With police sirens screaming and roof lights flashing, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein sent his answer to the world's latest effort to isolate his nation careening through the streets of Baghdad on Wednesday night.
It was a food parade--25 Jordanian trucks loaded with 400 tons of Palestinian-financed food and medicine that had punched through the international blockade, crossing into Iraq from Jordan.
The trucks, most of them with signs identifying their cargo as a "gift from the children of the Palestinian intifada (uprising) to the children of Iraq," had arrived in Baghdad 24 hours before the parade. Hussein had kept them parked in a remote location, saving them for the right moment to send a clear message to his people and to the outside world: Iraq intends to survive with the few friends it has.
The Iraqi president issued no statement after word reached Baghdad early Wednesday that the U.N. Security Council had adopted a resolution extending its trade embargo to include the air lanes as well as sea lanes and overland routes. The parade, it seemed, was more than enough.
For more than an hour, the trucks lumbered through Baghdad's shopping districts, the drivers waving Iraqi and Jordanian flags, their rigs decorated with huge color portraits of Saddam Hussein, Jordan's King Hussein and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.
At several points along the route, soldiers led organized clumps of uniformed women and children in cheers and applause. They shouted repeatedly, "Down, down, Bush!" and "Long live Saddam Hussein!"
But when the convoy passed long bread lines that form every morning and evening outside the city's bakeries, the waiting men and women looked up in bewilderment, watched silently as the trucks rolled by and went back to waiting.
The parade was more than a dramatic message from President Hussein, however, as the scenes along the route showed how he and his highly disciplined people are weathering the embargo.
By relying on his friends, his all-powerful role as Iraq's undisputed ruler and on the stoicism of his people, Hussein and the Iraqi leadership are "thumbing their noses at the sanctions and all those who have imposed them," in the words of one senior diplomat in Baghdad.
Iraqi government spokesman Naji Hadithi said of the new U.N. action: "It will be added to the other U.N. resolutions--piled in the dustbin."
Clearly, the Iraqis expect the move to have little impact. Western diplomats said they tend to see it as an effort to block air shipments of military supplies and imported luxury items that Iraq has been trying to obtain from friendly Arab nations such as Sudan, Djibouti, Libya and Jordan.
Intelligence sources said several such flights have been detected between Libya and Iraq's port city of Basra, which now has a modern airport, but they added that the volume is "hardly significant."
On Wednesday, confusion reigned over whether the U.N. embargo extends to passenger flights, after Jordanian authorities permitted two regularly scheduled Iraqi Airways flights from Baghdad to land. Jordan has said it will officially adhere to the air sanctions but has made no interpretation of what kinds of traffic it bars.
In Washington, a State Department spokesman said the air embargo resolution "does not in and of itself prohibit passenger flights" but noted that all flights are subject to inspection to determine if they contain prohibited cargo. The spokesman said routine passenger flights also raise the possibility of regular financial transfers to the government of Iraq, which would be prohibited under other U.N. resolutions.
At the United Nations, British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd told the General Assembly that "the chances of a more secure world order depend directly on the success of the international coalition in reversing the occupation of Kuwait."
He added: "The test is formidable, but it cannot be evaded. This is a defining moment. How we act now will shape the next decade." He urged firm enforcement of existing sanctions.
Meanwhile, Amman is the only city that has provided air access to and from Baghdad since the original trade embargo was imposed in August, and thousands of refugees have left Kuwait and Iraq by this route. The flights have also made it possible for the international news media to get into Baghdad, and journalists have been a conduit for Saddam Hussein to the outside world.
One Western diplomat, analyzing the impact of the air embargo, said: "Clearly it is a move to try to tighten the net. If effective, it could make it much more difficult to bring in military supplies, such as ammunition and high-tech spare parts, as well as such items as caviar and smoked salmon--luxuries that some members of the ruling elite have grown accustomed to during Iraq's more prosperous times.
"There will be some discontent if there is a radical deterioration in the standard of living among the top leadership, but these are a resilient people, very well disciplined. They have a fatalism that we do not have, and they can become very nationalistic when threatened."
