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Iraq Special Report

  In Dayton, Resigned Support for Airstrikes on Iraq

By Edward Walsh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 1998; Page A22

DAYTON, Ohio, Feb. 18—From his shoeshine stand in a downtown barber shop, Russell Ramey, 61, has been closely following developments in the Persian Gulf and, like many people here, has reached some grim conclusions.

"I think that we should have taken care of Saddam Hussein when we were over there before," during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he said. "I just don't see this as any win situation. But I believe we're doing the right thing."

Ramey supports the airstrikes that President Clinton is threatening against Iraq, saying they should be aimed at Saddam Hussein's nonconventional weapons, but not the Iraqi leader. "I don't think getting Saddam would accomplish much," he added. "Just the other evening I heard that his son is more ruthless than he is."

"Get 'em both," interjected a customer waiting for a haircut.

In interviews at a suburban shopping mall near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, on the campus of the University of Dayton and on downtown streets, a clear majority of Dayton area residents said they are ready to back Clinton, and the use of military force if necessary, in the showdown with Saddam Hussein. But there are also doubters who are not persuaded of the threat Clinton says is posed by Iraq or that military action is justified.

The support that does exist for military strikes is also more resigned than enthusiastic, and is colored by deep frustration that Saddam Hussein remains a threat and fear that military action could have widespread consequences.

Many people said they were bothered that, unlike in 1991, the United States is not leading a broad coalition of nations, including the Arab states that are most directly threatened by Iraq. "I think we should have the whole Arab community with us," said Terry Martin, 57, a salesman who was browsing in a downtown bookstore.

"I think it's stupid this time and I thought we should have blown him off the face of the Earth the last time," Martin added.

Because other countries, most important Russia, oppose the use of force, there is also a fear that any conflict could spread or lead to the use of the chemical and biological weapons that would be the target of U.S. attacks.

And no one here looks forward to seeing television pictures of dead Iraqi civilians.

"The children are going to die -- he [Saddam Hussein] is going to use these people as a human shield," said Michael J. Bindas, 59, president of the International Union of Electronic Workers, which has 10,500 members in Dayton, most working in one of the city's auto plants. "It does bother me, but I don't know what to do about it."

Bindas's office is decorated with a picture of him and Clinton. He is a strong supporter of the president and will back him in Iraq, but not without some nagging doubts about where the confrontation is leading.

"If we go in and bomb the hell out of him for a week or two and Saddam emerges from his bunker and pounds his chest, it concerns me what the end is," he said. "Do we bomb him every seven years? I don't see an end. The most we can hope for is we disable him for the next five or six years."

"There is a certain resignation on the part of a lot of people," said R. Bruce Hitchner, 47, director of the Center for International Programs at the University of Dayton, a Roman Catholic school with about 10,000 students. "I don't think anybody wants to do this, but I don't think they see any options."

Hitchner said the United States "suddenly backed into this" and that the buildup to possible military action, coming less than a decade after the Gulf War, has lacked the drama of the earlier showdown with Saddam Hussein. "A reprise doesn't have the same air of excitement and anticipation," he said.

One reason has been the flood of scandal-related news coming out of Washington and the fact that fewer reserve and other units at Wright-Patterson are so far directly involved as they were in 1991. But that is also clearly changing, especially since Clinton's speech at the Pentagon on Tuesday and today's town hall meeting in Columbus, 70 miles away, with three of his senior foreign policy and defense advisers.

"It's a night and day difference since the speech yesterday," Jim Vangrov, who runs the district office of Rep. Tony P. Hall (D), said of the level of interest in the growing tension with Iraq. "It's almost even. Some people say don't attack, use diplomacy, and others say blow him up, stop making excuses and take him out."

Hall voted against a congressional resolution in 1991 authorizing the use of U.S. force to expel Iraq from Kuwait. But he said he is leaning toward supporting military action if diplomacy fails this time.

Todd Bruner, 34, a construction sales representative, heard Clinton's speech and was impressed. But what will not satisfy him will be less-than-decisive action against Saddam Hussein.

"I know it's not an easy decision," Bruner said. "It's going to be frustrating if this thing repeats itself again. I don't think [Clinton] would have the support to do this again if he doesn't do a complete job this time."

Joyce Palmer, 46, a department store worker at Fairfield Commons who has three sons in the Air Force, reflected the air of resignation about this second showdown with Saddam Hussein.

"Well, I feel we should go ahead and take care of it," she said. "We should have taken care of it the first time. I feel sorry for the civilians, but he doesn't care about them. Until they do something about him there's only going to be more problems. So if we can do what the president is trying to do, to get a step ahead so [the use of weapons of mass destruction] never happens, that's what you've got to worry about, what's going to happen down the road."

Antonette Flohre, 46, who owns a business consulting firm, is less convinced. Her son is a student at Ohio State University. "I'm not willing to have my son put his life on the line for the reasons that have been articulated by our government," she said. "I want more proof."

Unlike during the Vietnam War, one place where the Iraq standoff appears not to have made a deep impression is the local college campus. Several University of Dayton students said sheepishly that they have been too busy to follow the distant developments. "Did we end up bombing them?" asked Matt Puhl, 18, a freshman from Maumee, Ohio.

Lisa Morawski, 22, a senior and editor of the student newspaper, said the situation in the Persian Gulf has attracted little campus attention. "Students are interested in things that affect them directly," she said. When Morawski recently suggested that they send a photographer to a small downtown demonstration opposing military action, she said her staff's reaction was to laugh "that people would have a problem" with the prospect of military action.

"I understand that having these weapons creates a danger to us and other countries, so I guess it is justified," she continued. "My first reaction was, why are we doing this? The more I read about it the more it seems justified. I just have trouble justifying any bombing."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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