Veneer of Normalcy in Baghdad : Iraqis Have Learned to Cope With War

Associated Press

At first glance, a visitor to Baghdad would hardly know that Iraq has been at war with the Arabs' ancient enemy, the Persians of Iran, for 6 1/2 years.

At night, the sprawling city of 4 million, its skyline crenelated by towers and modern hotels built in the oil boom years, is ablaze with lights, the grandiose statues and monuments to Iraq's past glories illuminated by searchlights.

Baghdadis crowd the fish restaurants along the banks of the sluggish Tigris River to eat baked masgouf , a kind of grouper that abounds in the muddy waters.

War's Indelible Mark

By day, the alleyways of the suq , the city's bazaar, throng with bargain hunters, among them North Korean construction workers and Yugoslav engineers, amid the clang of coppersmiths hammering out pots and pans and the babel of carpet sellers making their pitch.

In the broad boulevards and expressways, bright red double-decker London buses roll past mosques with turquoise-tiled domes.

But, not that far below the surface, the seemingly interminable war has left its indelible mark.

Not just in the occasional gaps between buildings where Iranian missiles have hit in periodic barrages, or the black flags of mourning that flutter from the homes of the war dead, but etched in the national psyche.

Shipped to Front Lines

There are few traffic policemen around. Most were shipped to the front a few months ago when Iran's Revolutionary Guards, fanatical followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, were banging on the gates of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, in the south.

Most of the men in the streets are not Iraqis at all, but Egyptians and Sudanese. Iraq has a million men under arms and every able-bodied male from 18 to 45 must serve two years in the army and 15 more years in the reserve. Even schoolchildren undergo "war training."

To keep the economy ticking, the Iraqis have allowed 1 million Egyptians into the country to fill the gaps in commerce and industry left by the draft.

War Affects All

Wander into the low-income neighborhoods, with their overhanging shenashil , carved wooden balconies, and there the visitor finds the war wounded, the young men in wheelchairs or on crutches, the maimed and the blind, sitting on the sidewalk drinking cardamom-scented Turkish coffee or playing cards.

"Every family has been touched by the war," says Abdullah, who owns three shoe stores. Like most Iraqis, he spoke only on condition that his name not be disclosed. The authorities actively discourage Iraqis from talking to foreigners about the war, politics or the economy.

"They've all had a son or a brother killed or maimed or taken prisoner. Every family has one or more men in the army," adds Abdullah, an accountant with two sons at the front and a third at home missing a hand and a leg from a shell burst.

Iraqi Losses Unknown

Iraqi officials, for whom secrecy is an obsession, refuse to disclose any statistics on Iraqi losses. But foreign diplomats estimate that 100,000 have been killed and 250,000 wounded.

President Saddam Hussein's Arab Baath Socialist Party government goes to great lengths to insulate Iraqis against the ravages of the war.

During the big battles that rage, with almost seasonal regularity, for four or five months of the year, the government ships the bodies of the dead in plywood coffins by rail to a multistory refrigerated warehouse on the western outskirts of Baghdad.

From there, it releases them to the grieving families in small batches to mask the extent of the losses. Even then, public funerals are banned.

Cemeteries Expanded Tenfold

Baghdad's cemeteries--Sunni Muslim, Shia Muslim and Christian--have expanded tenfold since the war began in September, 1980, when Hussein invaded revolution-torn Iran, hoping for a quick victory but instead becoming bogged down in stalemated World War I-style carnage.

"We used to have a nice little secluded cemetery on the outskirts of Baghdad," says Joseph, an Assyrian Christian. "Now it's overflowing so much the government gave us as much land as we wanted to accommodate the martyrs of Hussein's war. It's the same all over the city."

Military police prowl the streets for deserters and draft dodgers. Deserters who are caught are taken to their home areas and publicly shot. This, informed Iraqis say, has curbed desertion drastically.

Armed Gangs Formed

But many deserters have formed armed gangs that hide out in the marshes, deserts and mountains, unable to go home.

Fathers who harbor deserters risk being thrown in prison. One father who shot his deserter son--whether out of shame or fear--was awarded a Bravery Medal, second class, by Hussein for being a patriot.

Information is tightly controlled. Setbacks in the war go unreported by the Iraqi media. Only victories are proclaimed.

Many foreign publications are banned and most foreign broadcasts are jammed.

"No one believes all the propaganda," Joseph says. "But then there's no direct line to the truth. We have to live with what we have. But you learn to read between the lines. When the communiques report heavy raids by the air force you know there's a big battle going on somewhere."

Signs of War in the City

Even the weather report is classified. The government figures that it would benefit the Iranian air force, what's left of it.

The Iranians haven't bombed Baghdad for several years, although the city was hit by a dozen Soviet-made Scud-B missiles, given to Iran by Libya, during big battles in January and February.

