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Youssef Ibrahim Discusses the U. N. and Iraq.

A talk with The New York Times' Youssef Ibrahim who is in Baghdad where he's been reporting on the situation in Iraq. Meanwhile, U.S. Military forces remain in the Middle East, waiting for the United Nation's weapons inspections to begin in Iraq. (Interview by Marty Moss-Coane)

52:13

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 03, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 030301NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Reporting on Iraq
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

MARTY MOSS-COANE, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Marty Moss-Coane, in for Terry Gross.

Yesterday, the United Nations Security Council voted to approve the agreement negotiated last week by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. That agreement gives UN weapons inspectors unrestricted access to suspected weapons sites in Iraq. If Saddam Hussein does not comply, the Security Council warned that Iraq would face "the severest consequences" -- a threat that was not spelled out by the council.

Reports from Baghdad today say that Iraq has agreed to abide by its promise to open sites to inspectors, including the presidential palaces.

We called Youssef Ibrahim earlier this morning in Amman, Jordan to get his analysis of the Arab reaction to events of the past few weeks. He's been covering the Middle East for 17 years, and most of that time as a correspondent for the New York Times. He just returned to Amman after spending two weeks in Baghdad.

I asked him, now that the UN agreement has been approved, how the weapons inspectors will begin their work.

YOUSSEF IBRAHIM, NEW YORK TIMES REPORTER: Well, I think UNSCOM is going to resume these missions with inspectors. I think they're certainly going to go to these presidential sites, and they're going to be looking for things. But the weapon inspection regime, of course, has -- has evolved and what they are looking for now is not only weapons in the sense of physical (unintelligible) or physical caches of anthrax or biological weapons or whatever, but also names and documents of scientists and people and university professors and the entire intellectual, so to speak, infrastructure that was involved in the weapon-making effort of Iraq, which of course is a tricky area because that is considered, you know, part of the intellectual wealth of the country.

And I suspect this will become a source of a clash.

MOSS-COANE: How easy is it for Iraq to move their chemical weapons?

IBRAHIM: Well, I don't think they have any chemical weapons anymore. What they might have is biological weapons, and that's, as you know, as we all know, very easy to move.

MOSS-COANE: Sure. So you think their chemical weapons have been destroyed? Or did they move them elsewhere or what?

IBRAHIM: I have difficulty believing that a country that has been subjected to seven years of very intensive weapon inspection has got anything that we can consider, you know, substantive in terms of weapons. And of course, one has to remember that they did have all of these weapons back in 1991 and never used them for fear of the consequence.

So in turn, if we were to assess how dangerous Iraq is today, I would say it is not dangerous. Do they have weapons stashed here or there? I suspect they do. Will we be able to find them? I suspect we will not. So, the issue of when after six months the sanction regime will come up for a review is on the map. I mean, in six months if these inspectors cannot find anything of substance, the question is: can they continue to insist on sanctions?

MOSS-COANE: And that will be the question in six months.

IBRAHIM: At six months is my choice. I mean, I suspect the United States between now and then will -- will float and leak all kinds of stories about all kinds of weapons. Even we had a story the other day. But the question is: can you substantiate these stories? Can you nail them down? Can you prove them?

I think there is very little doubt in the minds of many people who live in this part of the world that these UNSCOM teams do include American officials from the Central Intelligence Agency and from the various American spying organizations. I think it would be naive to think otherwise, which means they have information and rumors and intelligence information about weapons that may be stashed here or there.

But the fact of the matter when you look at it, they have destroyed in the past seven years a substantive amount of weapons in this country. I think much of it has been physically eliminated. What is left I suspect, if anything is left, will be almost impossible to find.

MOSS-COANE: You were in Iraq until a few days ago. What public reaction to Kofi Annan's visit there?

