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Many Iraqis cannot believe the U.S. would invade their country to oust Saddam

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Nabil is one of the very few Iraqis with enough courage—or perhaps foolhardiness—to criticize Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, a step that risks imprisonment or death for his family members and him.

Still, he cannot quite believe that the United States is about to invade his country of 25 million people and attempt to remove Saddam.

"He's bad. But my thinking is, you're worse," said Nabil, whose real name is being withheld to protect him from any retribution. It was not so long ago, he reminds an American visitor, that Washington backed Saddam in Iraq's 1980-88 war with Iran.

Nabil's wife recently asked him what he was doing to prepare for a U.S. invasion. He said he told her, "I am doing nothing. I am hoping the Americans will not be that stupid."

As President Bush marshals international support for a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, Iraqis from all walks of life are reacting with a complex mixture of puzzlement, fatalism, disbelief and even denial.

Life has improved in recent years for Baghdad's estimated 4.5 million residents, although the U.N. sanctions—which were imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait and can be lifted only when U.N. inspectors certify that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction have been destroyed—still bite heavily after 12 years.

Damaged sections of the city appear to have been rebuilt since a four-day U.S. air strike in December 1998. Streets teem with cars and trucks, shops bustle and there are fewer beggars on the street than in years past.

Bush says Saddam is covertly developing weapons of mass destruction and has ties to terrorists. But many Baghdad residents say they can't understand why the world's only superpower would attack a much smaller country 6,000 miles away that hasn't threatened it lately.

Iraqis, to a man and woman, say they are doing little to prepare for an invasion that could come within weeks or months. They have become inured to more than a decade of U.S. threats and periodic bombardments since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Besides, they say, what can they do?

"For how long are we going to prepare? One month? Two month? Five months?" said Abdul Mohammed Karim, 40, standing outside his antiques shop on al Wathiq Square. "We get used to the war. Because all the time, America accuses Iraq."

But there are small signs that Saddam's regime, which has shown little readiness to bow to Bush's demand for unfettered U.N. weapons inspections, is getting ready for an attack by the world's largest and most sophisticated military.

When a U.S. delegation led by Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., arrived at the Iraqi National Museum on Sunday for a scheduled tour, it was closed. Delegation members were discreetly informed of the reason: civil defense exercises.

At the Mansour Teaching Hospital, a 300-bed pediatric facility, officials are checking medical supplies, testing generators and preparing surgical theaters in case of "other casualties," to adults as well as children, said hospital director Luay Qasha.

In southern parts of the country, the Iraqi government doubled food rations for August and September, said Abdul Ridha Naji, an electrician from the southern Iraqi town of Samawa who was in Baghdad on business. Southern Iraq, heavily populated by Shiite Muslims, has a long history of rebellion against Baghdad.

There is no evident sign of an increased military presence in the streets of Baghdad, and officials are mum on the subject. Information Ministry officials refuse journalists' request to view civil defense preparations. Even taking photos of bridges over the Tigris River is banned.

Iraqis pledge that they will fight American troops in the streets if they come. Whether that is bravado or not is impossible to tell.

Abrahim Jaleel, like other Iraqis, said he did not want war. But if the Americans come, "jihad (holy war) will be declared," said the 40-year-old clerk, sitting in a coffeehouse on Rasheed Street, Baghdad's oldest thoroughfare, where men played dominoes and smoked water pipes with flavored tobacco.

"To the last drop of our blood, we will fight," said Jaleel, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq and Persian Gulf wars.

Others dismiss the idea of fleeing to shelters, although most of Baghdad's neighborhoods contain them.

In 1991, many recall, an estimated 400 Iraqis were killed when U.S. forces bombed the Ameriyah shelter. The Pentagon said it did not know civilians were hiding in the facility.

Iraqis rarely admit to fear, although there are exceptions. Said carpet-seller Ahmed Zeki, 28: "All the people are afraid."

Iraqis now follow each twist and turn of the news from Washington, New York and Arab capitals with religious devotion and can quote from Bush's speech to the U.N. General Assembly last week.

Many illicitly watch the Arab television network al Jazeera, which is not among the 24 channels that citizens were permitted to watch when the regime began allowing private satellite dishes six months ago. The Internet, only two years old here, is under heavy government control.

Others listen to the BBC Arabic service or even Radio Sawa, a new Arabic-language station run by the U.S. government's Voice of America.

The Iraqi currency, the dinar, rises and falls with the tide of news. It slid from 1,700 to the dollar to more than 2,000 as U.S. threats escalated, but rebounded to 1,990 Monday in the wake of Bush's U.N. speech, which many Iraqis saw as heralding some hope for diplomacy.

Knowing precisely what Iraqis are thinking can be difficult, since freedom of expression is severely curtailed and journalists must be escorted by government-provided guides.

Still, some Baghdadis seem willing to push the envelope, if only a little.

"If people want to change their president, it should happen ... from inside, not from outside," said Fadhil Khidr, 61, who sells beads, lighters, key chains and the like from his small shop on Sadoon Street.

Khidr said that if war came, he would close his shop and keep his head down.

Contradicting the government's official line, he said he thought the Americans would attack only military targets, not civilian ones. But, reflecting the widespread hatred of Israel here, he said he worried that if Arabs attacked Israel during the conflict, Israel would strike back at Iraq indiscriminately and deliberately kill civilians.


(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.