Nonetheless, tall buildings and government offices bristle with Soviet-made ZSU-23 anti-aircraft guns on their roofs, mostly out of sight from the street. Conical earthen flak towers guard the 12 road bridges that span the Tigris.

Hussein's palace compound, on the banks of the Tigris, is ringed by elite troops and flak guns in the palm groves.

Palace Well Guarded

Two twin-barreled guns, with sunshades to protect the crews who man the guns in shifts around the clock, sit atop the arched main gate. No cars are allowed to stop beside the walls enclosing the palace grounds.

Brand new apartment blocks overlooking the river on the opposite bank stand empty of the bureaucrats' families they were built to house because, one Iraqi official explained furtively, "they're within rocket range of the palace." Such is Hussein's obsession with security.

And yet, for all the misery and austerity the war has brought in its train since Hussein's divisions stormed across the border in 1980, there appears to be little outright animosity toward him by Iraqis.

"If we hadn't hit them when we did, the Iranians would certainly have tried to crush us," explains Mustafa, a 60-year-old businessman as he sipped coffee in a balconied restaurant, a converted 500-year-old inn overlooking the Tigris.

Domino Theory

"No one likes the war. What sane person would? But people don't blame Hussein for it either. Whatever his faults, or those of his government and the secret police, the alternative is Khomeini and his crazy mullahs.

"No matter what they say in Tehran about not wanting to export their revolution and all that fundamentalist repression, we have a domino theory in the Gulf as well. If Hussein falls, you can bet the other countries in the region, Saudi Arabia and the rest of them, will follow."

Mustafa went on: "Life is uncomfortable now, and painful when you have to bury sons and brothers. But it's the lesser of two evils. Under Khomeini, life would be intolerable."

Hussein has portrayed the war as a second Qadissiyah, a battle in 637 when the Arabs defeated a numerically superior Persian army.

A Glorious Past

A 150-foot-high tiled black dome, split in half, commemorates Iraq's war dead. It is known as the Qadissiyah Martyrs' monument to invoke historic victories from Iraq's ancient past when, known as Mesopotamia--"the land between two rivers"--it was one of the richest and most cultured lands in the known world.

Its glory as the center of civilization lasted until the Mongol hordes swept down from Asia in 1258 to deal a death blow to the already waning power of the Abbasid empire.

Iraq's 15 million population is 55% Shia Muslim, like most Iranians, although the country is run by Sunni Muslims like Hussein. Khomeini's endless exhortations to the Shias to rise up against Hussein have so far proved futile.

This is partly because of their reluctance to substitute the excesses of Tehran's fundamentalist government for the relative tolerance of Hussein's Revolutionary Command Council.

Lavish Government Grants

The government has also handed out lavish grants to the Shias to build mosques and to the Christians to build churches.

To counter Khomeini's piety, the Iraqis, despite their socialism, have in the last couple of years officially tightened up on religious observance. Ramadan, Muslims' holy month of dawn-to-dusk fasting, is strictly observed these days.

There are some rumblings of discontent. Iraqi Shias have to fight at the front as well. But there is no open opposition to Hussein.

Hussein's chubby face, invariably smiling reassuringly, is everywhere--on giant billboards, shop fronts, car windows, calendars and even the faces of cheap Japanese watches.

Equated With Survival

The posters and portraits show the president, who seized power in 1979, clad in combat fatigues, full military regalia, in Arab robes, with children on his knee, even in a blazer and slacks.

"Saddam has equated himself in the public mind with the survival of the country. And it's clearly taken root with the people," a Western ambassador says. "That's how they see him now."

Insulting Hussein in public is punishable by death, which tends to muffle dissent as the casualty toll mounts inexorably and economic austerity increases because of the war that costs between $5 billion and $12 billion a year --depending on the intensity of the fighting--and last year's collapse in oil prices.

In 1980, Baghdad was raking in $25 billion a year from its oil. Now it's deep in debt, somewhere between $30 billion and $50 billion.

Coffers Drained

Its coffers have been drained by the crippling cost of a military strategy that depends on a steady flow of high-tech weapons from the Soviet Union and France to give it the superior firepower it needs to counter Iran's 3-to-1 edge in manpower.

A severe shortage of foreign exchange has forced the government to cut back sharply on imports and economic development. This has brought periodic food shortages.

Women swathed in black head-to-toe abayahs regularly line up outside stores, many of them government owned, for goods that become available in spasms, depending on when the convoys of big container trucks come in across the desert from Kuwait, Jordan and Turkey.

"Some days you can't get eggs, some days it's meat or powdered milk or butter and cheese," Mustafa says. "When Pepsi shows up you can break a leg in the crush."

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