IBRAHIM: Actually the most amazing thing in Iraq is that it was remarkably -- to Kofi Annan remarkable in the sense that he was perceived as a savior, as a completely new factor in a situation that had been rehearsed many time and ad nauseum, and was perfectly pointless. So in a way, had there not been a Kofi Annan in the picture, I think most of the people in Iraq would have not cared at all which way this crisis was going to be resolved since they think there is really no resolution to it.

But the introduction of Kofi Annan has given hope to a lot of Iraqis that perhaps he brings with him the beginning of the end of the most important thing now for all Iraqis regardless of their political persuasion, which is the sanction regime.

MOSS-COANE: Is it something about Kofi Annan himself or the involvement of the UN that gives the Iraqi people some degree of hope?

IBRAHIM: Both. It is number one and primarily Kofi Annan the person, who is in the end of the day a black African Ghanaian third-world person, presumably more sympathetic than, say, your average white American Anglo-Saxon or otherwise is; white person from Britain or anywhere else -- to the sufferings of the Iraqi people, who have come, you have to recognize in the last two years two perceive this as a conflict not just between the West and their president/leader/dictator whatever you want to call him -- Saddam Hussein; but a conflict between the West and the entire Iraqi population in their -- in their sort of dimension as Arabs and as Iraqis.

So in a way, the introduction of somebody who is rightly or wrongly perceived as sympathetic to their plight as human beings has given a lot of them a lot of hope.

MOSS-COANE: Saddam Hussein hailed this deal brokered with Kofi Annan as a great victory for Iraq. Is that to some degree political bluster, or is there some truth to his statement?

IBRAHIM: "Great victory" would be an exaggeration, but something of a victory, I think there is some truth to that statement. Look, the United States has portrayed this entire conflict as between the world and one man, Saddam Hussein. Never did any congressman, senator -- or very few anyway -- or certainly our Secretary of State Madeleine Albright or the president ever mention the words "the Iraqi people." But Saddam Hussein lives with 22 million other people and they are the real victims of these sanctions.

Now, this conflict was always portrayed as keeping Saddam Hussein in a box. In that sense, he has come out of the box during this latest episodes. He has -- or Iraq has -- brought the Secretary General of the United Nations all the way to Baghdad. They have sat down together.

They drafted a -- an agreement which had the very important words from the Iraqi point of view, of course, of sovereignty and dignity and in the way these sanctions and also the inspections are conducted. And also, raised the prospect that there is in the end -- end to the sanctions.

Now you must -- you do remember that the American position enunciated many times by Madeleine Albright and President Clinton, although they don't say it these days, was that these sanctions are forever as long as Saddam Hussein is in power. We don't hear this anymore. I think that's an advance from the Iraqi point of view.

MOSS-COANE: Give us a sense of the impact of the sanctions -- and there have been reports of starvation and malnutrition. When you're in Iraq, do you see that?

IBRAHIM: Yes, you see it. I mean, there is absolutely no question that this is a brutal sanction regime, and it hits the wrong people. I was in a supermarket in Baghdad the day before yesterday, and I bought everything I could possibly want.

I bought baby Johnson powder. I bought, you know, shampoo -- American-made shampoo. I bought NesCafe. I bought milk. I bought -- I bought Kleenex paper -- virtually everything you could possibly imagine that would make me comfortable. I have purchased at prices which are ridiculous -- a total package for a lot of things of $29. But an Iraqi normal person, middle-class cannot even approach this kind of money.

These are people who -- doctors, engineers -- who are how reduced to selling cigarettes in kiosks to make a living, in addition to their work in the morning as doctors or engineers. You see university professors who are selling their book library, which includes some really precious old first edition books of many, you know, distinguished works of literature, for nothing.

You see middle class families which have one or two girls which have to do discreet prostitution in order to make some money on the side. And that's not to mention the really poor people. I mean, you know, if it costs a month's salary to buy a chicken, it gives you an idea of how low the living standard of Iraqis has -- has reached.

