Will the people of Iraq rise against Saddam?

Although American strategists preparing for an attack on Iraq have yielded few clues to their plans, there is little doubt about one assumption they hold. In the event of any such strike, argue the hawks, many ordinary Iraqis will be "dancing on the rooftops" to cheer US warplanes, and even rising up to cast aside the chains of Saddam's rule.

History is littered with examples of such wishful thinking - Philip II of Spain, for example, was sure that the arrival of the Armada would spark huge popular protest by closet English Catholics. But the expectation of popular support has a particularly bad track record in recent Middle East conflicts.

Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980 on the premise that he would spark popular unrest among the Arab population of the Iranian province of Khuzestan, an area of dispute between Arab and Persian for thousands of years. But what Saddam calculated would be a quick conflict, modelled on Israel's Six-Day War, turned out to be the longest conventional war of the 20th century, and one that inflicted great damage on his country, even though it enjoyed Washington's full support.

Ayatollah Khomeini and his fellow mullahs made a similar mistake. As the military balance turned in their favour in 1982, they calculated that an Iranian push into Iraq would incite mass rebellion among the huge Shia population of the southern regions. But they, too, were disappointed; the Iraqi Shias have stayed almost entirely loyal to the Saddam regime. Again, in March 1995, when militia of the Iraqi National Congress and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan attacked Iraqi troops, they quickly found that the popular uprisings they had planned on in Mosul and Kirkuk did not materialise. Nor did the expected mass defections from the Iraqi army.

American strategists are more likely than most to overestimate the extent of popular support for them in countries they invade. This is because of the genuine, and deeply rooted, conviction among US soldiers that no right-thinking person, anywhere in the world, could do anything except like and admire them. Charles Fairbanks, a US academic, has written with utter conviction of the "general American desire to help people" which is "noble" as well as self-interested. Equally sincere was the conviction of US planners that covert missions would spark uprisings among suppressed populaces. Yet in 1958, a CIA-backed rebellion against President Sukarno of Indonesia collapsed without any show of support at all.

Three years later, on 17 April 1961, came a much better- known fiasco, the Bay of Pigs. The CIA envisaged disaffected civilians rushing towards the beachhead to pick up arms and supplies. It estimated that a hard-core dissident population of roughly 2,000-3,000 would be joined by perhaps as much as 25 per cent of the population. As soon as these dissidents had taken control of a section of the island, reckoned the CIA, a provisional government could be set up to challenge Fidel Castro. Though a few demurred - notably the retiring assistant secretary of state, Thomas Mann - their voices were quickly drowned out by the hawks.

Americans are prone to such wishful thinking for the same reason that they are apt, in their Manichaean way, to speak of empires and axes of evil. Living in a state founded upon "truths" of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness which are deemed to be "self-evident", Americans have long been able to convince themselves that they embody all things good. Yet the American propensity for doublethink, for convincing themselves of something quite different from the truth, has been clear almost as long: the loudest advocates of "American freedom" in the 1760s, who protested so vociferously about British-imposed taxes, were the slave-owners of Virginia.

With the Bush administration now looking increasingly committed to unilateral action, it seems a bit late for anyone inside the administration to raise objections like these. Perhaps we must hope that, in spite of so much evidence to the contrary, the Americans really are as loved, admired and eagerly anticipated as they genuinely believe.

Roger Howard is a specialist writer on defence matters