Back from Iraq, activist urges peace: 2003 interview with Providence Journal

Providence Journal

January 30, 2003, Thursday All Editions

BACK FROM IRAQ, ACTIVIST URGES PEACE

BYLINE: Michael Corkery, Journal staff writer

President Bush has promised to liberate the Iraqi people, but Maxim Fetissenko says the American leader should not expect dancing in the streets of Baghdad if U.S. troops invade.

Fetissenko, of Providence, recently returned from a trip to Baghdad where he gathered what he says are the unheard opinions of Iraqi citizens faced with war.

In quiet conversations out of earshot of government officials, Iraqis told him that, unlike the mass surrender by the Iraqi troops in the 1991 Gulf War, this time they will fight.

“When I asked this question, repeatedly, ‘What do you think will happen if there is a war?’ the responses were consistent: We will fight,” he said.

Fetissenko spent a week in Baghdad earlier this month, as part of what he calls a “fact-finding” mission with about 30 academics from U.S. colleges and universities. Activist Bianca Jagger also joined them in Iraq.

Organized by James Jennings, who is the cofounder of a national group, Conscience International, the delegation of college professors and researchers went to Baghdad in defiance of a U.S. travel ban to the country.

Fetissenko, an associate director of the Rhode Island Service Alliance, which promotes community service around the state, says the event has been derided by at least one magazine as a tourist jaunt by a group of “leftist peaceniks.”

“But nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.

The New Yorker wrote a somewhat snide piece about the trip in the current issue and made oblique reference to Jane Fonda’s notorious trip to Vietnam in 1972.

Fetissenko said he went to Baghdad as part of an academic rather than a political mission. However, he had voiced his opposition to war in Iraq before the trip. This fall, he joined more than 30,000 other college professors in signing a petition opposing military action against Iraq.

Fetissenko said his five-day trip only confirmed what he has feared for some time: War with Iraq would be a grave error in judgment .

“We speak of the civilians who died on 9-11,” Fetissenko said. “The hundreds of thousands of people who will die in Iraq are no less innocent. To ignore that would be a crime.”

While much of the visit was controlled by the Iraq government and its ever-present “minders” who monitor conversations between Westerners and Iraqi citizens, Fetissenko said he was able to speak to some people without supervision.

Based on these conversations, Fetissenko believes that the American public has been misinformed about the situation in Iraq.

For one, he said the Iraqis would not welcome a U.S. military invasion. It’s not that they support Saddam; they resent the idea of an American occupation of their country, he said.

“Many Americans sincerely believe that U.S. troops would come to Iraq as liberators and be perceived as such by the Iraqi people,” he said. “Some even say that Iraqis will be dancing in the streets. Based on my observations, this seems extremely unlikely.

“Iraqis are convinced that the war will be about oil and securing a strategic position for the United States in the Middle East, and that the plight of the Iraqi people is the last thing on Americans’ minds.”

Iraqis would vehemently repel an American attempt to take over their country in this latest showdown, Fetissenko said.

In the West, there’s widespread doubt about the level of popular support for Saddam. But Fetissenko said that as does any wartime president, Saddam has strong backing.

As implausible as that might seem, Fetissenko said that citizens living in a totalitarian regime are unable to ponder the possiblity of a different government. Their information sources are tightly controlled and they are shut off from independent news.

A native of the former Soviet Union, Fetissenko said that most people who lived under Communism accepted it as their way of life and never tried to change the system — despite what they might claim now.

“If you ask a random sample of Russians what they thought about Communism, they will say they were devoted anti-Communists,” he said. “If you asked the question in the ’80s, most people would look at you in puzzlement. It was the only reality known to the people at the time.”

The same is true in Iraq, he said.

“Iraq is situated in a neighborhood where democracy is a foreign concept,” Fetissenko said. “You would be tortured just as quickly for dissent in Syria as in Iraq, but we have been focused on demonizing Iraq for so long.”

A doctoral candidate at Florida State University, Fetissenko came to Rhode Island in 1999 to teach for a year at Rhode Island College. He visited Baghdad independent of his work at the Rhode Island Service Alliance, he said.

Trip visitors to Baghdad included a number of academics, from economics professors to graduate students to nurse practitioners.

Conscience International has organized trips to Iraq to explore life under the U.N. sanctions, and Rhode Islanders have been among the visitors on those trips.

On the latest trip, the group tried to preserve its academic independence, stating on its Web site, “We are not apologists for any nation or government,” though they are united in opposition to a war.

The Iraqis welcomed the American academics, and their trip was covered heavily by the Baghdad press. Fetissenko said he avoided speaking with Iraqi reporters because he did not want his interviews to be used as propaganda by Saddam’s government.

“We did not want to lend any legitimacy to the government which is truly repressive of its own people,” he said.

On Jan. 11, the group flew from New York to Jordan and then receieved a group visa to enter Iraq. Fetissenko said that he was not concerned about his safety because he felt so strongly about this mission.

He said that many Iraqis expressed fear about the impending conflict. “But it’s a calm fear. It’s a sense of resignation. They have accepted the war as inevitable,” he said, adding that they feel the inspections are merely a pretext for war.

Many of the Iraqis whom Fetissenko met were busy stockpiling food and digging wells in their backyards, anticipating that the water supply would be disrupted during a war.

He said medical and environmental conditions in Iraq have deteriorated since sanctions were imposed. He fears that Iraqis will suffer greatly during a U.S. attack and urges both the United States and Iraq to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

While Pentagon officials tout the accuracy of their weapons – which they say can distinguish between civilian and military targets — Fetissenko said many Iraqis cannot make such a clear distinction.

He insists that not all Iraqi soldiers are well-trained and well-equipped, even though U.S. officials maintain that the Republican Guard and other Iraqi units include thousands of competent troops.

“In a country like Iraq, combatants are not professional soldiers,” he said. “They are regular Iraqi men given weapons. They are brothers and fathers and nephews of civilians. They were civilians just a few days before they were given a gun.

“The line we [Americans] draw between civilian and combatants — to them it’s a dead Iraqi,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether he was wearing a uniform.”

* * *

Photo caption: A FIRSTHAND LOOK: Maxim Fetissenko, of Providence, spent a week in Baghdad earlier this month, listening to Iraqis talk about the prospect of war with the United States.

JOURNAL PHOTO / JOHN FREIDAH

SECTION: News; Pg. A-01

LENGTH: 1237 words