We on the bus felt that we were sympathetic to the views of the Iraqi civilians, even though we didn't actually know any. The group was less interested in standing up for their rights than protesting against the US and UK governments.
I was shocked when I first met a pro-war Iraqi in Baghdad a taxi driver taking me back to my hotel late at night. I explained that I was American and said, as we shields always did, "Bush bad, war bad, Iraq good." He looked at me with an expression of incredulity.
As he realized I was serious, he slowed down and started to speak in broken English about the evils of Saddam's regime. Until then I had only heard the president spoken of with respect, but now this guy was telling me how all of Iraq's oil money went into Saddam's pocket, and that if you opposed him politically he would kill your whole family.
It scared the hell out of me. First I was thinking that maybe it was the secret police trying to trick me, but later I got the impression that he wanted me to help him escape. I felt so bad. I told him: "Listen, I am just a schmuck from the United States, I am not with the UN, I'm not with the CIA I just can't help you."
Of course I had read reports that Iraqis hated Saddam Hussein, but this was the real thing. Someone had explained it to me face to face. I told a few journalists I knew. They said that this sort of thing often happened spontaneous, emotional, and secretive outbursts imploring visitors to free them from Saddam's tyrannical Iraq.
I BECAME increasingly concerned about the way the Iraqi regime was restricting the movement of the shields, so a few days later I left Baghdad for Jordan by taxi with five others. Once over the border we felt comfortable enough to ask our driver what he felt about the regime and the threat of an aerial bombardment.
"Don't you listen to Powell on Voice of America radio?" he said. "Of course the Americans don't want to bomb civilians. They want to bomb government and Saddam's palaces. We want America to bomb Saddam."
We just sat, listening, our mouths open wide. Jake, one of the others, just kept saying, "Oh my God" as the driver described the horrors of the regime. Jake was so shocked at how naive he had been. We all were. It hadn't occurred to anyone that the Iraqis might actually be pro-war.
Perhaps the most crushing thing we learned was that most ordinary Iraqis thought Saddam had paid us to come to protest in Iraq. Although we explained that this was categorically not the case, I don't think he believed us.
Later he asked me: "Really, how much did Saddam pay you to come?"
It hit me on visceral and emotional levels: This was a real portrayal of Iraqi life. After the first conversation I completely rethought my view of the Iraqi situation. My understanding changed on the intellectual, emotional, psychological levels. . . .