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Veneer of Normalcy in Baghdad : Iraqis Have Learned to Cope With War

November 15, 1987|ED BLANCHE | Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq — At first glance, a visitor to Baghdad would hardly know that Iraq has been at war with the Arabs' ancient enemy, the Persians of Iran, for 6 1/2 years.

At night, the sprawling city of 4 million, its skyline crenelated by towers and modern hotels built in the oil boom years, is ablaze with lights, the grandiose statues and monuments to Iraq's past glories illuminated by searchlights.

Baghdadis crowd the fish restaurants along the banks of the sluggish Tigris River to eat baked masgouf , a kind of grouper that abounds in the muddy waters.

War's Indelible Mark

By day, the alleyways of the suq , the city's bazaar, throng with bargain hunters, among them North Korean construction workers and Yugoslav engineers, amid the clang of coppersmiths hammering out pots and pans and the babel of carpet sellers making their pitch.

In the broad boulevards and expressways, bright red double-decker London buses roll past mosques with turquoise-tiled domes.

But, not that far below the surface, the seemingly interminable war has left its indelible mark.

Not just in the occasional gaps between buildings where Iranian missiles have hit in periodic barrages, or the black flags of mourning that flutter from the homes of the war dead, but etched in the national psyche.

Shipped to Front Lines

There are few traffic policemen around. Most were shipped to the front a few months ago when Iran's Revolutionary Guards, fanatical followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, were banging on the gates of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, in the south.

Most of the men in the streets are not Iraqis at all, but Egyptians and Sudanese. Iraq has a million men under arms and every able-bodied male from 18 to 45 must serve two years in the army and 15 more years in the reserve. Even schoolchildren undergo "war training."

To keep the economy ticking, the Iraqis have allowed 1 million Egyptians into the country to fill the gaps in commerce and industry left by the draft.

War Affects All

Wander into the low-income neighborhoods, with their overhanging shenashil , carved wooden balconies, and there the visitor finds the war wounded, the young men in wheelchairs or on crutches, the maimed and the blind, sitting on the sidewalk drinking cardamom-scented Turkish coffee or playing cards.

"Every family has been touched by the war," says Abdullah, who owns three shoe stores. Like most Iraqis, he spoke only on condition that his name not be disclosed. The authorities actively discourage Iraqis from talking to foreigners about the war, politics or the economy.

"They've all had a son or a brother killed or maimed or taken prisoner. Every family has one or more men in the army," adds Abdullah, an accountant with two sons at the front and a third at home missing a hand and a leg from a shell burst.

Iraqi Losses Unknown

Iraqi officials, for whom secrecy is an obsession, refuse to disclose any statistics on Iraqi losses. But foreign diplomats estimate that 100,000 have been killed and 250,000 wounded.

President Saddam Hussein's Arab Baath Socialist Party government goes to great lengths to insulate Iraqis against the ravages of the war.

During the big battles that rage, with almost seasonal regularity, for four or five months of the year, the government ships the bodies of the dead in plywood coffins by rail to a multistory refrigerated warehouse on the western outskirts of Baghdad.

From there, it releases them to the grieving families in small batches to mask the extent of the losses. Even then, public funerals are banned.

Cemeteries Expanded Tenfold

Baghdad's cemeteries--Sunni Muslim, Shia Muslim and Christian--have expanded tenfold since the war began in September, 1980, when Hussein invaded revolution-torn Iran, hoping for a quick victory but instead becoming bogged down in stalemated World War I-style carnage.

"We used to have a nice little secluded cemetery on the outskirts of Baghdad," says Joseph, an Assyrian Christian. "Now it's overflowing so much the government gave us as much land as we wanted to accommodate the martyrs of Hussein's war. It's the same all over the city."

Military police prowl the streets for deserters and draft dodgers. Deserters who are caught are taken to their home areas and publicly shot. This, informed Iraqis say, has curbed desertion drastically.

Armed Gangs Formed

But many deserters have formed armed gangs that hide out in the marshes, deserts and mountains, unable to go home.

Fathers who harbor deserters risk being thrown in prison. One father who shot his deserter son--whether out of shame or fear--was awarded a Bravery Medal, second class, by Hussein for being a patriot.

Information is tightly controlled. Setbacks in the war go unreported by the Iraqi media. Only victories are proclaimed.

Many foreign publications are banned and most foreign broadcasts are jammed.

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