By Anthony Borden in Baghdad (ICR No. 01, 28-Feb-03)
The main market in the centre of town is packed with shoppers bargaining for everything from Syrian soap to Chinese hardware to Iraqi lemon tea. But according to the salesman at one of the countless cramped outdoor stalls, sales of hurricane lanterns are up considerably, at more than 20 per day.
Construction is rampant - roads and small buildings under repair, the towering concrete pillars for an enormous mosque. But the work also seems oddly frozen: a glistening new telephone exchange on the Tigris sports yet another rifle-bearing statute of President Saddam Hussein. It is covered by a cloth and as yet unveiled. Will any of this work be completed before much more construction is needed?
A theatre group is preparing a fresh production of the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh. An artist at a local gallery applies the final touches to a bright Cubist-style painting already hung on the wall for a new exhibition. Cinemas are busy, with colourfully advertised Asian films such as "Struggle for Freedom" mixed with new Western productions, including "Two Weeks Notice".
Yet amid the normality, two weeks is almost exactly what everyone expects before war.
"People have been used to this since the Iran-Iraq war and they got used to the situation which developed in 1990," said Wadhmi Nadhmi, a professor in politics at Baghdad University. "We are still holding classes and having exams, and I am keeping to my normal programme." On campus, students loll around in the warm mid-day air, clustered in small groups gossiping and chatting during class breaks, and looking much like students anywhere.
"This does not mean there is no anxiety," the professor continued. "People are very worried. . . But most Iraqis feel their destiny is being arranged for them and they have no say in it. So they have some kind of spiritual surrender to the outcome."
According to the Iraqi media, firmly state controlled, the entire world - George Bush, Tony Blair and Israel aside - supports the Iraqi people, and the Iraqi News Agency pumps out an endless stream of reports on the anti-war movement. "Bulgarian Green Party Opposes US Plans," declares a recent item. "Two Thousand Students Demonstrate in Cairo," says another. Jacques Chirac, US campaigner Ramsey Clark, and British politicians Tony Benn and George Galloway are heroes.
Numerous international "human shields" and other solidarity delegations shuffle through hospitals that Iraqis say are desperately short of medicines. In front of the state TV cameras, parading in dreadlocks and sandals, the shields hold extensive if fractious strategy meetings and organise marches in the city. While making no comment about human rights in Iraq, they call for George W. Bush to be indicted for war crimes.
"Everything America is doing is against the world order, against international law, and against democracy and human rights," said Dr. A. K. al-Hushimi, a former minister and president of the official Organization of Friendship, Peace and Solidarity, which is providing accommodation, food and logistical support for the activists. "The entire world is against this war."
Greeted by officials clapping and chanting praises from scripted notes, the paramount leader himself gave a long speech on television, encouraging Iraqis to resist and recommending protective measures. "Even in your backyard you should build a shelter. If it is deep enough, God willing, it will protect you," he said.
Military officers have been appointed as governors of local provinces, and while not commented on locally, international media reported significant recent moves by Iraqi military, the filling of trenches with oil for smoke screens and other defensive measures.
The underlying media message is one of crisis and mobilization against an impending "imperialist aggression". Extensive footage of Palestinians in the West Bank being attacked by Israeli troops are interspliced with coverage of Iraqi army generals in urgent meetings with the president, and with extensive clips from previous wars. One long and ominous spot highlights the effects of depleted uranium - dubbed in heavy lettering "America's Death Weapon" - which Iraqis say has caused a significant increase in the case of leukaemia, deformities and other serious heath problems, especially among children.
The government protests its full compliance with UN resolution 1441, pointing to access provided to suspected weapons sites, the agreement to destroy its al-Samoud II missiles and its invitation to a South African team to share experiences on the process.
The crisis, according to Baghdad, is not about arms, or even human rights, but about oil, and the carve-up of the country to serve US corporate interests. Much is made of American proposals for a military governorship, and of the close ties between Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and the US oil industry. Previous international protectorates, as in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the arrangement in Afghanistan, are derided in very general terms as examples of disastrous Western interventions. Territorial designs of Turkey and meddling by Iran are emphasised.
"This will be different from 1991," said one official with the Ministry of Information. "If your home is attacked, you will fight, and everyone here will defend Iraq against invasion." He is planning to relocate his family out of the city, and then return.
Substantial small arms have been distributed, almost every adult male has had military experience, and there is much talk among official contacts of street-by-street defence. An afternoon football match, which seemed a perfect antidote to inescapable debate over the crisis, turned into an extravagant two and a half hour war rally. It was complete with banners, international speakers, "spontaneous" chanting and raucous Arab music to mobilise the crowd.
"Bush, send your boys to die," shouted one Iraqi comedian to much applause. The enormous image atop the stadium of Saddam as Che Guevara seemed grimly appropriate. The subsequent match was excellent, but it felt almost an afterthought.
Privately, however, people are desperate. With the economy shattered by 12 years of sanctions, and the infrastructure weak, there is great concern over the humanitarian consequences.
Many families -impoverished or with scant savings in Iraqi dinar worth little elsewhere -face agonising decisions. Depart too early, and they will lose their jobs, run out of money, and risk having their property ransacked; leave it too late and they may not be able to leave at all.
As Baghdad prepares for war, the obvious question is, Would Iraqis stand together, or would the entire government edifice crumble? Iraqi officials deny there is any such "Republic of Fear" and say the people will rally. The US predicts that as the regime is weakened, people will become emboldened to support forcible change of a hated regime.
Strolling down the street, I snatch a brief conversation with a tailor who plans to leave soon to avoid the war, but looks forward eagerly to a post-Saddam Iraq. "If the country is ruled differently, we will have many more freedoms, and I will definitely come back," he says furtively, before my minder catches up with me.
Anthony Borden is executive director of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting.