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Iranians torn between two they don't trust: Saddam and the U.S.

QASR-E-SHIRIN, Iran—Few Iranians suffered the ravages of their bloody, eight-year war with Iraq more than the residents of this sleepy little border town.

Yet while residents hate and fear Saddam Hussein—"Have you forgiven Hitler?" Zahra Dekami, 32, asked—there is no apparent support for President Bush's plan to oust him.

Many of the 30,000 Kurds who live here saw family members killed or captured by Saddam's troops when they occupied the hamlet in 1980.

The Iraqi invaders leveled every building except the mosque. The town, called "Sweet Castle" in Persian, has since been rebuilt, although rusting Iraqi tanks and artillery still litter barren fields that once were vast palm tree groves in this breadbasket of western Iran.

"It's America who backed the Iraqis in their war against us and now all they want to do is collect the weapons they left behind," insisted Dekami, drawing her black, head-to-toe chador tightly around her.

Added her father, Yabdullah Dekami, 75, who spent four years as an Iraqi prisoner of war: "Bush insults us if he thinks we believe the reasons he's giving for this war."

Many across Iran share their opposition to a war and distrust of U.S. motives. Ask average Iranians why they think American troops are preparing to attack and the answer is usually the same: to gain control of Iraqi oil. But at the same time, Iran is one of the few Muslim countries where citizens aren't demonstrating in the streets against a U.S.-led attack.

The reason for this dichotomy is that Saddam remains a hated figure here, an enemy who killed a quarter-million Iranian civilians and more than three times as many soldiers in a war that ended in a draw 15 years ago.

The war began in late September 1980, with an Iraqi invasion of western Iranian cities including Qasr-e-Shirin. It began over a territorial dispute over the Shatt al Arab waterway that empties into the Persian Gulf and forms the boundary between Iran and Iraq.

The United States and several European countries became involved in 1987, in response to Iranian attacks on Kuwaiti oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. Iran was ultimately pressured into accepting a United Nations resolution ending the war, but Iraq never signed on and issues between the two countries—including the fate of prisoners of war—remain largely unresolved.

Now that the United States and other nations want Saddam gone, Iranians are at least tacitly jumping on the bandwagon. While the anti-American government of Iran has been waging a domestic and international campaign against any U.S.-led war on Iraq, the same leaders are quietly providing Iraqi opposition groups backed by the Bush administration with protection and material support.

Yet it's unlikely that most Iranians old enough to recall the eight-year conflict with their western neighbor will change their minds about a war to remove Saddam. Too many innocent people will be hurt, they believe, no matter what assurances President Bush offers.

Shirin Chatr-Simah, 47, who picnicked with her daughters on a recent Friday in a Qasr-e-Shirin park named after the local militia that tried in vain to protect their town in 1980, said she prays the United States will change its mind.

"I'm too old to run again," said Chatr-Simah, 47, who bore her younger daughter, Afsaneh Bouarooh while fleeing into the mountains near town to escape Saddam's advancing forces. Her 11-year-old son, Marzhan Bouarooh, died a month after the invasion, his heart irreparably damaged by a shell that fell onto their neighbor's home.

"Maybe this time we won't see Iraqi soldiers and their weapons, but we will definitely see refugees who will cross over and take over our homes and lands," Afsaneh Bouarooh said. "There is nothing good that can come out of this war for the Iraqis or for us."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+iran

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030304 USIRAQ IRAN map, locating Qasr-e-Shirin