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SPECIAL REPORT: WITNESS TO WAR : Memoirs From the Battle Front, the Diplomatic Front and the Home Front : The Buildup : 'There's Not Going to Be a Compromise With This Man' : As the allied buildup continued in December and early January, Iraqis seemed to believe a deal would be struck and there would be no war. But Washington was determined. And the deadline was real.

March 12, 1991

BAGHDAD

As the days and hours ticked toward doom, the Iraqis' survival psyche fueled a boastful confidence while masking a benign neglect that would have been comical were it not so fundamentally lethal.

The problem isn't Kuwait, said a sweets vendor in Baghdad's downtown Shurja market. "It's all over oil." He smiled as the market bustled indifferently all around him. "Maybe Saddam will give some of the wells to Bush."

After all, Bush was offering to seek talks with the Iraqi leadership, and Baghdad seemed more than willing to negotiate. It would go the way it does every day in the souks , the bargaining bazaars of the Arab world; and the Iraqis figured Kuwait just wasn't worth dying for--not for them, and not for the Americans.

What's more, the brutal conquest of Kuwait already had brought Iraq a windfall--a cornucopia of looted merchandise that lifted the mood in the souks of Baghdad all the more. "What embargo?" most outsiders wondered as they wandered through the amply stocked marketplaces where, most Iraqis seemed to think, a distant day of reckoning would be just another day of marketing. The basics of life? They could be gotten from Iran. And then, there were all these wonderfully strange things, both new and free, that were coming from Kuwait, Iraq's new Province 19.

Slime-Slurp candy shaped like cartoon monsters that no one had seen before were now selling next to Arby's liquid cheddar cheese that no one could really figure out how to use. Streets and highways accustomed to wheezing and battered Japanese imports suddenly were awash with Mercedes-Benzes, Land Rovers and large-sized Chevrolets. There was a high-fashion revolution under way in the dress shops of Baghdad's fashionable Jedariyah district, where Armani dresses and suits looted from the modern souks of Kuwait replaced 1950s-style house frocks to tempt Iraqi women. Rolexes and Seikos overflowed from the watch bazaar on Saddoun Street. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, an official in an impeccable new suit showed off his even newer IBM personal computer, still in its sealed box. He asked all comers if they knew how to set it up for him.

Even night life was picking up. Rationing had forced every restaurant and sweet shop to close months earlier, but the nightclubs needed only endless supplies of the anonymous brown bottles of Iraqi beer, called Sheherazade. So, the Embassy and Star discos reopened to throbbing crowds. And, along the Tigris River, the open-air mazgouf restaurants had a ready and endless supply of Baghdad's sweet, grilled river fish delicacies. The restaurants, too, stayed open well after midnight.

"No one can impose a date on Iraq," Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz declared, reflecting the buoyant and overconfident mood of his nation. He puffed on his ever-present Havana cigar. "Iraq will no longer play the underdog."

It wasn't until just a few weeks before the doomsday deadline that civil-defense lectures began appearing on Iraqi television. In one video, a teacher told Iraqis how to make their own gas masks: Place a kitchen towel over your face. Another showed an atomic bomb blast; and, as the mushroom cloud rose, an instructor's voice told viewers that, if caught in a nuclear bomb attack, hit the dirt and, again, cover your face. There were equally halfhearted attempts at civil-defense drills, like the day officials attempted to evacuate more than 400,000 urban peasants jammed into a ghetto of shanties called Saddam City. A few thousand packed onto army buses, but most hid at home in fear--a grim foreshadowing of what so few really believed was to come.

The relentless TV public-service ads and bomb drills dampened Baghdad's spirits a bit, but it was the military draft that should have sent the strongest signals to a nation that simply did not want to think the unthinkable. Seventeen-year-old boys suddenly were told to report for duty, lowering the draft age a year. And not all of them went. Army dragnets began combing neighborhoods and banging on doors looking for draft dodgers. Then came the ominous rumor of the Mukhabarat, Saddam's long-armed security agency: The family of any young man who failed to report for duty would be shot. That, at least, was believable. It had happened before. So, out of the woodwork of Baghdad suddenly emerged the teen-agers who a few months later would willingly surrender to the allies at Iraq's southern front, hundreds of miles away.

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