The problem is -- the real problem however is that they think the whole world has forgotten about them and that nobody cares. And that is a very important political change in point of view. Until I think two or three years ago, many of these Iraqi people would have loved for the West or the United States to rid them of their leadership. Now, they have really come around to see the West as participating in their persecution.

MOSS-COANE: So you're talking about a kind of national despair or depression?

IBRAHIM: You get the impression that the entire Iraqi population has just checked out of reality.

MOSS-COANE: Hmm.

IBRAHIM: I mean you go to these book markets and the most popular books now are religion -- books about religion, in which, you know, which split hairs about the significance of the interpretation of the Koran as written by some religious scholar 600 years ago. And people are delving into that kind of thing.

Or, you know, completely works of fiction. We talk about the people who read. I mean, you know, the Iraqis are -- the Iraqi middle class, which is the segment of society that used to be the most powerful in this country -- were the class that read a lot, perhaps more than any other Arab population in the Middle East.

And you get the impression that they've just given up on life. It's a matter of: "am I gonna come home in the end of day with enough money to be able to guarantee perhaps lunch and maybe dinner tomorrow?" It's that kind of thing.

MOSS-COANE: Who is the most vulnerable -- and I wonder whether you see a stark difference between those people living in cities like Baghdad and those people living out in the countryside? Is -- are there stark differences?

IBRAHIM: No. In a bizarre fashion, the one segment of the Iraqi economy that has prospered is agriculture, because given the situation, the state has had to liberalize enough of the agricultural sector to allow these people to be more productive. So people living in the countryside, particularly peasants who are cultivating the land, are in fact producing all the food or most of the food that Iraq needs, or in a -- I mean, you know, in addition of course to imported food that comes from overseas.

They have -- so they are not suffering. But it is the big cities that are suffering. If you go to a place like Basra (ph), it's complete, total devastation. I mean, there's a place where the hospitals have ceased functioning. If you -- if you fell ill with as much as the flu, you are in very serious trouble, because there's absolutely no medication. If you have to go to a hospital, you know, you really have to bring everything with you, including the -- the covers for the bed, the sheets that you cover the bed with, because there is nothing that functions.

The quality of water in Baghdad already is very bad. In places like Basra and Mosel (ph) and Najaf (ph) and all of these other cities, is downright dangerous. It's heavily polluted. There is a complete breakdown of the infrastructure, and it is visible in the health of the population. People are getting ill and looking really weak.

MOSS-COANE: I'm talking with Youssef Ibrahim who covers the Middle East for the New York Times. We'll talk more after a short break.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is Middle East correspondent for the New York Times Youssef Ibrahim. We're discussing -- discussing the UN weapons inspection agreement and the impact of economic sanctions on Iraq.

When you talk to the Iraqi people, who do they blame for their plight?

IBRAHIM: Until two years ago, in anything that resembled a frank conversation, which of course is not easy to have in Iraq because it's certainly a very advanced police state, they tended to blame both the West, but more importantly their own leadership for its many mistakes; its tyrannical control of the country and the -- but more importantly, for getting them into the kind of trouble they're in.

The astonishing change that you pick up, that I picked up, that many other newspaper persons and correspondents who are there picked up this time is -- is two things. They don't really care anymore who is to blame. They only know one thing: they're really descending into hell. And the second thing, they tend to blame the United States of America primarily. You hear the name of Madeleine Albright, and you hear a lot of people talking of Madeleine Albright as a war criminal. Actually, I was shocked.

And you hear Clinton, of course, being mentioned and that it's all because of his sort of legal and scandal problems. But you pick up an unusual and rather advanced condition of hatred for the United States that one hasn't seen in this region in a long time.

MOSS-COANE: What's your explanation for that? And is it the legacy of U.S. foreign policy? Or, is it the fact that this situation has gone on so long in Iraq -- that the sanctions have gone on so long in Iraq -- that the people are -- are desperate to find -- to find a culprit?

