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Saddam's Policies Shape Iraqi Opinion of Neighboring Countries - 2003-07-02


Saddam Hussein's policies isolated Iraq from many of its neighbors. He invaded two of his neighbors, Iran and Kuwait, and had relatively hostile relations with the rest. Saddam's policies are still affecting the way Iraqis feel about their neighbors.

A first-time visitor to Iraq might expect Iraqis to feel some hostility toward their eastern neighbor, Iran. After all, the countries were at war for eight years, the longest-running conventional war of the 20th century, and it claimed roughly 400,000 lives.

But for many Iraqis, particularly the majority Shiite Muslims, the post-war hostility between Tehran and Baghdad is a mark in Iran's favor. Iraq's Shiites were oppressed under Saddam Hussein's regime, and now bus driver Shamil Kamel has nothing but warm feelings toward his country's former enemy.

He says he likes Iran for religious reasons, because of Islam. He is a Shia Muslim, he says, and therefore he has to sympathize with Iran.

Mr. Kamel is only 20 years old, too young to really remember the Iran-Iraq war. Political analyst Ehab Samir Bajis says especially for the younger generation, the war is ancient history.

"It is something that happened in the past, and most of the people have forgotten what happened," he explained. "But there is some shadows, you could say, that reflect the relations now between the Iraqis and the Iranians because of the war."

In many ways, Iraqi attitudes toward Iran reflect a larger trend: Iraqis are to some degree basing their opinions of neighboring states on how those countries dealt with Iraq under Saddam, especially during the 12 years of sanctions.

For that reason, many Iraqis direct their greatest hostility not at Iran, but at Jordan. The bus driver, Mr. Kamel, is one of them. He says Iraqis and Iranians are united, like one nation. But the Jordanians, he says, they have really hurt us.

For many years, Jordan was the only neighboring country to keep open relations with Saddam's Iraq. Now, there appears to be a bit of a backlash against Jordanians.

Mr. Kamel and many others complain that Jordanians mistreated Iraqis who went to work in Jordan during Saddam's reign. The political analyst, Mr. Bajis, says there is another factor. Until a few months ago, Jordan got all of its oil from Iraq, and did not pay market price for it.

"More than half of it was free. That is the most important thing that created the situation of hatred as you can consider it," he said.

Jordanians will tell you the oil was a gift from Saddam Hussein to the people of Jordan, as thanks for their support during the first Gulf War.

Mr. Bajis, however, calls it blackmail. He says Iraq had to supply Jordan with oil in exchange for the continued use of the Jordanian port at Aqaba, at a time when all of Iraq's other neighbors had closed their borders.

Engineering student Ali Mahel is definitely holding a grudge. He says Jordanians profited from Iraqi's suffering under sanctions. He says, we were paying the bill, and they benefited from our oil and our money.

Relations with a third neighboring country, Kuwait, are also complicated. Many Iraqis say they simply have no relationship with Kuwaitis, because of Saddam's policies.

But a striking number of people repeat a totally unsubstantiated rumor, blaming Kuwaitis for the looting that broke out in Baghdad immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein. That is a sign of the lingering mistrust between the two countries, which has only grown since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Add to that Kuwait's cooperation with America during this year's war, and for some Iraqis, mistrust boils over into hatred.

Jabar al-Asrakhi, 52, dishes out possibly the biggest insult an Arab can deliver. He says Kuwaitis are enemy number one. He says he considers them the Jews of the Arab world.

The political analyst, Mr. Bajis, says post-Saddam Iraq, emerging from regional isolation, will have to re-build its relations with its neighboring states because it will need them to help recover from the war and sanctions. For this to happen, he adds, the Iraqi people will have to get over what he terms their disappointment in the way their neighbors dealt with them under the old regime.

"The issue now is, these things [have] changed now and the former regime is gone. We hope that this disappointment now is coming... to reduce itself, step by step, till it's gone forever," he said.

It is not fair to characterize all Iraqis as hating or mistrusting their neighbors. Many people on the streets will tell you that Jordanians and Kuwaitis are their Arab brothers.

But as one man observed, after 24 years under a repressive government, Iraqis have learned not to trust anyone, not even their brothers. And for many, it will take a while to learn how to do it.

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