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Sunday, Mar. 16, 2003 at 5:11 AM
Secretly conducted study finds backing for US-led attack, while plans to tarnish extremists in friendly nations are revealed
Iraqis would largely welcome a US-led attack leading to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, according to a survey of public opinion inside Iraq.
Although they are suspicious of the Iraqi opposition abroad, a majority of Iraqis from all social classes say they see a US strike leading to a change of a regime as the only way they can lead normal lives after over twenty years of war, sanctions and economic misery.
"What we want is simply a dose of stability," said a student at Mosul University interviewed by the authoritative Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG). "We have suffered enough due to our leaders' mistakes."
The ICG carried out dozens of covert interviewsin the capital, Baghdad, the northern city of Mosul and the religious centre of Najaf on the Euphrates. Few Iraqis opposed an invasion for patriotic reasons or fear that an attack would lead to heavy civilian casualties.
"We do not particularly want a US military strike, but we do want political change," said a young architect in Baghdad. "We are even ready to live under international tutelage. We have nothing to lose, and it cannot be any worse than our current condition."
The survey is highly significant because in the prolonged debate over regime change the views of people inside Iraq, though critically important, have been considered unknowable on the grounds that they are too frightened to express an opinion.
The ICG report, published this month and based on interviews carried out in September and October, shows that the repressive apparatus of the government is losing its grip.
Support for the invasion is not unconditional. A civil servant in Baghdad said: "If the Americans are committed to overthrowing the regime they also must be committed to rebuilding the country they directly contributed to destroy over the past twelve years as a result of their uncompromising attitude towards sanctions."
Few Iraqis were prepared to take up arms and memories of the failed uprisings of 1991 remain vivid. Arab nationalism seems more potent within the rest of the Arab world than in Iraq. A student in Baghdad commented: "Nobody believes in this country any more. Everyone wants to either leave it, forget it, or change identity and begin a new life."
The overthrow of President Saddam will not be followed by a blood-bath, according to most Iraqis interviewed.
"Contrary to what outsiders think, Iraq will not become another Lebanon," said a retired teacher in Saddam City, a vast, Shiah Muslim district in Baghdad. "We are perfectly aware of who tortured and who murdered, and when the moment comes, we will know how to make distinctions and punish those directly responsible."
Retribution against Iraqis who colluded with President Saddam's regime would also be limited by the fact so many people – businessmen, intellectuals, journalists – had no choice but to cooperate with the government.
There is deep resentment among poorer Iraqis, most of the population, against those who have made money out of sanctions and war.
But there is little fear of sectarian warfare between the Shiah Muslim majority, traditionally excluded from power, and the Sunni Muslims who have dominated the country's politics. Deeply divided though Iraq is between Shiah, Sunni and Kurd, it has never had sectarian pogroms as in Lebanon or Northern Ireland.
The survey will make sober reading for the Iraqi opposition, which held a unity meeting London at the weekend.
While delegates hoped for a US attack, they feared being pushed to one side by a US military administration. They were also wary of being seen inside Iraq as American puppets.
A draft final statement "rejected either foreign occupation or military rule either directly or indirectly".
A civil servant in Baghdad said of the opposition leaders: "The exiled Iraqis are the exact replica of those who currently govern us ... with the sole difference that the latter are already satiated since they have been robbing for the past 30 years. Those who accompany the American troops will be ravenous."
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