Iraqis embrace, yet fear future without Hussein

Stiff Baghdad resistance raises specter of '91 repeat

War In Iraq

March 26, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - It was a grim day yesterday in Baghdad, perhaps the grimmest yet since the war began, and with the darkening prospect of worse to come.

Just past noon, the Iraqi capital was nearly dark, its streets nearly deserted for miles on end. Since Saturday, the city has been shrouded with huge, roiling clouds of black smoke from oil trenches Saddam Hussein's forces have set afire around the outer districts to foil guidance systems on American aircraft and bombs. Then, overnight, a storm blew in from the desert, said to be the worst in years, blasting everything with howling winds that bent the date palms along the Tigris River almost flat, along with a thick screen of yellowish-brown sand.

Away to the southwest, as close as 50 miles in some places, advance units of the U.S. Army and Marines were probing through the choking dust. With shortwave radios and the word-of-mouth networks, there was a hardly a man or woman in Baghdad who did not know that the Americans were almost at the city's gates.

And that knowledge, in many ways, was the hardest thing of all. For 30 years, Hussein has worked to make himself unchallengeable in Iraq.

But since American forces crossed the border from Kuwait, and especially now that they are in the early stages of mounting a siege of Baghdad, Hussein has been confronted with the worst nightmare any absolute ruler can confront, a physical force greater than his own.

Even Iraqi loyalists, at least at the level of common men and women, say privately that, this time, the long years may be up. But they, and other Iraqis who do not support Hussein, have found themselves in something like an accord in recent days over the nightmare that could lie ahead.

In one family yesterday, among professional, middle-class people who have long yearned for a freer Iraq unburdened by sanctions and repression, there was one, obsessive concern: How long would America take to close its account with Hussein?

The family members, fearful of being described in any way that could make them identifiable, said that they were scared to death by the success of the Iraqi irregular troops.

If similar groups make a fight for Baghdad, as most Iraqis believe they will, the family said, the new freedoms they had hoped to celebrate could come at far too high a price in shattered Iraqi lives.

Hearing from the Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corp.'s shortwave broadcasts of American generals' cautious plans for moving into Baghdad, the family members feared what might happen if, faced with continued stiff resistance by Hussein's troops, President Bush did what his father did at the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and decide that a settlement was preferable to a long and bloody campaign to topple Hussein.

"That is our nightmare," one of the men said, "and we ask, `What will Bush do to help us then?' "

In all likelihood, conversations like these were common across Baghdad yesterday as Iraqis contemplated the astonishing change that the last six days have wrought. But nobody could be sure. One thing that has not changed is the deep fear of expressing dissident thoughts. Hussein may be facing his most formidable challenge yet, but he is still in power, at least in Baghdad, and still in a position to ordain retribution on anyone showing a hint of betrayal.

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