Nadum Hassan shuffles in barefoot and sniffling, folds his tiny body
into a ball, and stares down relentlessly. He will not look at
strangers, and I find it difficult to look at him. Nadum is ten,
and his face seems to be falling off. His skin is mottled and
blackened, pieces flaking as if he had just emerged from a fire.
Nadum rarely leaves his room, as sunlight causes him intense pain.
"He can't go into the sunlight. He's losing his sight," Nadum's
father, Mashun Hassan, explained as he glanced at his son huddled in
the corner. For as long as Nadum has been sick, Iraq has told his family the
United States is to blame. The depleted uranium (D.U.) in U.S.
munitions used during the Gulf war, Baghdad says, affected his
father, resulting in Nadum's cancer. Indeed, Iraq claims the
detritus of D.U. munitions have led to an explosion of cancer,
birth defects, and liver disease across the country. The United
States says that no evidence has linked D.U. to these illnesses
reported in Iraq. And outside doctors find it implausible that D.U.
is responsible for the boy's condition. But, on the eve of another
possible war, science matters less than belief in places like
Safwan, the dusty town on Iraq's southern border where Norman
Schwarzkopf brokered the cease-fire ending the Gulf war.
Whether or not Iraqis' bodies have been poisoned, their minds have
been. Saddam Hussein's government has wasted no effort promoting
stories of the horrors. "It was they who brought cancer through,
... their depleted uranium, which they used against us," Saddam
fulminated in a speech last year. Baghdad regularly sends
complaints about D.U. to international agencies and has even issued
a postage stamp with a picture of a deformed child purportedly
afflicted by uranium. The state-run Iraqi News Agency maintains on
its Internet site a link to "Another DU Victim" that takes viewers
to a picture of a grossly misshapen child. Foreign diplomats and
peace activists are regularly taken on tours of cancer wards to
highlight the issue. And, after more than a decade of propaganda,
it has become an article of faith among Iraqis that the Americans
have poisoned the civilian population. "This is terrorism," Nadum's
father, a farmer who has sold many of his belongings to pay for the
boy's cancer treatments, told me. "He's a victim of American
If American soldiers expect ticker-tape parades once they conquer
Iraq, my visit to Safwan suggests that might be overly optimistic.
Saddam's army may crumble, but the bitterness among many ordinary
Iraqis will remain. Mashun Hassan certainly will not provide U.S.
forces with a warm welcome. "At night, I don't sleep because I stay
with [my son]," he told me. "I even sold the roof of this house to
spend the money on him. I was forced to borrow from friends and ask
them to help. I sold my car. I only sleep during the day." Mashun
Hassan's mind is made up about the American soldiers who may cross
into Iraq a few miles from his house. "They're killing women and
old men and children, and we expect that America will certainly
make more war."
It is not just D.U. that seems to have soured America's reputation
within Iraq. While they may have been eager to see American troops
in 1991, today many Iraqis blame the United States as much as
Saddam for their woes. The Kurds and the Shia remember being
abandoned by the first Bush administration. And economic sanctions
have transformed Iraq into a beggar state. Medicine, spare parts,
and even tires are hard to find. Doctors have reported patients
dying because hospital vehicles were broken and could not retrieve
oxygen from across town. With water-treatment facilities still in
woeful condition, disease has spread virtually unchecked.
Malnutrition remains a major problem, and the Iraqi government
blames sanctions for the deaths of 1.7 million children over the
last decade. For most of those children, there is a resentful
Predicting how Iraqis really feel about anything, of course, remains
a hazardous affair. Official minders carefully monitor most
interviews by journalists in Iraq, though I managed to conduct
several interviews without government guides. Away from the
minders, some Iraqis clearly hold Saddam responsible for bringing
misery on their country. "Believe me, I hate my government," one
Iraqi confided to me. "Saddam is a crazy man. Not only me, a lot of
Iraqis think so, but we can't say it." But animosity toward Saddam
should not be interpreted as automatic goodwill toward the United
States. Struggling to make ends meet and influenced by propaganda
like the uranium stories, many Iraqis buy the government line that
the United States is threatening war either to punish Muslims or to
gain access to oil. "The American hostility was not revealed until
just recently," complained one Iraqi businessman. "They're saying
they're advocates of human rights, but they're the ones violating
our human rights."
Iraqi hostility comes through particularly strongly in the south,
where U.S. and British warplanes bomb targets in response to
provocative actions by the Iraqi military in the "no-fly" zone.
Many Iraqis in the southern no-fly zone have grown angry as U.S.
and British warplanes have increasingly bombed targets, sometimes
hitting civilians by mistake. Although there are no reliable
numbers of civilian casualties, Iraqis claim that there have been
hundreds over the years. While American pilots studiously try to
avoid nonmilitary targets, it's clear that at least some civilians
have been hurt. "It's normal that we get bombs from Americans,"
said Mesa Ali, 25, a young mother who lives near an oil company in
Basra that was bombed in December, possibly because radar or anti-
aircraft systems were illegally parked in the compound. Her young
son was covered by shards of glass when her front window blew in.
Iraqis who have been wounded by these bombings narrow their eyes
suspiciously at American journalists. Watheka Raheen Feyad, 25, was
working at this Basra oil company when an explosion ripped her
body, leaving shrapnel in her head and her leg badly shredded. When
I offered sympathy for her plight, she snapped, "What can I do with
your sorrow?" The danger for American troops is that other Iraqis
will greet them the same way.
By Peter Baker