World waits, watches, worries Weary of war, Hussein's people are nevertheless ready to fight THE IRAQIS

January 13, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Sullen and resigned, this city readies for war.

Quiet preparations are made: Families are starting to slip out of town with their children, to find a place to stay away from bombs, their neighbors say.

Everyone is stockpiling food and water. Long lines form at gasoline stations as residents fill jugs with extra fuel in case they must flee quickly and far.

And more men leave for the army.

They are muted preparations, discussed only cautiously among friends, so as not to disturb the placid routine of life in Baghdad, so as not to attract notice.

Baghdad savors what may be the final days of that routine. Schoolchildren play soccer in the crisp winter sunshine. Lovers stroll in parks. The horse races are still on for fans of a wager. After eight years of war with Iran, people finally were getting accustomed to not searching the sky for missiles.

The city lingers in that routine, as a guest lingers who must leave the party just when it was getting to be fun. They are reluctant to turn again to war, a reluctance born of the misery of their terrible conflict with Iran.

The anti-American protests are obligatory and uninspired. The lurid speeches of their leaders are not the words of the people.

But the people do say they will fight. In numerous conversations with Iraqis, one hears the same conclusions: They do not want war; they feel wronged by the U.S. administration; they are willing to go to war if they are told to do so.

So it is that a visitor to Baghdad finds contradictions. The calm routine of the city continues, hiding beneath it the fears of fathers for their sons, wives for their husbands.

They face war as a weary duty.

Said a soldier, conscripted now for five years and facing longer service for yet another war: "What can I do?"

"What can we do?" echoed a father, in a hushed conversation. "I have worked for 30 years, have a home, children, and now all may be lost."

He pressed close to an American reporter, searching with his thick glasses as though through a microscope for truth.

"Will they use chemicals on us?" he asked about the American troops.

He had seen missiles fly over his house in the Iran-Iraq War. A school nearby had been struck by one that killed three dozen children. Missiles do not frighten him. Chemicals do.

"It is not for me I worry," he added. "I am 60. It does not matter. But my children."

Why, he is asked, do a people so tired of war not rise up against the leader who brings them another?

He seemed surprised at the question.

"Now, even those persons who were against him are with him," he said of President Saddam Hussein. "A threat to your country pulls people together. No person, not even those against Saddam, would say so now. Nobody is willing to upset the unity of the country."

"Saddam Hussein," he said slowly and sincerely, "is very, very popular."

Contradictions seem imprinted on the very face of the city. Baghdad is new, reshaped in the last two decades by Mr. Hussein and his ruling party into a capital to rival modern capitals.

From a tall building, the striking new architecture seems of some futurist metropolis, with skyscrapers that curve and soar and terraced roofs that step into the sky. The buildings rise from a carpet of date-palm trees.

Underneath that green canopy bustles a city with broad boulevards and modern shops. The contradictions lie in the Third World reminders: The sweet smells that roll on to the street from open markets and grilled lamb; the chaos of traffic; the black smudges of pollution from untamed car exhausts that coat the buildings and seem to hasten the crumbling of all that is built.

The 3.7 million people that fill this city are comfortable with their contrasts. Old Arab men shuffle in sandals beside men dressed in alligator shoes and pin-stripe suits. A woman in a traditional flowing "abeyah" robe walks beside another in a fluorescent knit skirt and shiny high heels.

This is a secular state, proud that it is not governed by the imposed morals of a religion, as is neighboring Iran. Only recently has Mr. Hussein fervently and publicly embraced his fellow Muslims.

"Saddam has done much for this country," said a woman willing to criticize the rush to war. "He has built it up, he has encouraged people to work. He has really westernized it."

He has also efficiently and ruthlessly cracked down on all dissent. Stories of torture and murder have shaped his image in the West.

It is understandable, then, that he is not publicly challenged. People speak in quiet tones and cautious words about the government. Even in private conversations, they signal their opinions more by what is unsaid than what is spoken. Critics have been known to disappear.

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