The Magazine

The Horrors of "Peace"

From the March 10, 2003 issue: Saddam's victims tell their stories.

Mar 10, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 25 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Dearborn, Michigan

"Do you know when?" It is the question on all minds these days--those of stockbrokers, journalists, financiers, world leaders, soldiers and their families. When will the United States lead a coalition to end Saddam Hussein's tyranny over Iraq?

The answer matters most to the tyrant's subjects--like the man who asked the question of his friend in an early-morning phone conversation on Monday, February 24. The call came from Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq, to the home of an Iraqi exile in suburban Detroit.

It used to be that Iraqis trapped inside their country would speak to each other and to friends outside in veiled language. For years, Saddam's regime has tapped the phone lines of all those suspected of disloyalty, so an inquiry about the timing of a possible attack would be concealed behind seemingly unrelated questions. On what date will you sell your business? When does school end? When are you expecting your next child?

But few Iraqis speak in puzzles anymore. They ask direct questions. Here is the rest of that Monday morning conversation:

"Do you know when?"

"I'm not sure."

"Are you coming?"

"Yes. I am coming. We will . . . "

The second speaker, an Iraqi in Michigan, began to provide details but quickly reconsidered, ending his thought in mid-sentence. He says he was shocked by the candor coming from Iraq. "Never in the history of Iraq do people talk like this," he said later.

"Why are you silent?"

"I'm afraid that you'll be in danger."

"Don't be afraid. We are not afraid. This time is serious."

"I am coming with the American Army."

"Is there a way that we can register our names with the American forces to work with them when they arrive? Will you call my house at the first moment you arrive? I will help."

For more than a year now, the world has been engaged in an intense debate about what to do with Saddam Hussein. For much of that time, the focus has been on the dictator's refusal to get rid of his weapons of mass destruction, his sponsorship of terrorism, his serial violations of international law, and his history of aggression.

Those arguments have in common an emphasis on interests, on threats. Absent from this debate--or at best peripheral to it--is the moral case for ending the rule of a tyrant who has terrorized his people for more than two decades. It's a strange oversight since, by some estimates, Saddam Hussein is responsible for more than 1million Iraqi deaths since he took power in 1979.

Advocates of his overthrow are fond of pointing out that "he gassed his own people," but this often has the feel of a bulleted talking point, not an argument. Their opponents readily concede that "Saddam is a brutal dictator," and that "the world would be better off without him." But they usually grant these things as a rhetorical device, as if to buy credibility on their way to opposing the one step sure to end that brutality--removal by force.

Those who oppose taking action say we can safely ignore Saddam Hussein because he is "in a box." Even if they were right and Saddam were no longer a threat, they would ignore this other urgent problem: the 23 million Iraqi people who are in the box with him.

No one wants war. "I am a pacifist," says Ramsey Jiddou, an Iraqi American who has lived in the United States since the late 1970s. "But it will take a war to remove Saddam Hussein, and of course I'm for such a war."

Iraqi Americans overwhelmingly agree with Jiddou. Many of them are recent arrivals who came here after the Gulf War left Saddam in power in 1991. And many are in regular contact with friends and relatives still trapped in Iraq.

The views of those Iraqis back home "are the same as the Iraqi Americans," says Peter Antone, an Iraqi-American immigration lawyer in Southfield, Michigan. "They are not free to speak, so we speak for them."

ONE OF MY HOSTS had another question for me as we walked up to a modest one-story home in Dearborn Heights on the snowy afternoon of Saturday, February 22.

"Do you know the decisionmakers?" asked Abu Muslim al-Haydar, a former University of Baghdad professor and one of three English-speakers in the group of 20 Iraqi Shiites assembling here to talk with a reporter about Iraq. His tone was urgent, almost desperate, as he repeated himself. "Do you know the decisionmakers?"