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In Face of Crisis, Baghdad Shows Few Signs of Alarm : Gulf standoff: War may be on the horizon, but life goes on as usual for many of the Iraqi capital's residents.

November 26, 1990|NICK B. WILLIAMS Jr. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The bride wore white satin. Guests arrived in a sequined swirl of European couture, the men in black tie. A proud Iraqi father was picking up the biggest bill of his life.

Night after night, Baghdad's big hotels are swarmed with wedding parties of the rich; laughter, drums and the piercing trill of Iraqi women marking the moment of celebration.

Is anybody listening here? Don't they know a multinational force with awesome weapons has gathered in the Saudi Arabian desert and the Persian Gulf less than 400 miles to the south?

"It's Berlin 1939, war is on the horizon and the champagne is flowing," suggested a European diplomat.

To enter Baghdad, past the blue-and-green domes of the great mosques and the outsized patriotic monuments, along highways of the most modern of the historic Arab capitals, is to arrive in a place of perplexity.

Political delegations, journalists and other travelers are set back by the appearance of relative normality in this capital of nearly 4 million. While much of the world is gripped by the prospect of war in the Persian Gulf, Baghdad and its otherwise sophisticated inhabitants show few outward signs of alarm.

Some believe their government's message: that the cost of this "mother of battles" will be too high, that the American-led forces determined to push Iraqi troops out of Kuwait will never attack.

"They won't do it. There will be no war," said an Iraqi musician. "Hundreds of thousands will be killed. It's impossible. This problem will be resolved peaceably."

These are not uninformed people. While the government media do not transmit the war scenarios circulated in the West, Baghdadis tune in to foreign radio news. Of those who will discuss such things, some despair, but most seem hopeful.

Foreign diplomats themselves cannot agree on the mood in the streets.

The European took a dark view: "Everyone in this country has their lives on hold. Take the students. What's the use of studying if you're going to be strawberry jam tomorrow?

"They can't leave the country. If the bombs drop, you can't get up and go. It's no fun being an Iraqi now."

An Asian colleague said he does not believe war will come, arguing that there is still no unanimity in the Western capitals. And, he insisted, despite oppression, Iraqis bear a loyalty to the government, support its international policies and believe its propaganda.

"A republic of fear, no doubt," he remarked, "but a country where the common man has benefited greatly."

Others marvel at the stubborn stand of President Saddam Hussein and his regime. One, a Western diplomat with a military background, seemed frustrated that the reality of the military threat does not appear to be reaching the presidential palace.

Acknowledging Hussein's vaunted intelligence apparatus, including hidden microphones, he told two American reporters: "I've taken to talking to the walls, describing the damage that a squadron of B-52s can do. These people simply do not understand what's out there."

But the Iraqis know war. Combined casualties in the 1980-88 conflict with Iran are estimated at 1 million or more, and few families in Baghdad did not suffer the death or injury of a father or son in battle.

When Hussein struck a final peace on Iranian terms in the first week of this confrontation, Iraqis and diplomats here say, the streets seethed with resentment. After the years of sacrifice, Hussein had given up all Iraq had won in the war and was now embarked on another military adventure. Survivors of the last war would be recalled.

But the president and his tight leadership clique seem almost to revel in conflict. Hussein, who appears in many costumes in the personality cult encouraged here, chose combat fatigues and a holstered pistol for his largest representation, a three-story statue near a major intersection.

The big military parade ground near the Japanese-built Tomb of the Unknown carries through the hard martial image. At each end of the route, giant cement fists hold crossed swords, forming twin arches over military reviews.

Draped from the hilt of the swords are nets full of Iranian helmets, and others are embedded in the parade route, making a bumpy but symbolic entrance for Iraqi armor and trucks as they approach Hussein in the reviewing stand.

That glorifying image of a past conflict contrasts with a tree-lined park opposite the stand. In the two years between the truce with Iran and the invasion of Kuwait, Iraqi men brought their families to the park on weekends and holidays.

This month, on a weekend, the park was largely deserted. "All those men have been recalled or drafted into the Popular Army," said an Iraqi who was disabled in the conflict with Iran. "Some women still bring their children, but not many because it's against Islamic custom for women to go out without their men."

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