AMMAN, Jordan — The thin brown cloud of cordite and dust from the 37th straight night of allied bombs and missiles spread across the sky over Baghdad just before 11 Sunday morning, when suddenly radios throughout the city crackled with news of an important announcement.
It was the voice of the "mother of all battles," Baghdad Radio, and the identity of the speaker was unmistakable: Saddam Hussein, Iraq's uncompromising dictator who had brought his army and his nation to this, the eve of destruction.
But the voice was different somehow on this historic morning, choked with emotion and charged with messianic exhortations as the iron-fisted leader broke the news that so few Iraqis wanted to hear.
An allied ground assault, the culmination of the personal crusade that Hussein began with his Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, had now become his promised "mother of battles." This was the real war, the voice declared. And now it was time for his entire nation to fight, and to die, for him.
"Fight them! Fight them! Fight them!" Hussein's voice wailed over the airwaves that are now his only direct link to his 18 million besieged people.
"Fight them, O Iraqis, with all the values that you imbibed from your great history. . . . Fight them, O brave, splendid men, O men of the mother of battles. Fight them with your faith in God. Fight them in defense of every free and honorable woman and every innocent child. Fight them, and victory will be yours, so will be dignity, honor, glory and martyrdom . . .
"If the opposite occurs, God forbid, there will only be the deep abyss and a lengthy darkness will prevail over Iraq."
But even before the final echoes of the Iraqi leader's call to arms had subsided, it was abundantly clear that he still had not answered a key question on which may hinge the fate of the Iraqi nation, its people and the very foundations of its society:
Is Saddam Hussein, the prophet, poet, prognosticator and protagonist, prepared to follow his people down that same road to martyrdom?
Indeed, to some extent, the future of the entire Persian Gulf and the Middle East depends on how far one of the world's most mercurial dictators is prepared to go for the sake of pride, nationalism and what the Arabs call "face."
Is the leader who alternately has resisted or exploited all diplomatic and political attempts to drive him from occupied Kuwait now prepared to destroy not only himself but his monolithic Arab Baath Socialist Party and his powerful army as well?
Most of the world's leading experts on Iraq and the enigmatic leader who has controlled it single-handedly for the last 12 years doubt that Hussein relishes martyrdom.
Rather, they believe he will attempt to withstand the massive allied ground punishment just long enough to inflict sufficient casualties on the coalition forces to claim a semblance of victory. In this view, he will attempt to withdraw his forces within just a week or 10 days--if the allies permit it.
"There is a peak for Saddam's survival of about one week or so," said one European military analyst who was based in Baghdad until late last year. "Through his eyes, he had to face this ground war. If he pulled out after (President) Bush's ultimatum, he would retain most of his army, but his 'face' would not be safe--nor would most of his body.
"In the Arab world, they measure victory by the numbers of casualties that are inflicted," this analyst added. "So, he wants to see American blood."
Clearly, though, Hussein can expect to see far more Iraqi blood during the coming days as the allies continue an invasion that Washington has billed as the biggest and most powerful land assault since World War II.
The battle is widely seen as marking both a political and a military turning point in the war: It is more certain than ever that the allies are determined not just to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait but to humiliate the Iraqi military and, by extension, to crush Hussein himself.
Bush Administration officials have revealed ambitious allied plans to seize and hold Iraqi territory and to maintain economic sanctions after the war in order to force fundamental changes in Iraq's government.
There's little question that the allies will win. It's only a matter of time before Hussein's forces either throw up the white flag or are "ground into dust," said one military analyst here.
If the allies can win a quick victory on the ground, "Saddam may not survive. And even if he survives, his power is gone," said Brookings Institution analyst William B. Quandt, who served on the National Security Council in the Jimmy Carter Administration. Quandt added that "virtually nothing has gone as (Hussein) had hoped."