While superpower leaders met Sunday in cool Finland to press for Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait, preparations were being made under Iraq’s roasting desert sun to hold out against the tight international blockade and to defend the nation in case of war.
The government made no official response to the joint statement of President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev at their Helsinki summit. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had appealed urgently to Moscow on the eve of the summit to break ranks with the United States and a series of sanctions imposed by the United Nations and to take sides with Iraq in the Persian Gulf conflict.
In any event, Iraq seemed to be expecting no quick breakthrough in its favor. In one large-scale effort to fortify itself against the U.N. trade embargo, the government has begun to mobilize farmers to increase food production. Iraq had imported about 70% of the food it consumes.
State land customarily rented to farmers will be leased without charge to anyone willing to work it, the government announced Sunday. Regional authorities in grain-growing areas have ordered farms to increase planting of winter wheat, and farmers have been exempted from military conscription.
Diplomatic observers are skeptical about Iraq’s ability to make a dent in its food needs, especially because of lack of fertilizer.
Conservation is another tactic. Government officials have gone out of their way to explain that the lengthening bread lines in Baghdad do not signify that wheat is running out. Rather, they say, rationing is a means of stretching out supplies.
“We are just trying to rationalize consumption,” official spokesman Naji Hadithi said in understated bureaucratese.
State-run television warned against hoarding or price gouging and assured Iraqis that food would be distributed evenly throughout the country. This may reflect snafus in bread rationing efforts that have led to shortages in some neighborhoods, diplomats said.
The government is also trying to tighten vigilance over its own citizens by telling them to register at local residency offices. There was speculation that the move was designed to head off draft dodging.
Besides keeping tabs on its own citizens, the government repeated warnings to foreign hostages not to try to escape on penalty of life imprisonment. If foreigners move from house to house, they must also notify residency officials. In August, Iraq warned its own citizens that harboring foreigners was tantamount to the crime of espionage and punishable by death.
The Draconian measures seemed mainly aimed at Kuwait, which Iraq claimed as annexed territory after its lightning Aug. 2 invasion. Foreigners, including scores of Americans, have been hiding out for fear of being rounded up and sent to military and industrial sites to be used as “human shields” against attack from abroad.
In Baghdad, mobilization into the Popular Army of reserve recruits continued, and anti-aircraft batteries popped up along the Tigris River, which bisects the city.
The Hussein regime is sending out strong psychological signals that war is likely. Television is full of patriotic appearances by soldiers in training for the Popular Army. Prompted by reporters, the weekend warriors chant nationalistic slogans, sing regional songs and wave rifles.
On Sunday, a broadcast order prohibited the firing of weapons at weddings and other celebrations. In Iraq, it is common to greet the bride and groom with a volley of rifle fire; these nighttime events have sometimes sent foreign reporters here scurrying into the streets in search of a coup.
There was no sign that Iraq was giving up on its claim to Kuwait. It is viewed as part and parcel of the country.
Instead of responding to the Helsinki summit, Hussein appeared on television in an interview taped last month with Jesse Jackson, the U.S. political leader and former presidential hopeful who now hosts a television show.
In the interview--it was shown twice--Hussein repeated his demands that American troops leave the Middle East and that any discussion about Kuwait be conducted solely among Arab states.
Iraq’s main diplomatic preoccupation seems to be to find ways to break the blockade rather than reach a negotiated solution.
Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz visited Iran on Sunday in an effort to get the Tehran government to resume trading with Iraq. After he met with Iranian officials, Iran announced that it would continue to observe the U.N. trade sanctions.
Iraq’s government press gave prominent coverage to India’s request to send food to its citizens stranded in Kuwait and Iraq. Iraqi officials view the U.N. embargo and the maritime blockade put in place to enforce it as criminal acts and have insisted that Third World countries with tens of thousands of guest workers in Iraq and Kuwait send food to help them.
The flow of Western women and children hostages out of Kuwait and Iraq picked up steam Sunday. One flight of 165 American women and children came from Kuwait to Baghdad, where the hostages were transferred to a 747 jetliner bound for London with almost 300 women and children from other Western countries.
Hussein agreed to let women and children go, but is detaining Western and Japanese men to use as a deterrent against attack from outside.
The exodus brings the number of American women and children remaining in Kuwait down to fewer than 1,000, compared to about 1,500 at the time of the Iraqi invasion. About 500 American men are stranded in the oil sheikdom.