In Iraq: Reporter Peter Arnett's View From the Ground

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
March 7, 2003

Veteran war correspondent Peter Arnett, the last Western television reporter to cover the gulf war from Baghdad, is back in the Iraqi capital on assignment for National Geographic EXPLORER television (more details). Arnett recently spoke with National Geographic News about life in a nation solidly focused in crosshairs of international attention.

Do the Iraqi people see war as a foregone conclusion? Or are they hopeful of some other outcome?

The people of Iraq base their views of the current situation largely on Iraqi government media programs and commentary. Government officials are very critical of the U.S. and U.K. war plans, and declare that the defensive forces are ready to resist. On the other hand, government media emphasizes that Iraq has nothing to hide from the world and believes "sensible" decisions by the UN will prevent attack. Certainly Saddam Hussein is counting on his European "allies" of France and Germany to delay or eventually avoid war.

How has the threat of war affected the daily lives of Iraqi citizens?

The Iraqi people are buying basic food supplies, candles, etc. to prepare—just as they have done in past crises. The government is also handing out extra food rations. Some families are known to be planning to get out of town, or out of the country, if war becomes inevitable. But that exodus has not yet started. So far, there has been no panic in Baghdad and people are not leaving in large numbers for other localities to escape—unlike the early period of the first gulf war crisis. As far as military preparations are concerned, visiting journalists are forbidden to report on military defensive preparations, or risk losing their visas and being expelled.

What message is Saddam Hussein projecting to the Iraqi people?

Saddam is much more visible these days. He's on TV giving bellicose talks every evening. He is also much more available to visitors, meeting with Arab journalists and giving a television interview to a visiting British politician [and, more recently, American CBS news anchor Dan Rather]. He has not appeared at an announced public gathering in two years.

Do the Iraqi people believe their government has weapons of mass destruction?

Every Iraqi person we spoke to accepts the government view that it has no weapons of mass destruction.

The Bush White House has gone to great lengths to suggest a connection between al Qaeda and Hussein's government. A recent tape by Osama bin Laden has expressed solidarity with the struggle of the Iraqi people. What kind of support or sympathy do you perceive for bin Laden and his cause in largely secular Iraq?

Generally, Iraqis are critical of bin Laden and al Qaeda, particularly because the terrorists, if they could, would force Iraqis into fundamentalism. Iraq is proud of its secular tradition and the freedom of women to gain high professional standing. Some university students we talked with supported bin Laden's anti-Americanism as long as his focus remained on the United States.

The Iraqi government has promoted the idea of a citizen militia that's millions strong and ready to fight any invasion. There have been carefully orchestrated public displays of this force. Can you comment on the visibility of this force, and its potential viability?

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