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Profiles in conflict

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 16, 2003

There is no one way to describe America on the verge of war with Iraq. Opinion surveys reflect ambivalence about the United States launching a pre-emptive strike against that country. Americans are sure Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is a menace, but don't know how to weigh the threat he poses. Yes, it would be better that he go. Few disagree. But what genies might a U.S. attack on Iraq unleash? What unintended consequences could war hold for the United States and the world? These are the unanswered questions casting "that long shadow on the lawn," as poet Emily Dickinson once described it. She was talking about presentiment -- the feeling that something unknowable but possibly quite dreadful is lurking around the corner. Are we about to undergo a very painful experience? Or are we about to help a desperate world find new freedom and hope?

BOB BAER: Former CIA operative, Washington, D.C.

One day in 1995, when Bob Baer was a CIA operative roaming northern Iraq with a Kalashnikov assault rifle at his side, an Iraqi general made unexpected contact.

"He said they wanted to whack Saddam. I said, 'Well, that's a good plan,"' Baer, 50, recalled recently from his home in Washington's Capitol Hill neighborhood.

In exchange for offing Hussein, would the United States give the coup plotters diplomatic recognition? Baer relayed their request to Washington, but the White House under then President Bill Clinton took its time responding. The moment passed.

"That's when I would have done a war. In 1995," Baer said. "And I would have done it under the guise of a humanitarian gesture. We could have gone to the Europeans and Saudis and said, 'We can't let Saddam massacre his own people."'

Now, Baer is afraid it's too late for war. Militant Islam has had seven more years to spread. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is still festering. The secular regimes of the Middle East are corrupt and discredited and their economies stagnant.

"An additional humiliation of Muslims or Arabs will only build support for bin Laden. I'm just convinced of that. It's a nasty mood out there," said Baer, a fluent Arabic speaker who spent 21 years in the Middle East.

The stocky Baer is the kind of guy you can imagine parachuting into the fray, nailing his landing like a gymnast. His book, See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism, was on the New York Times bestseller list last year.

Now, he is working on a second book at home in a tiny converted carriage house in a back alley on Capitol Hill.

There is little memorabilia of his exotic past. Just lots of books hinting at an eclectic mind: The World's Greatest Machine Guns sits near Oriental Rugs: The Complete Guide. A book on jihad sits atop Joseph Heller's Catch-22.

Back in 1995, when he relayed the Iraqi general's plans to Washington, someone got the idea it was Baer who was plotting to assassinate Hussein. The FBI investigated. Baer was eventually cleared, but he came away disillusioned.

He left the CIA in 1997.

Baer wants Hussein gone, but he worries about the unknown. Will democracy or anarchy take root in Iraq? Will the nominally pro-U.S. Arab regimes in the Middle East fall and fundamentalists with a burning hatred for the West take over?

"It's not that I don't think Saddam's a danger. He's a terrible danger. I just do not accept the view in Washington, this ideological view, that you can solve this with brute force," Baer said.

He added: "I'd like to see an Arab (nation) do it. It's trickier. But I'm a partisan of covert action."

RICHARD CIZIK: Minister, Fredericksburg, Va.

Richard Cizik is a reluctant warrior. Certainly, Saddam Hussein must be disarmed, said the head of the Washington, D.C., office of the National Association of Evangelicals.

But Cizik worries what an attack against a Muslim country will mean for the safety of Christian missionaries in the Middle East and their ability to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.

"We have a concern for the church which is greater, I think, than our concern for national security," Cizik said.

Some prominent pro-war evangelicals, such as ministers Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham, have called Islam a religion of violence. Some evangelicals even see an apocalyptic battle coming in the Middle East that will pave the way for the second coming of Christ.

Not Cizik.

He says insulting Islam "is just not right."

And this: "There's a stereotype that all evangelicals are consumed by this end-time scenario and are therefore saying, 'Bring it on!' That's not our position."

The association represents 51 denominations whose members believe in the saving power of Christ and a literal interpretation of Scripture. The denominations sponsor 16,000 missionaries abroad, Cizik said, though he could not say how many of them were in the Middle East.

A soft-spoken man with gold cuff links and a silver cell phone clipped to his belt, Cizik came to the evangelical association's Washington office in the 1970s, where he has lasted through seven presidential administrations.

It bothers Cizik, 51, that some evangelicals seem inconsistent about the moral consequences of war. He cited a recent interview on CNN's Larry King Live of James Dobson from Focus on the Family, who tried to square his opposition to abortion with his support for a war that will undoubtedly kill innocent Iraqis.

But "children will die," King said, according to a transcript.

"I'm sure they probably will," Dobson answered, "but certainly fewer of them than if we allow this man to have nuclear weapons."