IBRAHIM: The sanctions. At first, the sanctions were understandable. I mean, Iraq had committed a cardinal sin, invading Kuwait and was subjected to a war and had lost it. So, that was understandable. But the length of the sanctions and more importantly the messages coming out from the American Congress, the American Senate, the American media and the American leadership, that it doesn't really matter what Iraq will do, these sanctions will be there forever, has made the difference.

And of course, the sanctions are biting. I mean, in the beginning it was a matter of pride for the Iraqi regime to say "we're gonna bust those sanctions; we're gonna resist them." And they did institute a system of rationing that guarantees a minimum amount of calories, far below the required minimum around the world of course, but still, you know, people can count on getting some sugar, some bread, some eggs, you know, every month.

But they're running out of money and the sanctions have lasted too long. And then the games, from the point of view of the Iraqi people of course, that the United States seemed to be playing in order to keep those sanctions in place, has persuaded many people -- university professors -- the intellectuals, the people who really are decisionmakers -- that this has become, you know, aimed at the Iraqi population. It is no longer aimed at the leadership.

But there is another very important element. Everybody in Iraq would have perhaps welcomed an attempt to rid Iraq of its present leadership. Everybody in Iraq has now come to the realization that the West cannot do this; that it has tried and failed repeatedly. So now the question is: OK, if they can't remove him from power -- talking about Saddam Hussein -- why are they taking it out on us?

MOSS-COANE: Mm-hmm. But why don't they see that the luxury that Saddam Hussein and his friends are living in -- seeing that as an affront to them?

IBRAHIM: They do, but I mean, if the proposition -- and the proposition is, in fact, that we're gonna pressure the Iraqis so hard until they rise and overthrow their leadership -- it's not gonna work. They cannot do it.

This is a regime that is so powerful, so absolutely well-entrenched that it is sufficient for you to think, to say, to author words that you might be considering the overthrowing the regime, for you to cease existing. After all, no one less than the son-in-law of the president tried to rise against him, went all the way to Jordan, defected, completely failed in garnering any support whatsoever; had to go back to Iraq and was executed sort of like a -- like a dog with a disease.

It is -- it is in many ways very cowardly to pressure a people into starvation in order to have them do the job that you cannot do.

MOSS-COANE: Youssef Ibrahim covers the Middle East for the New York Times. We'll continue our conversation about Iraq in the second half of the show.

I'm Marty Moss-Coane and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Marty Moss-Coane in for Terry Gross.

Yesterday, the United Nations Security Council gave its approval to the agreement brokered by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, which allows weapons inspectors to resume their work inspecting weapons sites in Iraq.

Our guest today, Youssef Ibrahim has been following those events and events in the region for the New York Times. He just spent two weeks in Iraq and joins us from Amman, Jordan.

How does Saddam Hussein hold onto power? What's the base of his support?

IBRAHIM: Look, the first basis of his support is terror. Let's be very clear about that.

MOSS-COANE: OK.

IBRAHIM: But the second basis of his support is this is a tribal society and a clannish society. It is based on a collection of alliances which hold together; have a certain share of power and a certain share of wealth, according to how close or how far they are from the central authority which is Saddam Hussein and his family.

It also is based on a party -- a political party that has been well-entrenched in this country for 25 years, and a party that is based on an idea -- it is perhaps elusive now, but it is still true -- which is an idea of social equality and distribution of wealth, of which of course they have done quite a bit in the '70s, before getting into this mess of wars with -- first with Iran and then of course with Kuwait.

But before this, this was a country where there was a very fair distribution of wealth and a serious improvement in the living standard of the population, with rates of growth that were, you know, topping 12, 13 percent every year.

So a lot of the old generation remembers that part, and when I say "terror," of course it is first primarily terror of Saddam Hussein and his regime, but it is also terror of what could happen to Iraq if it didn't have a ruthless leader at the top that can pull such a varied society composed of so many tribes, clans, and ethnic minorities together into a coherent country.

