George Bush's call for the people (and military) of Iraq to rise up against Saddam Hussein probably would have been poorly received. According to SULEIMAN SALEAM, a Palestinian who was in Jordan in December and January, Hussein's popularity has soared in the Arab world because he has stood up to ferocious attack from the United States and its allies from the wealthy and powerful West. The interview was conducted by GERARD SIM for Green Left on February 16.
What was the sentiment of the Palestinians and Jordanians you spoke to before the attack on Iraq on January 17?
Most of the people were glad that Saddam Hussein was standing up to the United States. He was seen as one of the few Arab leaders to stand up for Arab pride and dignity.
Of course, people were worried about the possibility of war, with its mass destruction and many victims. Nobody in Jordan wanted this war. But they said that if this was the only way, if war was what the Americans finally wanted, then there was no choice.
There was a high level of understanding in Jordan about what was going on. They knew that the threat of war was not really over Kuwait or any principle. It was about the desire of America to change the map of the Middle East and to destroy Arab power.
Are you saying that people in Jordan were proud of Saddam Hussein because of the invasion of Kuwait?
No. Kuwait was the issue only in the early part of August. Maybe people were a bit confused at that time. But by late August, it was clear that the issue was no longer Kuwait. America was threatening war against Iraq, and people were proud that Iraq was standing up to it.
There were big demonstrations before January 15. On night before, there was a vigil in Amman and people turned up with candles. Many thought the war wouldn't start. When the war started at 2 o'clock on January 17, many people were shocked.
When Iraq did not seem to respond to the first attacks, people were worried and disappointed. But later, when Baghdad radio explained that this was tactical, then people's confidence rose and it has remained high until now. Now you can't go anywhere in Jordan without people discussing the war all the time.
The day after the war started, there was a women's union demonstration; some strikes and a vigil outside the American embassy began. It was started by an American lady, and it is still going on today.
There have been several big demonstrations outside the American embassy, like the big one a few days ago after the massacre in the bomb shelter in Baghdad.
The Jordanian government called for volunteers to enter the army to protect Jordan from attack from Israel. About half a million people volunteered. Jordan's army is not as big, well equipped and experienced as the Israeli army.
But I don't think Israel will try to occupy all of Jordan. They may try to create a supply line through Jordan to attack Iraq. The people and government in Jordan are willing to fight this, even though they are not as strong militarily.
The Israeli government is also talking about creating a buffer zone in northern Iraq, and to do this it has to occupy part of Jordan.
At the same time in the occupied territories, the intifada [Palestinian rebellion] is continuing. There have been demonstrations in Jerusalem in the last few days, despite the curfew. Yesterday, there were 20 people shot in a demonstration against the American bombing of the bomb shelter. These are not being fully reported outside because of the Israeli censorship.
What is the popular attitude to the Arab governments that are supporting the coalition against Iraq?
They are hoping that there will be an uprising against the governments in Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. The Egyptian government deferred the opening of the new semester for the universities, and the Syrian prisons are overcrowded. In Jeddah there have been demonstrations against the American presence.
I think even the Saudi government is being forced to accommodate the Americans in their war against Iraq. But they know that, regardless of the outcome of this war, it is the start of the end of their regime.
Have you spoken to any refugees from Iraq or Kuwait?
I spoke to two Jordanians who were working in Kuwait and who managed to get out to Jordan after January 29. They said life in Kuwait was miserable since the war began. The water was too polluted to drink. There was food, but not in great quantity.
There was a lot of civilian destruction from the bombing. The Iraqi army was hidden in strong defensive positions, and they were not being hit by the Americans. It was the civilians who were being hit in Kuwait.
They said that the stories about the Iraqi army looting and attacking civilians in Kuwait were not true. There was a lot of
looting by civilians, by some of the poorer workers whose employers had fled, and by Kuwaitis too. But in the Western press it is all being blamed on the Iraqi army. There was some looting by Iraqi soldiers but not as much as is claimed. In fact, the Iraqi army was quite helpful to people who reported thefts of their property.
Do you think Saddam Hussein is as popular now in Iraq as he seems to be in Jordan?
Ironically, if Saddam Hussein now goes to elections in Iraq, or even in any Arab country, he will get 90% of the vote. He is so popular now. This probably one of the rare times in Iraq that most of the people support Saddam Hussein and his government.