed identity before hiding in the false roof of a car to escape into the quasi-independent Kurdish area of northern Iraq.

Hassan now crams his life into a tiny house in North London. Alone and unable to find academic work because his professional qualifications are not recognised in the UK, he pays little attention to the Iraqi opposition groups based in London. "The only important opposition is in Iraq. What can I or these people in London do except talk? I wouldn't call myself part of the real opposition now," he says. "It's not really that safe to get involved. You see Saddam's men hanging around. We all know who they are. They are odd. They come and sit down next to you though you don't know them. They ask too many questions."

But his faith in the resistance in Iraq has not been shaken by the experience of 1991 and his exile. He believes the US and its allies should look there, rather than to their own armies, for the force to topple Saddam. "The allies should support the Iraqi people in freeing themselves, but I fear that is not going to happen. If the Americans go in, they are going to try to take control themselves. They want control of the oil, and they don't trust the Iraqi people. If they don't trust us, they will make us into extremists. People are very sensitive about invasion, and an occupation will not be tolerated for long in one of Islam's holiest countries."

Hassan's ambivalence towards a US invasion is echoed by other exiled Iraqi academics who are not affiliated to opposition groups. Mahir Aziz, a sociology lecturer at Salahadin University in Iraqi Kurdistan until 1993, now lives in exile in East London. He says: "Lots of Iraqi people will be killed if they start bombing again. They will destroy the infrastructure again, and they will leave a country people cannot live in. If they want to get rid of Saddam, there are other ways. They should try to assassinate him."

Aziz, a Kurd, also worries that his people's de facto independence under the no-fly zone of northern Iraq may be traded away by the US in a post-Saddam settlement or that the Iraqi dictator might "lash out" at the Kurds if he feels he is close to losing power.

"The US and the UK have been supporting Saddam since he was a vice-president in 1968, and I think he is still useful to them as a weak leader of Iraq. They might just destroy the country's infrastructure again and leave Saddam in his palace," Aziz says.

For Luay Sultan, who taught at a hospital before escaping Iraq via the Kurdish area in 2000, the situation poses a genuine dilemma.

"Yesterday, I saw an Englishman arguing with a shopkeeper about the cost of some photocopies. He was from the Stop the War coalition and was trying to copy a poster against an invasion of my country by the Americans. He was trying to get the shopkeeper to reduce the price for him. I found myself giving him some money.

"Afterwards, I wondered: am I with this man or against him? If I was in Iraq, I would have thought: 'Let the whole of Iraq burn.' Many people there will be happy that the US wants to hit them because they feel the country can't get any worse. But the fact is that the US does not have the right motives. They talk about weapons of mass destruction and those things but, among many complex reasons, it is really about gaining personal credit for George W. Bush, and cheap and reliable access to oil. Bush is immoral, so how can I support him?"

Mohammed Hassan and Luay Sultan are false names to preserve anonymity.

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