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Baghdad Lively Despite Ever-Present Persian Gulf War

Reuters

Young men dance to disco hits, families picnic on the grass and couples stroll by a lake in Baghdad’s central park. Few notice the anti-aircraft gun rising from a mound of earth nearby.

The Iraqi capital has an outward air of normality despite nearly seven years of war. Few soldiers are seen on the streets other than troops guarding key government buildings.

The war with Iran lurks just beneath the surface--in a widow’s grief, a family’s shrinking income, a young man’s dashed hopes.

Heavy Casualties

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Almost every family has lost a father, son or relative in the war--a war in its seventh year with casualties running into hundreds of thousands on both sides.

“This has turned into a protracted war,” said Ihsan al Hassan, a sociologist at the University of Baghdad. “We have to have a normal life in the towns and the fighting has to be restricted to the border.”

Diversions are aplenty in Baghdad, a city of 4 million people about 75 miles from the battlefields. One foreign resident calls it “the city of 1,001 night clubs.”

In sharp contrast to the religious austerity of Iran, secular Iraq has a flourishing entertainment sector. Bars, restaurants and nightclubs line Abu Nawas Street along the Tigris River or downtown Saadoun Street.

Life Goes On

On Fridays, the Muslim weekend, families flock to the zoo, men to the casino or race track, the young to movies and discotheques.

The nightly war communique is read on the television news.

Checkpoints are sometimes set up to look for draft dodgers. Volunteers from the ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party go from house to house seeking donations for the war effort.

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But direct signs of the war are few and far between--an amputee in the street or black flag on a mourner’s home.

Debris from Iranian missile strikes earlier this year was quickly cleared. Tape across some cracked windows is the only reminder of the devastating “war of the cities"--months of tit-for-tat strikes on civilian targets.

‘No Choice but to Fight’

Young Iraqis put on a brave face when asked about the war. “It is a national duty, we have no choice but to fight,” said 18-year-old Assam, strolling with friends in the al-Zawra park. He was to start military training the next day.

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Hazem, a secondary school student, hoped to postpone his induction by studying electrical engineering at an institute. Students receive training in the summer but are exempt from full service. “I would have liked to travel abroad, but now there is the war,” he said.

Many Iraqis say the war is one of survival, a defense of both land and secular government.

“If we don’t fight Iran will occupy Iraq and change our way of life,” said the sociologist Hassan.

Tried to Lessen the Toll

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The government has taken pains to lessen the war’s economic and social effects by maintaining subsidies on basic commodities and granting gifts to decorated soldiers and the families of “martyrs"--usually one of the thousands of Volkswagen Passat or Toyota Crown cars seen on Iraqi roads.

Residents say there has been a concerted effort to organize public festivities--this year, for example, Baghdad has hosted mass parties for the 1,224th anniversary of the city, the 50th birthday of President Saddam Hussein and the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Baath.

The war has nevertheless taken its toll on the average Iraqi.

Official figures show per capita income rose to $3,200 in 1985 from $2,700 in 1979, a substantial drop when adjusted for inflation which diplomats estimate at about 20% annually for non-subsidized goods.

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Chronic Shortages

Diplomats say per-capita income would probably have fallen even without the war because of declining oil revenue, the main source of hard currency, from lower world oil prices.

But the diversion of oil and hard currency earnings to purchase weapons has exacerbated the decline and required curbs on nonessential imports, they say.

Residents report chronic shortages of such items as paper goods, coffee beans and electrical appliances, particularly affecting the middle-class consumer.

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One of the social side effects of the war is greater status for women, who have taken over many civilian jobs from men who have had to go off and fight.


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