for National Geographic News
Veteran war correspondent Peter Arnett was the last Western television reporter to cover the 1991 Gulf War from inside Iraq. While in Baghdad, Arnett interviewed Saddam Hussein, the last television interview granted by the country's leader.
Arnett is now back in Iraq, revisiting the streets, markets, homes, and people of the nation's capital on assignment for National Geographic EXPLORER. Arnett's first report, Back to Baghdad, which premiers Sunday, December 8 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on MSNBC (more details), reveals a land and a people largely unknown to Americans.
Earlier this week, Arnett spoke with National Geographic News from Baghdad, sharing his perspective on the return of UN weapons inspectors, the strength of Hussein's regime, and the mood of the Iraqi people.
Is there a sense of impending conflict on the streets of Baghdad?
Yes, Iraqis fear renewed war and speak freely about it to visiting reporters. People we meet express the greatest concern over the fate of their children in an upcoming conflict. The population of Baghdad did survive with relativity few casualties during the bombings of the Gulf War in 1991. But most people seem aware that if the United States and its partners launch war for a second time, the ramifications will be much greater. The possibility of a violent change of government frightens those who look back to recent history when such changes came with murderous outbreaks of violence on the streets during ethnic clashes.
While there is fear in the streets, the Iraqis are inured to crisis and do not seem ready to begin panic-buying of goods and other security measures. The message from Saddam Hussein delivered to his people via newspaper and television outlets is one of "resistance to the end". But government media also emphasize the international opposition to the American war plan and continuing diplomacy with Arab countries to win support for the Iraqi position. That position is that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction and harbors no intentions of building them in the future.
How are the UN weapons inspectors being received by the Iraqis?
Baghdad newspapers and television are giving considerable coverage to the daily UN inspections of a variety of suspected weapons sites. The emphasis of coverage is on the inability of the inspectors to find anything unusual at these sites; further bolstering government claims that it has nothing to hide. People we meet seem to accept these government claims and generally regard the inspections as an attempt by Western powers to undermine their country. You must remember that UN inspectors roamed Iraq for seven years during the past decade in the most intrusive inspections ever inflicted on a country. While they did find evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction made in the 1980s, they discovered no existing programs. Iraqis we meet see the new phase of inspections as yet another attempt at re-igniting a failed policy of the past.
You interviewed Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. What were your impressions of the man?
I interviewed Saddam Hussein in Baghdad ten days after the Gulf War began in January 1991. His presidential palace had been destroyed by bombing and the interview took place in an ordinary home in the northwestern part of the city. Saddam arrived immaculately dressed in a dark blue suit and floral tie, and was personally courteous, chatting with me before the interview began. He told me I could ask him any question that I wanted. His demeanor was relaxed even though bombs were falling a mile [1.6 kilometers] or so distant.
I asked him all the obvious questions about the war's progress, his intentions about using weapons of mass destruction, his attitude to Israel, and so forth. He answered forthrightly enough. It was clear from the interview that Saddam wanted to give an impression of continued strength despite reverses in the war, but also that he would welcome peace initiatives. He wanted to end the war but save his government. That was the last television interview that Saddam Hussein ever gave, even though in recent months he has given two newspaper interviews to Arab journalists.
What should Americans know about the Iraqi people?
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