Remember there are Kurds in this country who have separate interests. There are Shi'ites in the south who have an interest that tends now to be tied more to Iran. And there are Sunnis in the middle and there are Christians. A lot of these ethnic minorities could sink into a very bloody civil war against one another, and we have seen in the north of Iraq the Kurds themselves fighting each other, instead of fighting the regime in the last two years.

So in many ways, part of the fear -- part of the terror is: "OK, if we replace Saddam Hussein or if the West gets rid of Saddam Hussein, what will become of us?" I mean, what kind of country is this going to be? Is it going to be divided between all these ethnic minorities and then sink into permanent bloodshed of civil war?

I think that plays an important role in answering your question: what holds the country together?

MOSS-COANE: There have been I think nearly 20 coup attempts on -- on Saddam Hussein's government. Is he, then, very adept at playing these -- these various factions and tribal groups off each other to keep himself in power?

IBRAHIM: Absolutely. This is his primary talent. Furthermore, he's very, very adept. He was the security chief of the Baath Party. This is how he rose to power. I think one would not exaggerate in saying he's just as good as anybody who's trying to overthrow him, and I'm talking about things like the Central Intelligence Agency; probably better, since he managed to out-do them in -- in Kurdistan several times.

Security in this country is a very important matter. It is a matter of state that takes top priority in the same way, for example, I don't know, welfare or education, you know, where they stand in -- in this society or in other society. They're on the same footing, in fact more so.

So, he knows that he's got a lot of enemies and his job and his primary mission in life is to make absolutely sure that none of these enemies come close to threatening his regime.

MOSS-COANE: You mentioned the CIA. There was a report in last week's New York Times about a CIA plan to topple Saddam Hussein, enlisting the help of the Kurds and the Shi'ites, with the intention of destroying utility plants, among other things. You're saying that in a sense the CIA is no match for Saddam Hussein.

IBRAHIM: First, it's no match. Secondly, destroying power stations and water stations is not the way you are going to gain the loyalty of the Iraqi people. These are people who are having trouble finding potable water as it is. If you're telling them: "gee, we're going to liberate you by destroying more of your comfort in life" -- whatever is left of it, you are not exactly going to get them to rise and applaud.

Secondly, I remember very well I had a long conversation back in, must have been 1994 or 1995 with the station -- the CIA station chief here in Amman, Jordan. And they wanted to talk for some reason, and they wanted to talk with great pride about all the plans that they were putting together to destabilize Iraq.

And at that time, it was -- it involved the printing of millions and millions and millions of fake currency -- Iraqi currency, which they were pumping inside the country to bring down the value of the dinar. And broadcasts by the opposition that were addressing, you know, all the evil aspects of the regime.

But when -- and of course, it never got anywhere, as you know.

MOSS-COANE: Right.

IBRAHIM: But when you think of it, the way you destroy a country, if you want to really overthrow a regime in that country, cannot possibly be by destroying the very population you are trying to save. And I think that message now has sunk deeply in Iraq. I'd be very surprised -- extremely surprised -- if the CIA found any credible opposition that can take and sustain power for more than a few days. It would be destroyed inside Iraq.

Most of the Iraqi people think, gee, these guys sitting in London, living in comfortable situation while we are starving here, they are going to come back here and lead us? That's the kind of mentality you run into, and that's where the CIA, the Congress -- when they say "gee let's go after Saddam Hussein" are making mistake. You gotta remember you go after Saddam Hussein, it's fine. But if you go after Saddam Hussein and the entire Iraqi population, well don't count on the Iraqi population to support you.

MOSS-COANE: What would, though, bring down -- topple -- Saddam Hussein?

IBRAHIM: Probably somebody very close to him, like his son-in-law who defected. Is that gonna happen?

MOSS-COANE: Mm-hmm.

IBRAHIM: Maybe yes; maybe no. Natural disease, a cardiac arrest, a jealous wife -- that's what would bring down Saddam Hussein.

MOSS-COANE: But you're not talking about the CIA there.

