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Iraqis Bracing for War

March 11, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


SIMON MARKS: These are difficult days in Baghdad. In this city of seven million– in the U.S., only New York and Los Angeles are geographically larger– there’s a growing realization that the U.S. Government is inexorably on the path toward war.

And yet on the streets of this city, in the restaurants which daily remain packed with people, and in the street markets, which bustle with a timeless and spirited energy, you don’t get the sense that anything is especially untoward– not until you talk to many of the people here, as we’ve done in a series of spontaneous and mostly unmonitored interviews.

At the market, for example, it became evident that while traders would be happy to welcome Britney Spears, they do not plan to extend the same welcome to President Bush.

MOHAMMED FAUZI, Spice Trader ( Translated ): He’s going to come from the other end of the world all the way to Iraq? Let him take care of his own country, and not Iraq. We are the ones living in Iraq. He’s all the way over there, so far away from Iraq. What does he mean he’s going to liberate us? He’s not going to liberate us, he’s going to occupy us. We’re not going to let him. We’re going to fight for our country and our people. It was the same thing back in 1991.

SIMON MARKS: The official government line– you cannot escape it here, any more than you can escape the statues and posters of Pres. Saddam Hussein– is that any U.S.-led invasion will be a naked war of aggression aimed at stealing the country’s riches, dominating the Middle East, and enslaving the Iraqi people. The government insists any U.S.-led forces will be sent packing. We were told that this show of strength by Baghdad’s civil defense forces is just an annual event, although the timing seemed unlikely to be coincidental.

Pride of place in the parade: A division called the Fedayin, headed personally by one of President Saddam Hussein’s sons– volunteers, according to the Iraqi government, who are prepared to martyr themselves if necessary in any battle to defend the city.

While it would be easy to dismiss that kind of talk as bravado, we’ve heard it a lot in places that we’ve visited in Baghdad– at one of the city’s food distribution centers, for instance, where Anmar Abdul Khader was collecting government handouts for his wife and two children, and thankful to the Iraqi government for the extra help.

ANMAR ABDUL KHADER, Baghdad Resident (Translated): Without this I would have died of hunger. This is sufficient food, but if we had guests come over– in that case it’s not enough. The market is expensive, very expensive. I mean, this takes care of a lot of things.

SIMON MARKS: Things like flour, sugar, tea, rice, vegetable oil, and baby formula– every Iraqi can obtain double their normal monthly government handout for the equivalent of around a dime per family member.

ANMAR ABDUL KHADER (Translated): We know exactly why America is coming. America’s aim has nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction. Its aim is to seize the wealth of Iraq, to get its hands on the oil. We have the world’s largest reserves of oil. We’re a very wealthy country. So we know exactly why they’re coming. They also want to safeguard Israel’s situation in the area. The U.N. inspectors are doing their work, everyone is performing their tasks, and everything is in order. But still they choose to invade us and destroy our society. This is unlawful.

SIMON MARKS: As we drove around Baghdad– the highways here are almost California-style, many of them rebuilt since their destruction by U.S.-led forces back in 1991– we also found further evidence that many residents could genuinely be planning to defend the city. One of the busiest stores we spotted last weekend was World of Guns, where people were standing in line for weapons– no background check required. The store owner, Saad Ahmet el Khattaab, told us that the closer war comes, the faster his business picks up.

SAAD AHMET EL KHAATTAB, Gun Store Owner (Translated): I swear I think all Iraqis are going to go out into the streets and they’re going to fight all those who try to invade Iraq.

SIMON MARKS: Baghdad residents are spending real money to arm themselves. An Iraqi-made pistol runs the equivalent $150. That’s three times the average monthly salary here. And despite the strictures of the U.N.-imposed economic embargo against Iraq, for the equivalent of $1,200 U.S., they can even turn to an import.

SIMON MARKS: This is a Smith & Wesson?

SAAD AHMET EL KHAATTAB ( Translated ): Yes, Smith & Wesson.

SIMON MARKS: But if somebody wanted to resist the American military on the streets of Baghdad, they could theoretically use an American gun like a Smith & Wesson to do it?

SAAD AHMET EL KHAATTAB ( Translated ): It would be our strong desire to use their own guns against them.

SIMON MARKS: It is impossible to state with certainty why so many people here are arming themselves. They could be planning to defend the city. They could be planning to exact revenge against Iraqi government officials who may soon find themselves swept from power. Or they could simply be hoping to defend themselves in case any civil war here pits Iraq’s Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish communities against each other. On so many issues here, the words people use when speaking to reporters are left, perhaps deliberately, open to interpretation.

For instance, we were taken to the Saddam Children’s Hospital in Baghdad. Here, many patients are suffering from leukemia and other diseases that the Iraqi government asserts are caused by the depleted uranium from U.S. missiles that rained down on Iraq in 1991. The government also maintains that the U.N.-imposed embargo against Iraq means there aren’t enough medications available for treatment. Dr. Shafik Khodora is one of the senior staffers here. He’s worked at the hospital for 18 months, and expressed anguish about the difficulties, which the facility faces. And when we asked him about the predicament in which Iraq finds itself…

DR. SHAFIK KHODORA, Saddam Children’s Hospital: You are always asking embarrassing questions.