Cizik finds himself wrestling much harder with such moral issues. Secretary of State Colin Powell's Feb. 5 address to the United Nations "showed us a lot" about the threat of chemical, biological or nuclear attack from Hussein, he said.

"In the final analysis, it may be necessary for this country to use its military to effect a regime change in Iraq. But the consequences are undeterminable. It's a big question mark," Cizik said.

What if war causes the Iraqi president to use weapons of mass destruction against innocents? This is where Cizik finds himself hesitating. Of Powell, he said: "I'm not sure he's answered all the questions."

TARAH SAADALDIN: Sophomore at USF, Tampa

Tarah Saadaldin enjoys wearing blue jeans, hanging out at the mall and watching glossy Hollywood flicks. She is a typical 20-year-old who in many ways blends beautifully with the other students on the University of South Florida's Tampa campus.

But sometimes Saadaldin sticks out and draws contemptuous stares and nasty names. The insults, she explained, are brought on by the hijab, or head-covering, she wears as part of the Muslim faith her family clung to when it moved to the United States from Iraq when she was 9 years old.

Saadaldin, who became a U.S. citizen in 2000, loves America, particularly its freedoms.

But she loves Iraq, too: "I love this country and I'm a citizen as well as anybody else who is, but you cannot forget about your blood and your background and where you come from. It's still my country." And she doesn't want her country further destroyed or its people hurt. Her paternal grandmother and both maternal grandparents, along with uncles, aunts and "too many" cousins still live there.

"The idea of proposed war scares me," said the petite Saadaldin, her eyelashes brushing against the maroon scarf covering her head. "How do you know the next bomb won't be over your family's home and kill them? There's lots of people there trying to live their lives. They work everyday, living normal lives. It's not fair to ruin their lives for the sake of getting one man," she said, referring to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Saadaldin's father came to the United States a couple of years before the start of the Persian Gulf War to study electrical engineering, leaving his wife and five children behind.

After fleeing their home to stay with an aunt in northern Iraq, they later joined him in Tampa. (Last year, Saadaldin's father died in an accident while the family was visiting Saudi Arabia.)

Last summer, she and her four younger siblings visited relatives in Iraq, and Saadaldin saw "all these young kids, like, our age and younger who are supposed to be in schools (but) are outside pushing carts of vegetables trying to earn a living."

Saadaldin does not support Hussein. But, she says, President Bush has put the country in a Catch-22 situation. He threatens to attack Iraq if it doesn't give up banned weapons that Saadaldin isn't so sure the country has. And if Iraq says it doesn't have such weapons, Bush accuses it of lying and still threatens to strike.

"No matter what, still there are people," she says. "They're human and they have a right to live a normal life. I know they can go in there and get him out without (war). That's what I'm sticking to."

BILL SANDERS: Navy veteran, Tampa

Bill Sanders was on his way out the door to a bingo game this month when he glimpsed Secretary of State Colin Powell on television speaking to the U.N. Security Council.

He turned up the volume and sat down to listen. Powell was trying to persuade the council that military action against Iraq is necessary because the country possesses banned weapons, is thwarting U.N. inspectors' efforts to find them, and has ties to the al-Qaida terrorist network.

With the spy satellite photos and communications intercepts fresh in his mind, Sanders turned off the television and left his Tampa mobile home convinced: Something had to be done about Saddam Hussein.

Isolating the Iraqi president, which before Powell's presentation Sanders thought might be the solution, wouldn't cut it. Something more needed to be done.

But what?

"I hate to see a bunch of our boys go over there and get killed. That's the part that hurts," Sanders said recently as he sat on his mobile home's patio, puffing on a GT One cigarette and sipping water from a plastic cup. "And I just can't see it. I seen the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the second World War and it's too many kids running around without fathers from that."

If what Powell said was true, Sanders thought, doing nothing could lead to another 9/11-like slaughter on U.S. soil. On the other hand, striking Iraq likely will result in dead U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians.

At one point, the 72-year-old Navy veteran, who closely follows reports of the threat of war with Iraq, thought Bush's push for war rested on a veiled quest for oil.

He remains unsure.

Still, "if it comes down to where (Iraq) is going to feed these terrorists ammunition to sneak into our country and blow us up, then it's got to be stopped, it's got to be stopped right now."

Sanders, who measures 5 feet 11 and 183 pounds with a slight paunch, moved to Tampa from blue-collar Jackson, Mich., in 1984. The energetic man with the head full of gray hair personally knows the costs of war.

At least two of his high school friends died in Vietnam. And his favorite uncle, Raymond, who "treated me like his own son," went missing at Guadalcanal during World War II.

"They never found his body," Sanders remembered, his eyes moistening. "As long ago as that was, I still get a frog in my throat when I talk about it. It just tore me up. It was hard to believe it."

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