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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Baghdad's People Calmly Prepare

Iraqi capital's residents, who until recently acted as though war would not again hit them, begin to stock food and fuel. Some head out of town.

March 18, 2003|Michael Slackman and John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Fearing war could be only days away, Iraqis on Monday stockpiled food, taped over windows, loaded up on fuel and fled this capital city where fighting was expected to be heaviest.

For all the anxiety and fear that gripped Iraq, people reacted in a calm, almost rehearsed manner. After decades of war, they know what to do. They waited patiently at gas stations, purchased generators and water pumps, took their money out of the banks and climbed into cars and rickety buses for the ride out of town.

During the many months of verbal and diplomatic sparring between President Bush and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the people of this nation never fully accepted the likelihood that their cities, towns and villages could once again be turned into battlefields. Just last week, many people viewed the threat as a distant prospect.

Not any more.

Parents pulled their children out of school Monday for the first time. Businesses began closing down. College classes were emptying. Trucks hauled computers and filing cabinets from ministry buildings. And people began to prepare their personal weapons.

"All the people are very tense," said Abdul Adem, 38, the owner of a small factory who waited in a long line to fill the tank of his car. "We are like a patient with an incurable disease.... We are living the worst period now."

By Monday night, buses and cars packed with baggage were speeding through the streets beneath a full moon. Store shelves were empty as people bought out supplies or merchants put away their stock for safekeeping. Caravans of diplomats, journalists and Iraqi citizens were headed for the borders with Jordan and Syria. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan had ordered all weapons inspectors and humanitarian workers to leave the country.

Governments around the world urged their citizens to leave Iraq. But for most Iraqis, there was no escaping what might lie ahead. The dispute may be between their leaders and the U.S. government, but it is their lives that would be disrupted, their children who would be unable to sleep, their homes that would be in harm's way.

"My daughter asked me, 'Why do they want to kill us?' " Adem said after filling his tank. "She asked, 'Why do they want to destroy our school?' I am perplexed. I don't know how to answer."

At Baghdad's Technological University, many students were leaving for their hometowns, while others began to stock up on supplies. Their hopes of finishing the year seemed to slip away. At the moment, what concerned them most was access to food and water.

"We will pray and read the Koran," said Ahmed Hassan, a 19-year-old electrical engineering student. "We will ask God to end it peacefully. We have faith. We can face it."

Bassam Salin, 34, runs a one-room office supply shop across from the university. It has provided him with a livelihood for 15 years, so he has taken precautions to safeguard it. He has welded a steel wall over the storefront to protect against bombs and looters. That was the easy part.

"You have to be calm, especially if you have a wife and children," he said. "Even if you are tired and worried, you can't show your family."

If the Iraqis have come to terms with the inevitability of war, they are not at all certain why it has come to this. They hear talk of weapons of mass destruction and U.N. resolutions, but they wonder how their impoverished, run-down nation could present a threat to the U.S.

"I would like to ask you a question," said Sattar Mahdi, 39, who was looking to buy a used Toyota at an open-air car market on the outskirts of Baghdad. "What's the goal of the Americans? Why are they coming here?"

Yunis Dawood, 50, who had just sold a used van at the market, asked: "Do people in America like war?"

The car market is not a place where Iraq's elite and moneyed set go in search of vehicles. It is a place for the working poor. The men swarming through the lot are mostly Shiite Muslims, members of a sect that makes up the majority of Iraq's population, although the nation is ruled by Sunni Muslims.

Men at the market suggested that the U.S. threat had united Iraqis in a way that Hussein's ironfisted government never could. No one lionized the president, as Iraqis tend to do in discussions with foreign journalists. The men talked about defending their homes, honor and country.

Mahdi, the man looking for a Toyota, sports a dark beard. His skin is brown and leathery from the sun, and his hands are soiled and calloused like those of a mechanic. He said that he had never heard of a stealth bomber and that he had no idea that hundreds of thousands of troops were massed near his country's border. Why, he wondered, did U.S. forces want to enter his city?

"What is America's relationship with us?" he asked, expressing exasperation at the notion that his life might be upended by war.

"This is our life. There is no need for you to come and interfere in our affairs."

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