An uneasy Iraq awaits US move
Recent defectors describe a 'siege' mentality in Baghdad and demoralized, ready-to-jump troops.
DOHUK, NORTHERN IRAQ
Tough American rhetoric about toppling Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, and the resolve shown by US forces in Afghanistan, is causing deep unease in Baghdad.Skip to next paragraph
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Iraq's military forces are now on the highest state of alert, and intelligence services and a host of pro-regime militias are strengthening their grip on the streets.
"Saddam is extremely worried," says a young businessman who escaped a southern Shiite Muslim business center a week ago, and like all defectors interviewed for this story could not be identified because of possible retribution. "Our people are like a time bomb. They need someone to switch it on, and it will blow."
Recent military and civilian defectors here in opposition-controlled northern Iraq describe a 'siege' mentality.
But they also speak of a deep demoralization within the armed forces that could lead to mass defections and a popular uprising in the face of any concerted US military action a critical ingredient to any Pen- tagon strategy to carry out Washington's policy of "regime change" in Iraq.
After two decades of war, deprivation, and steady, bare-knuckled repression to stamp out the slightest hint of dissent, these defectors say that Iraqis are ready for a change. They are both afraid of their uncertain future while hopeful that American rhetoric turns into action.
While President Bush says that he has not yet decided how the US will expand its declared war on terrorism to Iraq, he has warned that he will "deal with" Saddam Hussein.
Vice President Dick Cheney scoured the region last week for anti-Iraq support. And Pentagon planners have already begun to reconfigure US military assets around the region, from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to, reportedly, Bulgaria and Romania. Opposition sources say a CIA assessment team visited northern Iraq late last month, to check the capabilities of Kurdish opposition forces and survey three airports.
The US goal may have unexpected support among disgruntled Iraqi troops as long as any US attacks focus on Hussein and his regime, and not on the Iraqi people.
"Everybody is fed up with this regime, because it has been in continuous battle since 1980," says Hamed (not his real name), an 18-year veteran tank commander, who fought during the Gulf War and defected a year ago. He has the sharp eyes of a determined, professional officer.
"If a US strike happens, nobody will resist," Hamed says. He estimates that 85 percent of military forces will surrender. Citing several examples, he also says that Iraqi quick-reaction ability has dropped 90 percent in the past decade.
"The Iraq Army has nothing to fight for," agrees Tariq (not his real name), a well-educated Iraqi military doctor who defected several months ago. "If there is a possibility that Saddam will be removed, the majority of the army will put down their weapons."
Republican Guard units that gamely resisted US attacks during the Gulf War are weaker today, Tariq says, and plagued by defections. Even the hand-picked Special Republican Guard (SRG) the best equipped and paid, created after the 1991 uprisings with the sole purpose of defending Baghdad is not immune. "A lot of people are waiting for a US strike, not because they like the US, but because they hate Saddam," Tariq adds, stroking the dark stubble that frames his face.
No matter how deep that sentiment, turning it into a victorious sweep that washes Hussein from power in Baghdad won't be easy.