BAGHDAD, Iraq Baghdad print shop owner Abdel Hakim Loqman believes his country could again be the target of U.S. bombs, but says his fears have nothing to do with whether Iraq sponsors terrorists or is building a nerve gas arsenal.
"The (Iraqi) leadership is working on liberating Palestine and uniting the Arab nation and this is something the enemy does not want," Loqman said after Friday prayers in the Sheik Abdel Qader al-Qeilani mosque, one of the biggest in Baghdad.
"As long as Iraq continues these things, I expect an attack if not this month then the next month; if not this year then the coming one," added Loqman, who'd just heard a sermon that spoke of U.S. "savageness" in Iraq and the Palestinian territories and called on Arabs to unite against the enemies of Islam.
Few people in Iraq would express criticism of a regime known for brutally punishing dissidents. But the sentiments expressed by Iraqis Friday reflect those heard across the region since Sept. 11: Many view Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a hero and see the United States as an oppressive presence.
In the West, it may be easy to make the case that Saddam is a threat that must be contained. But at home and elsewhere in the Mideast many see him as a champion of Arabs and Muslims. If Washington wants to move against him, it will have to take into account whether Arab states it counts on as allies can afford to support the campaign in the face of popular support for Saddam.
Washington hasn't said what military options, if any, it has in mind for Iraq.
David Mack, a former Iraqi officer at the State Department, said in a telephone interview from Washington that the next U.S. move in the war against terror will focus on diplomatic efforts and international cooperation to battle terrorists. "The United States does not want to go from country to country using military action," Mack, now the vice president of the private Middle East Institute, said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C.
But some in the U.S. administration and in the Iraqi opposition have been pressing for U.S. military action to topple the Iraqi regime, saying it is as dangerous as the Taliban regime U.S. bombs helped push from power in Afghanistan last year. The Taliban harbored Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network, the accused masterminds in the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States.
There have been reports an Iraqi agent met with one of the suicide hijackers and that foreign Arab militants were trained at Iraqi military camps. Iraq has denied the charges and America has produced no concrete evidence linking Iraq to the terror attacks.
Hawks in the U.S. administration have been pressing for the U.S. military to take on Iraq and finish off Saddam, who was left in power after the Gulf War. Thursday, in a speech commemorating the start of the Gulf War 11 years ago, Saddam said Iraq won't be caught off guard if attacked by U.S. forces.
The Gulf War was on Iraqis' minds Friday. Saddam's anniversary speech was featured in the newspapers and state television broadcast commemorations from around the country.
"As Iraqis we don't worry in any circumstances, no matter what they are, because we've suffered in the past. Iraqis don't care about these U.S. threats," said Shakir Mahmoud, a government worker who seemed to sum up the mood of a nation hardened by first eight years of war with neighboring Iran and soon after that the Gulf War, in addition to more than a decade of economic sanctions.
Under U.N. resolutions, 1990 sanctions can be lifted only after Baghdad proves that it has dismantled its weapons of mass destruction. Iraq says it has done so but has refused to allow U.N. weapons inspectors into the country since 1998.
The United States might use Iraq's refusal to allow in inspectors as a pretext to bomb the country, said Scott Ritter, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq.
"I don't believe Iraq is developing chemical weapons or biological weapons. There's no evidence of this and we can't use speculation by certain elements in Washington, D.C., as an excuse to go to war," Ritter, a critic of Washington's Iraq policies, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
Jean Pascal Zanders of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, on the other hand, said an Iraq with no weapons inspectors should cause concern.
"There were still quite a few unresolved issues regarding Iraq's chemical and biological weapons program, especially the biological weapons program and I think that it's extremely important that these issues are resolved," said Zanders, an expert on chemical and biological weapons reached by telephone in Switzerland.
Zanders said that during the time when inspectors worked in Iraq there were indications that the country may have weaponized an extremely toxic nerve agent, VX a charge Iraq has denied.
To strengthen its position, some argue, Iraq has been boosting relations and mending fences with other Arab countries. Staunch U.S. allies Egypt and Jordan are among those who have argued that a U.S. attack on an Arab country now would have serious repercussions. But Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also recently urged Iraq to cooperate with the U.N. inspectors to avoid a possible U.S. strike.
© 2002 The Associated Press