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.