Diplomats scramble for departure from Baghdad

January 11, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- In the stately French Embassy, the paper shredder had stopped for a moment.

At the Canadian Embassy, Ambassador Christopher Poole pondered whether it was worth a long and dangerous drive through the desert to haul classified communications equipment out of Baghdad.

At the U.S. Embassy, the chief diplomat, Thomas C. Wilson, waited in a florid purple necktie and alligator-skin shoes for the final orders to fly out of Iraq tomorrow morning.

And at another embassy, a blond, red-cheeked Western woman wondered what would become of her Iraqi-soldier husband and her two children when the war started.

They are among the victims of the failure of diplomacy that has brought the beast of war to the doorstep of Iraq.

Embassies in Baghdad began packing and closing yesterday for fear of being caught here Wednesday when the United States and its allies say they will feel free to attack. They prepared to leave despite the planned visit tomorrow by United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar in a desperate bid to rekindle diplomacy.

"I am paid to be a professional optimist," said an Asian diplomat. "But I would not bet on this mission."

The Americans are likely to be leaving town just as Mr. Perez de Cuellar arrives. The embassy was planning an airlift of the six remaining U.S. diplomats, and perhaps others who wish to go, on a plane tomorrow morning.

The building will be closed, though it is uncertain whether the flag that flutters by day -- and all night in a bright spotlight -- will be left aloft.

"This is so sad," said one of the 90 Iraqi members of the staff. "I came here in 1985, when the embassy was just officially reopened. To see it close now. . . . " Her sigh finished the thought.

The woman was fatalistic about being left in Baghdad during a war.

"We lived through the [Iran-Iraq] war with missiles going over our house," she said. "If it is written that I am to die here, there is nothing I can do to change that."

Less sanguine was the Western woman in another embassy, married to an Iraqi soldier. Her husband sought in 1979 to finish his mandatory military service before moving to the West with his bride, only to find himself conscripted for the eight-year war with Iraq.

Finally released from service, he sought to move quickly from the country. But he and his family were packing for the move when the invasion of Kuwait Aug. 2 prompted Saddam Hussein to recall reserves.

They thought briefly of fleeing but feared repercussions to his mother and brothers. So her husband put on his uniform and left their home again.

"You don't really think there will be war, do you?" she asked a stranger. "My 11-year-old sees the TV reports and says we are all going to be killed. I tell him, 'C'mon, we've got through one war. We can get through another.' "

The woman sat stiffly in a chair. Her voice was small against the fears revealed by her words.

"I'm not as afraid of the Americans. They won't try to hurt anybody if they bomb -- just missile batteries and such. But it's the Israelis who worry me. They have been itching for so long to get Iraq.

"People are so tired of war. They've just got eight years of one. They don't want another." She paused. "But they will fight."

It is impossible to see the true fears of Baghdad through the veil of calm.

The streets of the city bustled with traffic. Along Saddam Street, the main shopping boulevard, strollers seeming in no particular hurry clucked at the rising prices.

Newspapers reported the failure of the talks between U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz. One paper noted that Iraq "made it clear it will not give in to U.S. threats and blackmail."

Another paper in the state-controlled press offered the report that "millions of soldiers are expecting a great victory and its honorable consequences."

"I think nothing will happen," said Moutaz al Dabbas, a geologist. "We question why Bush would want to fight in our house."

"Still time to negotiate," said a soldier on the street. "No bombs."

But another Iraqi noted, "Everybody is piling up some food, just in case."

On Baghdad's equivalent of Embassy Row, the paper shredders were churning through documents that departing diplomats did not wish to leave behind. Most embassies, including that of the United States, had long since reduced their staffs because of tensions in the gulf.

Yesterday, the five British diplomats departed, driving to Jordan. They were "leaving behind just a few warm bodies like us," joked one of the Iraqi staff members who will keep the embassy technically open.

The German, Greek and Belgian embassies were to be closed or "temporarily unstaffed" by yesterday or today. The Soviets were reported to be planning an airlift to evacuate nearly 300 Soviet citizens who have remained in Iraq.

The Japanese Embassy had made efficient backup plans with plane reservations Sunday and -- just in case -- a permit to leave by land Tuesday. There are only five Japanese diplomats, and no residents in the country, noted Consul Seiji Morimoto, but they may have to help 20 or more Japanese journalists here, he said.

John Denton, consul at the Australian Embassy, said he expected the three Australian-based diplomats to leave in a day or so.

The Canadians, too, were packing. "I don't think we have much choice, given the current situation," said Ambassador Poole. "One could stick in if one were optimistic. But it certainly doesn't look as though there's going to be a withdrawal."

In the lobby of one embassy, an Iraqi woman picking up her final paycheck eyed a Westerner.

"You are leaving?" she said. "You are lucky."

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