Published on Monday, September 23, 2002 in the Guardian/UK
War-Hardened Iraqis Ready to Fight
by Ewen MacAskill in Baghdad
A frenzied crowd of 40,000 at Iraq's biggest weekend football match launched into a chant at the start of the game vowing to resist a US invasion. "Saddam, Saddam, we will spill our blood for you," they shouted as they danced and jumped, waving flags in their team's colors and placards proclaiming loyalty to the Iraqi leader.
A giant black and white portrait of Saddam Hussein stood high above the stadium. Many of the supporters wore their team's strip but some had T-shirts with pictures of Saddam and one had the leader's head printed across a traditional Arab gown. Another chant went up: "We will become martyrs for you. America can you hear us?"
This is the dilemma facing military planners and their political masters in Washington and London. Will the 10 million-strong population of Baghdad fight, exacting a heavy toll on American soldiers trying to enter their sprawling city, or will the residents, desperate for regime change after 20 years of totalitarian rule, stay indoors, silently grateful for the arrival of the Americans?
Interviews throughout Baghdad, from the slums to the capital's richest streets, from shoddy marketplaces to the football stadium, reveal a city divided.
Isaac Toma, 47, was in the rowdiest section of the Zawra stadium, which is in the center of Baghdad. He supports Jawwiya, the Iraqi air force team.
He is a mechanical engineer with the ministry of technology, a father of three, a lover of Dickens and a Christian. He described Saddam as the "pillar" that held Iraq together and that the chants vowing to fight represented real intentions. "We have an army of one million," he said. "If they kill even 1,000 American soldiers, the Americans will go home. They are cowardly. They cannot take those kind of casualties."
The fans around him agreed. All of these men are used to war and claim not to be worried by bombing. To prove the point, they recall another football match four years ago, when the same two sides were playing, and the game was interrupted by a missile hitting Baghdad. The players stopped for a minute but the crowd bayed at them to continue, a minute's extra time was played to compensate.
Hours before the match started, in another part of Baghdad, Abu Hamid, 33, who is a car rental salesman and a former soldier who fought in both the Iran-Iraq war and the Gulf war, also predicted that an assault on the city would end in carnage. He appeared to relish the prospect of taking on US troops: "We are prepared for the soldiers if they come to Baghdad. It will be Muslims against the Jews. If we do not have weapons, we will use petrol bombs, or make spears, like the old times: anything we can attack them with."
About 100 yards from Mr Hamid's office, lounging on a car bonnet, Jassim Thamar, 22, pledged the Iraqis would put up a tough fight for their homeland. He, like three of his six brothers, is a member of the elite 50,000-strong Republican Guard. "We are not afraid of them. Tell [Tony] Blair, we are ready for anything," Mr Thamar said.
Initially embarrassed to find himself the focus of western media attention, he quickly regained his composure. He was only nine at the time of the Gulf war. "To be frank, we were afraid then but we are used to it [the bombing] now," he said. "I am proud to be in the Republican Guard. If the US comes, I will fight them."
But there is another side to Baghdad, one where the residents look forward to the day when Mr Hussein has gone.
Fear of Mr Hussein's secret police is widespread. A surprising number of people will talk to western journalists but many apologetically refuse to engage in conversation. A teacher, with typical generosity, extended an invitation to meet his family but then withdrew it on the advice of a friend. "I am not afraid but my friend says I should be," he said.
People who are frightened to speak are not likely to man the barricades on behalf of Mr Hussein.
It is rare for anyone to voice public hostility to the regime, except in oblique references, and even rarer to hear anyone talk of revolt. A student, braver than most, said he and his friends would remain at home if American troops were on the outskirts of Baghdad.
There is resentment between the better-off districts and the bulk of Baghdad's residents, who live in slums. It is the slum-dwellers who have suffered most from the United Nations sanctions, and they blame the UN, the US but also the Iraqi government. The commonest complaint is over a high level of unemployment in the poorest districts.
The most dangerous divide in the event of invasion is the tension between the Shia Muslims, who make up more than half of Baghdad's population, and the Sunni Muslims, to whom Saddam belongs. Saddam City, a suburb of Baghdad that is home to three million, is the place likeliest to stage a revolt: it is entirely Shia Muslim and 30% of the capital's population is crammed in there. It is the poorest part of the city and the Shia Muslims feel they have been discriminated against.
In spite of the Fervor of those in the Zawra stadium, Iraq's history, especially the revolt of the Shia Muslims after the Gulf war that saw Ba'athist party members being hung in the streets, combined with the sullen resentment of the regime among educated Iraqis, suggests that many will stay at home if the US arrives, or even rise up at the last minute if they were confident that Saddam was definitely on his way out.
Iraqis, both those who vow to fight to the death and those who say they will stay at home, are united on one point: they profess not to want war.
Life has become marginally better over the last two years, even in the poorest districts, as sanctions have crumbled and there is a reluctance to see bombing reverse those gains. They fear too that much blood could be shed as people take revenge after Saddam goes.
Towards the end of the football match, Mr Toma, happy that his team had fought back to 1-1, mentioned Brecht's Mother Courage. "Brecht said some people benefit from war. Brecht is wrong," Mr Toma said. "No one benefits from war."in the number of IDPs there, the survey said.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002