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    As war nears: sizing up Hussein's Iraq

    By MARGO HAMMOND, Times Books Editor
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 13, 2002

    Her husband calls her the "Grandma Moses of journalism." Holding a degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Virginia, the Oklahoma-born Sandra Mackey began writing about the Middle East when she was well over 40. Now about to turn 55, she has published five books on the area. Her first, The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom (Norton, 1987), written while her husband worked at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh, is due out in paperback next month. Her latest, which she will present Nov. 3 at the Times Festival of Reading on the Eckerd College campus, couldn't be more timely: The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein, published by Norton in May.

    "I'm having my 15 minutes of fame," joked Mackey who began her journalism career smuggling newspaper articles under a pseudonym out of Riyadh. I talked to her by telephone from her home in Atlanta:. Here is an edited version of our conversation:

    * * *

    Q: What's it like to be a woman reporting on the Middle East?

    A: Oh, it's a great advantage. For one thing you have access to the world of women -- and that's where you find out what's really going on. Women, although they may be somewhat secluded, know what's going on. Taking care of family relationships, they exercise their own type of power. Family relationships are exceedingly important because you network, and that's how you build up the power of the family.

    * * *

    Q: In whose interest is it to keep Saddam Hussein in power?

    A: Hussein has really been very ingenious at creating a whole network of people whose personal interests are invested in his regime. He's done it by keeping his hand on the lever of power -- he's the one who decides who gets the benefits that the government can provide, whether they are economic rewards such as contracts or subsidies or simply a ration card giving you access to more food than somebody else. It's a very insidious system.

    One group that wants Hussein's power to continue is the Sunni Arabs who really are very much invested in his regime as a way of protecting their economic and political prerogatives against the majority Shiites and the Kurds. Also, since the end of the Gulf War, Hussein has concentrated on building alliances between himself and the tribal groups that every government since the foundation of Iraq in 1921 has tried to get rid of. After the Gulf War, Hussein felt he had to do whatever he needed to survive, so he plugged these traditional groups into his system, giving them weapons and money to control their people in his name. He's even created neo-tribes that may be named like a labor union but in reality are tribes with leaders allied to Saddam Hussein.

    * * *

    Q: Are there any nations that profit from Hussein being in power?

    A: Both Turkey and Jordan right now are benefiting from the fact that they can get smuggled oil from Iraq, but I think both of these countries see a greater interest in him being gone -- if it's done in the right way. They're simply having to survive.

    * * *

    Q: What are the advantages of an invasion of Iraq?

    A: I'm not sure. What we need to define is what we want to achieve in Iraq. Do we want to get rid of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction? Do we want to get rid of Saddam Hussein personally? Do we want to bring some sort of democratic system there? And then, once you decide what you really want to do, how can you achieve it? I think the argument about his weapons of mass destruction has validity, but it causes you to wonder why suddenly it is so imperative that we invade Iraq with all the unknown consequences of a war if perhaps we could control those weapons through other means.

    * * *

    Q: Do you agree with former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ridder's contention that Hussein's force already has been neutralized? Is there no smoking gun, as they say?

    A: Let me put it this way: I think that Saddam Hussein has chemical and biological weapons. I mean, there's no doubt about it. But, so do a lot of other countries. They're not that difficult to produce if you don't get into the really exotic ones. You can really manufacture these weapons pretty easily. And it's very difficult to control because some of them can essentially be brewed up in a kitchen, and they can be moved around, and they can be concealed. So he probably does have those. But you question how much of a threat those are in the strategic sense. These are really more weapons of terror than they are weapons that can cause a country to collapse or a government to fall.

    Now, nuclear weapons, that is something that changes the strategic balance. And, obviously, Saddam Hussein would like to get a nuclear weapon. The question is, though, would he use it? Because once he uses it, it's gone. He probably wants it as a symbol of his power. But a nuclear weapon is something that cannot be produced easily. And it requires facilities that can be tracked down. I'm not talking just about doing research or that sort of thing, but the production phase could be detected.

    * * *

    Q: Do you think war is inevitable?

    A: I'm afraid it is. I think the administration, or at least the hawks of the administration, are determined that this is going to happen. And I think the president is right in that group. And I think the military has accepted the fact that we are going to go, and it's probably going to be -- well, it will have to be -- in January or February because after that the weather starts getting too hot.

    * * *

    Q: What would be your best advice to the president then about this war -- what key countries should he have on his side and how should he proceed?

    A: Well, I would say, look at the example of your father. See how he did it. You do it by building an international coalition. You do it by addressing what the real issues are. In other words, you have to accept the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is part of this whole puzzle. And you have got to get some movement on that. And then you need to build an international coalition. And then if weapons inspections fail, I think that you could go into Iraq with a certain degree of protection. The real danger to the United States is going in there unilaterally with all of the unintended consequences that can come from that.

    * * *

    Q: What will be the consequences of Israel's decision to strike back this time, unlike the 1991 Gulf War?

    A: I think you are running the risk of absolutely throwing that whole region into chaos. Is Israel going to use its chemical and biological weapons? Is it going to use its nuclear weapons, which we know it has? And how are other countries going to respond to that? I mean, it's a very frightening scenario that this could really touch off just a terrible situation in the Middle East in which the oil markets are disrupted, lots and lots of people die, and you can't get the region under control again without a great expense in men and material. And it's just very risky. And I don't see the administration is really assessing the risk side of it.

