Three days before the first missiles were loosed on Baghdad, Vice President Dick Cheney repeated an article of faith behind the Bush administration's plan for war against Iraq.
"Now, I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators," Cheney said.
But the first week of fighting has cast a shadow over such sanguine forecasts. Even in southern Iraq, where the Shiite majority is especially hostile to the regime of Saddam Hussein, American and British troops have faced fierce resistance.
While some Iraqis have indeed warily welcomed the allies, and some residents of Basra have rebelled against local authorities, most people appear to be reluctant to defy the regime. Some may recall the uprisings encouraged by the United States in 1991 and then crushed by Hussein.
Specialists on Iraq say the idea that the troops would be met by a unified front of grateful Iraqis was a fantasy based on a misunderstanding of the complex politics of the country and the region. Such predictions, they say, underestimated the degree of control resulting from Hussein's deft use of terror and patronage, as well as Iraqis' hostility to occupation by a foreign power, especially one closely tied to Israel.
"Most every Iraqi, except perhaps for some Baath Party people, is opposed to Saddam Hussein," says Sami G. Hajjar, former director of Middle Eastern studies at the Army War College. "But it's a fatal mistake to assume that being opposed to Saddam Hussein makes them supporters of the United States and this war."
Ordinary Iraqis are uncertain whether the Americans and British are rescuers from a brutal regime, imperialist conquerors or something in between, experts on the region say.
Many blame the United States for the sanctions that have devastated the Iraqi economy and see Bush - who once upset Arabs by calling Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "a man of peace" - as far too close to Israel, Hajjar says.
"Some Iraqis may see this as liberation," says Magnus T. Bernhardsson, an historian of Iraq at Hofstra University. "But very quickly they will come to see it as occupation. And when they think of occupation, Iraqis think of Israel and the occupied territories, and they don't like it."
Americans often picture Iraqi politics in black and white: a cruel dictator and his circle oppressing "the Iraqi people." But experts say that after decades of totalitarian rule, it is often difficult to tell where the regime ends and the people begin.
"The basis of the regime is collaboration and complicity," says Robert G. Rabil, manager of the Iraqi Research and Documentation Project at the Iraqi Foundation in Washington. "This regime works hard to turn people into accomplices."
Rabil's project has collected a trove of revealing Iraqi documents that illustrate Hussein's meticulous, family-by-family system of political surveillance, reward and punishment. To enroll in school, get a job or open a small business, Iraqis have had to undergo a political vetting, pledge loyalty to Hussein and agree to inform on their neighbors or co-workers.
"They have a file on everybody," Rabil says.
But the threat of punishment - quite explicit today in places where Hussein loyalists threaten to shoot Iraqis who side with the invaders - is only half of the equation.
"This government has used political violence to keep people in check," Bernhardsson says. "But it's also used a successful system of patronage through tribal leaders. The circle of patronage is very, very large."
At the top, such patronage may translate into jobs, houses, cars and money. But everywhere it means that food rations are delivered by the government - a dependency ironically increased by United Nations sanctions and the U.N. oil-for-food program, says Rabil.
"The regular Iraqi needs the regime because he needs to live," he says.
A cautionary historical example is that of the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, whose model Hussein has consciously followed. Despite the savage oppression Stalin inflicted on them in the 1930s, the Soviet people and military rose up to defeat Hitler, and soldiers famously wrote "For the fatherland and for Stalin" on their tanks.
That was partly because Stalin, a Georgian atheist, cynically but effectively appealed to Russian nationalism and Orthodox religion to inspire the troops. For years, Hussein has imitated his idol, draping his brutal, secular rule in the garb of religion and nationalism.
Rabil says the emotional appeals have been particularly intense in Hussein's latest speeches: "Look at the way he's using Islam and overlapping that with Arab nationalism and Iraqi nationalism."
While such appeals may sound hollow to American ears, they appear to be hitting their mark outside Iraq.
Fighting 'the invaders'
"Egyptian and Lebanese papers are portraying this as a sort of heroic Arab struggle against the invaders," says Bernhardsson. "Dead or alive, Saddam Hussein may emerge as a hero for standing up to these huge foreign forces."
A commentary this week in the semi-official Cairo daily al-Ahram revealingly spoke of the war's target as "us" - all Arabs: "Even a partial Arab victory will be a great triumph, while a partial American defeat will be seen as a bitter disappointment by Washington. Let us then hold on to every inch of soil, for only thus can we destroy the myth of the invincible United States."
Whether such feelings are fir-
ing the opposition to the American and British advance is uncertain. Phebe Marr, a historian of Iraq who has taught at the National Defense University, says only Hussein's "hard core" wants the regime to survive.
But that core includes the Special Republican Guard, some of the regular Republican Guard, several security agencies, the irregular force known as Fedayeen Saddam, or Saddam's men of sacrifice, and the most fervent among 2 million Baath Party members.
"These numbers mount up," says Marr, totaling many tens of thousands, perhaps 100,000 people. Also, "he's got his tribe, the Albu Nasir, laced into every security outfit in the country," Marr says.
'Question of survival'
For these core supporters, she says, "It's not a question of loyalty, it's a question of survival. They're worried about retribution."
A short war with few civilian deaths, followed by U.S. and British forces swiftly moving to get "Iraqi faces" in key posts in Baghdad and local government, should defuse widespread opposition, Marr says. But a drawn-out conflict, with bloody urban fighting, might fuel Iraqi resentment, particularly if Americans then occupy administrative posts.
In any case, says Bernhardsson, the delicate mission faced by U.S. policymakers will not end with victory, however that is defined.
"Once they topple the regime, then the problems will start for real," he says. "I always thought the military campaign would be the easy part."
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