Broken Spirits

Isolated and impoverished, Iraqis must endure Saddam and the U.S. missile attack designed to unnerve him

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Saddam Hussein dies and goes to hell, begins a new joke making the rounds in the Iraqi capital. Because his sins are so great, Saddam is sent to a special section reserved for those doomed to burn the longest. But the fear imposed by the Iraqi dictator's secret police extends even to the netherworld. As Saddam is dragged toward the flames, his fellow sinners break into a chant, a variation of a political slogan often heard at official rallies during the Gulf War. Instead of addressing George Bush with defiant assurances of how much they love their leader, they now direct their warning to God: "Allah, Allah, listen well, we all love Saddam Hussein."

Genuine expressions of love for Saddam are rare and hardly ever spontaneous in postwar Iraq -- especially in the aftermath of the June 27 cruise-missile attack on Baghdad. Yet as they cleared rubble and replaced shattered windows, Iraqis blamed Bill Clinton -- not their own leadership -- for the deaths of eight civilians, including well-loved Iraqi artist Layla Attar. "People don't understand why the Americans are still punishing them," said a senior diplomat in Baghdad. "The economic sanctions and these not-so-surgical strikes don't affect Saddam or his network. The damage to his intelligence services was minimal."

Still, the unexpected attack gave a psychological jolt to the Iraqi leadership. Fearing further action by the U.S., the regime backtracked on early threats of retaliation. On Thursday Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told CNN, "We are not contemplating an act of revenge . . . That's not going to serve our interests." For Saddam, well known for his brash threats to unleash the "mother of all battles" on the American-led Gulf War coalition, Aziz's appeal for "normal, quiet relations with the United States" must have been almost as painful as hellfire.

Two missile attacks against Baghdad so far this year and the economic deprivation wrought by almost three years of economic sanctions have not led the Iraqi people to rise up against Saddam Hussein. His people fear him; some hate him and ardently wish for his death. But there are no signs of destabilization within the regime. So why has the Iraqi regime changed tack? Sheer exhaustion, it would seem. While Saddam's hold on power appears secure, his subjects are hungry, his weapons of mass destruction are dismantled, and his economy is a shambles. "They just don't have the ability to retaliate," says a diplomat. "If they didn't blow up planes and embassies or kidnap Americans during the Gulf War, they're not going to start now. Saddam has realized he has to come to some sort of modus vivendi with the West."

Despite his missile attack, Bill Clinton is no match for George Bush in Iraqi demonology. A new mosaic showing Bush's grimacing face was recently laid at the entrance to Baghdad's al-Rasheed Hotel so that visitors cannot help stepping on the former President's face. BUSH IS CRIMINAL, it says in English and Arabic. Although they show no hostility toward visiting Americans, Iraqis are angry that they -- not the government foisted upon them -- are the ones who always suffer. At the Lawyers' Union in Baghdad's fashionable Mansour district, a white-haired attorney captures Iraqis' twin resentments in his . rage: "Did Bill Clinton have to murder Layla Attar to prove how powerful he is?" he demands. "Did that strike oust Saddam? No. So what's the point?"

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