    * * *

    Q: Do you think that if the administration could build an international coalition, that could have some influence in preventing the conflict from spreading to other countries?

    A: Well, I certainly think that if the United States goes in as part of an international force under the auspices of the United Nations, then we really don't look to be the aggressor. I mean, this policy that we have of deciding that we're going to do pre-emptive action against any country we judge as being a threat to the United States smacks of imperialism. You have to think, how's this going to be viewed by the rest of the world? We're already having difficulty with our European allies because they really see the United States getting so far out ahead of them that we will essentially be able to just dominate wherever we want to go. And frankly, we can do that militarily to an extent because there's just no military power that could counter the United States. But the economic costs we pay down the road. We have a global economy -- just think how many knives can be stuck into us through trade restrictions or embargoes. The Europeans, for instance, are getting together and saying they're going to reduce trade with the United States. All of these things could be in their own way as risky as keeping Saddam Hussein contained through weapons inspections and cooperation with the international community.

    * * *

    Q: And what about the problem with the so-called Arab street? Is there any real danger that there would be an uprising?

    A: I think that is really a danger and that's the reason you can't let Israel continue to defy you in resolutions if you're going to invade Iraq for the same thing. What the Arab street is going to see is the fact that the United States is reacting as an imperial power. And they're very sensitive about that because most of these countries have imperial backgrounds. So, in the past you have these governments being able to control the street through military power and through the control of information, but they can't do that as well anymore. If nothing else, satellite television has opened the windows in these countries.

    * * *

    Q: Will the Iraqi people welcome an invasion or would the U.S. troops face resistance from the people within?

    A: Well, of course, this is very, very hard to predict. I would say on one hand the Iraqis are not going to see the United States as their liberators because Saddam Hussein has been able to control information in the country. And the only thing that the Iraqis know is what comes to them through his own media organs, so they really believe the United States is principally responsible for their suffering under the sanctions, and the sanctions have extracted a terrible price on the ordinary Iraqi. I think the sanctions have some real justification, and I'm not saying we shouldn't have done it -- and when I say "we," I mean the United Nations also. But some consequences of those sanctions that we didn't plan on was what they were going to do to the Iraqi middle class. And that's the group you really need if you're going to build a viable government after Saddam Hussein is gone. So, I think initially at least, the Iraqis are going to see this invasion as imperialism and by a power that has really been responsible for their suffering over this last 11 years. Now, that doesn't mean that some of the Iraqis are not going to support us, but what I'm saying is that we can't depend on there being a massive uprising of the Iraqis in support of the U.S. invasion. There's a phrase that's gone around a lot about how the Iraqis will be in the street flying kites to welcome the Americans. I think that is not going to be the case.

    * * *

    Q: Tell me what happens the morning after Hussein is toppled. Can you give us an idea what to expect?

    A: Well, this is what I think has not really been dealt with at all. The military operation in Iraq is the easy part. I mean as difficult as it will be, that's the easy part. We will win the war, and we'll probably win it pretty quickly. But what comes after is trying to put Iraq together again. Iraq has had a very turbulent history. It is a contrived state that really has not a great sense of identity. Iraq is a state, not a nation. The Iraqis really don't share a strong sense of nationalism and they don't share a common sense of identity, and so that's always been the challenge of making Iraq work effectively. Add on top of that the fact that Saddam Hussein has stripped the Iraqis of civil society, and you're really starting from scratch in trying to build this state. And then on top of that is the fact that Saddam Hussein has reinstituted tribalism. In the short run, at least, most groups in Iraq whether they're tribal groups, sectarian groups or ethnic groups, are really going to extract revenge on others they blame for the regime of Saddam Hussein.

    * * *

    Q: So you imagine a civil war breaking out.

    A: I hesitate to call it a civil war because I don't see that it will be organized. There won't be distinct sides. In other words, you don't necessarily have all the Shiites together who will be against the Sunnis who then, in turn, will be against the Kurds. It will be within all of these groups, one tribe fighting another tribe. And chaos is an issue here. In Afghanistan, which doesn't have any strategic resources, the tribal conflicts can sort of unwind without really changing the world order. But Iraq is sitting there between the Persian Gulf and those oil and gas pipelines coming out of Central Asia. It has the second largest oil reserves in the Persian Gulf and it has Iran on the east and the fertile crescent on the west. Because of its geographic location, the area cannot sustain chaos without really destabilizing the oil markets.

    * * *

    Q: Do you know anything about the books Saddam Hussein has written and why he's written them?

    A: All sorts of speculation is going on. One rumor is that he has lymphoma, and maybe he is sensing his end or sensing his own mortality. One of the books is about the grand ruler who was willing to die for his country. He bases it on ancient Mesopotamian leaders like Nebuchadnezzar or Sargon of the Assyrians. So, you wonder if there is a political motive behind these books or is it, as with so much of Saddam Hussein, about his ego needs? I think that's one thing that we really need to understand about Saddam Hussein: He really has no ideology. It's just his own ego and his power that he has to protect. That's really what drives him.

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