SIMON MARKS: Listen closely, because he seemed to choose his words very carefully.

DR. SHAFIK KHODORA: I think Iraq has become the garbage of the world. Any poor productions, any poor machines, any poor instruments are sent to Iraq to be sold here. This is unhuman. Iraq used to be one of the greatest countries, buying the most beautiful and sophisticated and proper items, because economy was very strong. Now we are buying things which are very, very poor… of poor quality.

SIMON MARKS: And who’s to blame for that?

DR. SHAFIK KHODORA: Actually I blame people in charge in America, because I think they have their policy. American people doesn’t approve of that, I am sure. People are always away from the policies of the governments, because governments should have guts to take hard decisions. So I blame always the government.

SIMON MARKS: But always the government of America, not the government of Iraq?

DR. SHAFIK KHODORA: ( Laughs ) I think, always I blame people who have the power to do something.

SIMON MARKS: In Iraq, of course, it is Saddam Hussein who has been all-powerful since his accession to the presidency back in 1979. Every night he appears on television here, rallying the country, commenting occasionally about the power of the U.S. Air Force, and indicating that if necessary, he plans to soak up as many air raids as possible before confronting U.S.-led ground troops in a battle for control of Baghdad.

PRES. SADDAM HUSSEIN, Iraq ( Translated ): We have a responsibility towards humanity, and from the beginning to the end, God has said that we should all try and shake hands, so we will strive towards this. But I swear, if they try to come into Iraq, they will see days that they will wish that they had never seen.

SIMON MARKS: In rallying the country, the president has a powerful ally: Islam. Over the past decade, he has carefully backed an enormous program of mosque construction all over the country, despite the fact that his own political party, the Ba’ath Party, which has held continual power here since 1968, was founded on generally secular and socialist lines.

This is just one of several enormous mosques taking shape in Baghdad — all of them government funded. And when we attended prayers last Friday at the “mother of all battles” mosque — its construction was completed two years ago — we heard the imam deliver a fire-and-brimstone sermon…

( Preaching in Arabic )

SIMON MARKS: …That was broadcast live to the nation on Iraqi television. He called on his followers to wage a Jihad, a holy war, against any invading forces, predicting an invasion and occupation of Iraq would be a disaster for the entire world.

A disaster for the entire world, perhaps, but traders on the Baghdad stock exchange may not share that assessment. The exchange is a frenzy of activity that, in terms of growth and profits, leaves New York, London, and Tokyo in the shade, and is incidentally the only room in Baghdad that we’ve visited with no image of president Saddam Hussein on display. Investor Mohammed Ghannem is especially bullish about construction and transportation stocks.

MOHAMMED GHANNEM, Investor (Translated): Of course, there’s a risk in buying and selling, but right now on a regular basis the market is performing very well. So you can buy a stock for 20 dinars and get a return of a dinar and a half very quickly, which is more than 10 percent. And to have a 10 percent return is very good.

SIMON MARKS: If you’re canny, you can double your money here. The value of the stock market is up 50 percent in the past seven months alone. So could it be that these Iraqis are banking that political change and economic improvement may be just around the corner? Upstairs and beneath a poster of Saddam Hussein, the director general of the exchange assured us that definitely was not the reason for the boom.

SUBHI AL-AWAZI, Dir. General, Baghdad Stock Exchange (Translated ): I’ve never seen anything like this in the history of the market. I’ve never seen business this brisk, where people are making 100 percent returns. This is because of the confidence that people have in our politics and the government.

SIMON MARKS: Whether or not Iraqis genuinely have confidence in their government, they are making preparations to resist the anticipated military onslaught here. Trenches are being dug all over the city. Buildings of strategic importance to the civilian population, like the power plant south of Baghdad, and the al Doura oil refinery, which was blown to smithereens by U.S. forces back in 1991, are now being reinforced. And in some cases, western volunteers — so-called human shields– are vowing to remain on the sites in a bid to complicate life for U.S. military planners.

In schools, Iraqi children are being exercised in the modern- day equivalent of “duck and cover.” Iraqi television has broadcast footage of the country’s elite forces training to withstand any occupation, though it is very difficult to know just what kind of reception U.S.-led forces will encounter if and when they invade Iraq. Will they be welcomed as liberators, or will they be resisted as an unwelcome occupying force? Back at the Saddam Children’s Hospital: The carefully spoken Dr. Shafik Khodora.

SIMON MARKS: How will American and British forces be perceived when they arrive in this city?

DR. SHAFIK KHODORA: Well, when the time comes, they will find out. I can’t tell you how they are going to be perceived.

SIMON MARKS: In a corner of Baghdad we stumbled across one of the city’s few Internet cafes. There, beneath a poster advertising the American movie “Collateral Damage,” youngsters were playing video war games made in the U.S.A. Real war games could soon be coming to this city. Just how much resistance the people of Baghdad will offer and how much collateral damage will be sustained is impossible to calculate.