IBRAHIM: I would take a very big bet with a lot of money that it's not going to be the CIA, no.

MOSS-COANE: It'll be a much more personal thing, you're saying.

IBRAHIM: Yeah, this is a clannish regime, a tribal regime, a very closed circle -- and the guy or the woman if that's possible who's going to get him is going to be from the inside. Just take a look at the assassination attempt against his son Uday (ph), who was as you know, shot and severely wounded a few months ago.

How did they get him? They got him through his weakness. His weakness is chasing after women. And they set him up. I mean, they set him up with two women at the right place, the right time, where they knew he goes out to stay up at night on Thursday.

And he certainly fell for it, and stopped and you know, tried to pick up these girls. And they came out and just blasted him. As it happened -- happens he's not dead, but they did. But that was a technical error. It was -- it was an error that thrived on his weakness. And I understand that his father in several subsequent conversations told him, in a way it's your fault, you asked for it.

Well, his father doesn't make that kind of mistake. I mean, he spends every night somewhere else. Nobody knows where he is. If the CIA or the special SIS, the special British forces or anybody are going to look for him, you're gonna have to find him.

MOSS-COANE: We're talking about Iraq with Youssef Ibrahim who covers the Middle East for the New York Times. More after a short break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Let's get back to our conversation with New York Times correspondent Youssef Ibrahim.

There was a rather rowdy town meeting between American public and Clinton administration officials on CNN. Was that broadcast in Iraq?

IBRAHIM: Many times. It -- I mean, I got bored seeing it; was there for almost 15 days, and I think I must have seen it eight times on eight different nights. The whole thing was reproduced over and over again, complete with Arab subtitles sometimes and Arab direct translation sometimes.

MOSS-COANE: So for the Iraqi people, the protesters and some of the tough questioning by the public was something they were fascinated by?

IBRAHIM: Fascinated by -- but of course you gotta remember for them, it was a matter of life or death.

MOSS-COANE: Right.

IBRAHIM: So, it was more than fascinated. It was solidifying this impression, again, you know whether it's right or wrong, that they were about to be victimized because somebody wanted to save Clinton from what appears to be an imminent disaster caused by a scandal.

And the other part of it, of course, which I think was exaggerated, perhaps even very exaggerated, is that the American people really do not agree with bombing Iraq. I think in fact that the polls show most American people do agree with the bombing of Iraq. But the Ohio thing was portrayed as proof that most Americans do not.

MOSS-COANE: Because of the vocal protests.

IBRAHIM: Yeah.

MOSS-COANE: That makes me wonder how Clinton's problems in the White House, political and otherwise, are -- are playing in Iraq and whether there was some concern about a kind of a "Wag the Dog" situation there, which is because of his internal problems, he would -- he would turn on Iraq as a way of distracting the nation and the world from what might have been going on inside the White House.

IBRAHIM: Well, look a pirated copy of Wag the Dog was played on national Iraqi television.

MOSS-COANE: Oh, is that right?

IBRAHIM: You know that. This was about three weeks ago. The stories of Clinton's scandal and Lewinsky -- Monica Lewinsky is very famous in Iraq -- everybody knows about her -- have been written ad nauseum.

Rightly or wrongly, and I think obviously they're exaggerating this in Iraq, it is all -- it is strongly suggested that the Iraqi people were about to be bombed because the president -- and it was actually put this way on Iraqi television -- because the president turned the White House and the Oval Office into a brothel.

Of course, this is vicious and exaggerated, but a lot of people in Iraq -- educated people as well as ordinary people -- have -- have gotten it into their head that the reason they were about to be victimized by an American bombing campaign is to mask a sexual scandal that the Clinton administration is suffering from.

MOSS-COANE: Let me ask you about the support for Iraq and for Saddam Hussein by the people living in neighboring countries. How has his popularity either gone up or gone down since the Gulf War? And this is among the Arab people.

IBRAHIM: No, his popularity has not gone up. He is not popular in the neighboring Arab countries. But there is a very important distinction here that must be made. Iraq and the sympathy for Iraq has gone up dramatically.

As we are speaking right now, there are two planes coming from -- one from Egypt, one from the United Arab Emirates -- loaded with medication that are landing in -- against the embargo imposed on Iraq -- at Iraqi -- at Baghdad Airport.

In the past month alone, there have been eight planes carrying medication from Arab countries that have landed in Iraq that's in direct contravention of the ban on flying into Iraq. I think there is on the level of Arab public opinion -- the Arab street if you like -- a real revolt against the sanctions.

And I know it is very popular in America to say there is no such thing as Arab public opinion, because all these countries are living under dictatorship, but the fact is there is Arab public opinion and many of these rulers of the Arab world -- many of whom would actually like to see Saddam Hussein disappear tomorrow -- if they can -- cannot voice these feelings publicly anymore because the sentiment for the Iraqi people, mind you, is very strong.

I do not think that is similar to the popularity of Saddam Hussein. I do not think Saddam Hussein is popular in the Arab world. I don't think he is -- he has become more popular during this crisis. I think he has lost, in fact, a lot of popularity in the past six years.

But it has become in a way a parallel to what we see in Iraq. The Iraqi people are now persuaded they are the target of these sanctions, and the Arabs around them also have become persuaded of the same thing.

MOSS-COANE: The Arab governments have kept their distance from U.S. policy, in direct contrast to 1991, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. How were Arab governments hurt by the war and the aftermath of that war -- the Persian Gulf War?

IBRAHIM: Well, the first reason they kept their distance is just what we were talking about. I mean, they are facing an Arab public opinion that is in revolt against the continuation of these sanctions. And secondly, many Arab governments were deeply hurt.

If you go back to 1991, you have to remember there was a migration of almost 3 million people out of Iraq. Iraq was a very rich country that produced more than 3.5 million barrels of oil every day, which were sold at -- for a tremendous income; had a huge developmental program; had a war going on with Iran; and had perhaps as many as 2.5 million Arab workers living there who -- all of whom were collecting hard currency that they were sending back home.

Now, all of these people have lost their jobs, have had to leave Iraq. With that, it means a loss of income to the countries from where they came -- Egypt, Sudan, Morocco -- you know, 2.5 million workers is a big number.

Secondly, Turkey, for example, which used to collect hundreds of millions of dollars in fees for the transit of oil from Iraq to Turkish Mediterranean ports, of course lost this income, and furthermore lost massive trade and commerce with Iraq which they had. I mean, they were big suppliers of this country.

Jordan, which used to make a business -- a trading business with Iraq in round numbers, it was in the neighborhood of $1 billion a year, has lost all of that. And tourism in general in the entire region was deeply affected for two years at least because of the Gulf War.

So, it cost a lot of money. Of course, the Gulf countries -- Kuwait and Saudi Arabia -- had to shell out something like $120 billion in -- in cost of the war, then some of the money was paid directly to the United States for sending troops over there.

So for everybody, this has been, financially and economically, very painful.

MOSS-COANE: Is there, though, some quiet private support for American policy in the sense -- let the Americans do the dirty work, take the blame, and we won't have to associate ourselves with it.

IBRAHIM: I am sure several Arab leaders in very private conversation with Madeleine Albright told her really, really we are with you if you can get rid of him. But it's very interesting how those very same leaders rush to deny this immediately.

She said so publicly, and I think she said at some point that Bahrain has authorized the use of military power and I think the following day the Emir of Bahrain issued a statement immediately saying this is not true. I'm sure it is true. I'm sure he said so. But it's an indicator of how this public versus private sentiment goes.

I think at this time many of these rulers cannot ignore this public sentiment. You must remember that there were -- there was a ban on demonstration -- pro-Iraqi demonstrations here; a ban on pro-Iraqi demonstrations in Egypt; and a ban on pro-Iraqi demonstrations in the occupied territories of the West Bank. And in all three places, there were pro-Iraqi demonstrations. In fact, in here they were so violent some people got killed.

That is the kind of volcano many of the rulers -- these rulers are sitting on, so they gotta be very careful. But it -- the bottom line we go back to is this: the general position is -- are you doing this -- is the United States doing this to get rid of Saddam Hussein? Or, just to hit Iraq? If it is to get rid of Saddam Hussein, fine. Then we can move on from there. If it is just to hit Iraq and create problems for all of us among our populations, then no.

MOSS-COANE: My guest is correspondent Youssef Ibrahim, and we're talking about Iraq, the Middle East, and U.S. foreign policy in the region. We'll continue our conversation after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is correspondent Youssef Ibrahim. He's been covering the Middle East for 17 years, most of that time for the New York Times. He recently returned from two weeks in Iraq and joins us today from Amman, Jordan.

If the sanctions were to be lifted, would that change the attitude of the Iraqi people or people in other Arab countries towards the West? And specifically towards the United States?

IBRAHIM: Yes, definitely it would. The other element that is rousing this hostility is of course the double standard with Israel, as you know. The general sentiment here is: why is the United States so harsh on the Arab people of Iraq and so cuddling and nice to the Israelis when they are, you know, committing all kinds of violation of Security Council resolutions? When they have arrested the peace process altogether?

The general conviction here, again rightly or wrongly, is that the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, is completely opposed to the peace process and has pretty much killed it; and it is in the process of confiscating Palestinian territory; of taking more -- more land from the Palestinians.

So I mean, these two elements are at play. But the fundamental conviction in this part of the world is that there is only one player in the world, and that's the United States of America. And it's a little bit in many ways like the relationship between a daddy and the kids -- except these kids -- the Arab kids are wondering what -- why does daddy not -- does not love us anymore? I mean, what have we done to deserve all this?

So I think sort of all can be really forgiven if this sanction regime is lifted; if a state of normalization is reinstituted; if indeed the business of simply going on with life can be resumed. And that's why war or an attack on Iraq would have been so dangerous, because it -- it is precisely this element of instability; of attack; of being on the offensive all the time that's the problem.

So, I think this is a very -- a situation that's ease -- that could be repaired just as easily as it could get much, much worse and much more sinister.

MOSS-COANE: Are you resented at all because you work for an American newspaper? Does that open doors? Does that close doors for you?

IBRAHIM: No, it's very strange in this part of the world. I mean, newspaper people are not resented. They are considered people who are coming to see. And in this particular last visit to Iraq, I think all of us -- everybody who was there from CNN to ABC, NBC, New York Times, Washington Post -- whoever was there, not to mention of course all the European and international media -- were astonished at how easy they were. I mean, if they were watching us every minute of the day, it wasn't intrusive and certainly nobody tried to stop you from talking to people.

I think also Iraq has learned something from this whole experience, that you're much better off letting -- opening the doors to the press than closing it. And you're much better off portraying yourself as a victim than as a fearful, fighting population which was sort of the previous macho image. I mean, "let them come here; we'll eat them alive." I think this time they -- they saw that playing victim, because they are victims really, plays very -- much better.

MOSS-COANE: Well Youssef Ibrahim, thank you very much for joining us today on FRESH AIR.

IBRAHIM: Thank you very much.

MOSS-COANE: Youssef Ibrahim covers the Middle East for the New York Times.

Dateline: Marty Moss-Coane, Philadelphia
Guest: Youssef Ibrahim
High: A talk with The New York Times' Youssef Ibrahim, who is in Baghdad where he's been reporting on the situation in Iraq. Meanwhile, U.S. Military forces remain in the Middle East, waiting for the United Nation's weapons inspections to begin in Iraq.
Spec: Middle East; Iraq; Violence; Military; Politics; Government; UN
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Reporting on Iraq
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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