It is for those reasons that many independent analysts in Baghdad--and the Iraqi leadership as well--have concluded that the embargo on air traffic will have little more than a psychological effect on Iraq, regardless of what Jordan decides to do about future passenger flights.
Wednesday's parade was perhaps the most dramatic demonstration yet of how porous the blockade is and may be in the future.
The aid was organized in Amman by a charitable group that calls itself the General Union of Voluntary Societies, but the contingent accompanying the truck convoy was made up almost exclusively of Palestinian refugees who fled to Jordan when Israel was created.
"You tell America," one of the drivers shouted to a reporter, "the milk and medicine is only for children. It is from the children in Jordan to the children in Iraq."
Later, though, in an interview at a warehouse where the trucks were to be unloaded, the organizer conceded that his group will not be present when the Iraqis distribute the goods.
Abou Mohammed, the Palestinian who led the convoy, said that his group plans to return to Jordan early today and that the food and medicine will be distributed by the General Union of Iraqi Women, a government-sanctioned welfare group that has taken part in several recent demonstrations outside the U.S. and British embassies in Baghdad.
Asked whether he has any concern that some of the goods may find their way to the Iraqi army, Mohammed said: "No, we are social workers; we deal with the child welfare department here in Iraq. Of course, the children will get it."
He said he plans to bring another convoy to Baghdad in about two weeks.
"I am not political," he said, "and even so, even a prisoner is entitled to get food and water before he is sent to be hanged."
He was asked: Is Iraq now a prisoner?
"If there is an embargo that is starving Iraq of food and milk, it means they are going to imprison the people of Iraq," he replied.
Certainly, that is the impression the Iraqi government has been trying to create.
In a shift from the government line of just two weeks ago, when it was denying that the embargo was having any effect, the leadership is now openly conceding that there are shortages--and that they are getting worse. On Wednesday, Iraqi officials announced there will be more food rationing starting this weekend, with rice, flour, cooking oil, sugar and tea on the list.
As one official put it: "The government line now, privately and publicly, is that 'the West and the United States are trying to starve us into submission.' "
Indeed, several hundred women and children taking part Wednesday in what has come to be an almost daily demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy railed against President Bush's "starvation campaign." One small boy held up a sign with the message: "No for Death. Yes for Life. No for Sanction."
Government spokesman Hadithi acknowledged this new policy, saying: "There is a shortage, of course. The blockade against Iraq is being felt at every level and by every quarter in our society. . . . Shortages of medicines are hitting the hospitals now.
"But one month? What is one month? Iraq will grow weary in one month of blockade? Is this going to cripple Iraq? The obvious answer is no. The people will only grow more defiant. They will cling more to their leadership. They will rally more around their leader.
"Shortages are here, but the government and the population have decided to rely on themselves now."
Meanwhile, in a flurry of presidential decrees this week, Hussein has increased sharply the price the government pays farmers for their wheat, vegetables, rice and other staples. At the same time, he reduced by more than 25% the price farmers must pay for fertilizer--all in the hope of expanding production.
"Despite the shortages," Hadithi said, "the government is now organizing to resist this pressure--not just for weeks or months but for years and years to come."
He conceded that the blockade has been penetrated along ancient smuggling routes that cross Iraq's long and in some places mountainous border with Iran and Turkey. However, he said the amount of goods involved is so small that it "certainly does not feed the population."
Western and Asian diplomatic observers agree that the smuggling has been insignificant, and they acknowledge that the embargo is unlikely to starve Iraq into submission.
"But do we really want to starve them?" asked a senior Western diplomat whose government is supporting the embargo. "I don't think the world--not even the American people--would support starving Iraq.
"Taking away the luxuries of life? Yes, certainly. But starving the whole nation into submission doesn't sound to me like a good policy. And I don't think it could be done anyway."
These people continue to hope that the decisive pinch will be felt in Iraq's industrial and military sectors as shortages of spare parts for critical machinery mount and eventually cripple the nation's infrastructure.
Already, power blackouts in some districts of Baghdad have started, some lasting as long as 45 minutes. They are believed to be an indication of equipment problems at power stations, which have been maintained largely by imported labor.
After seven weeks with lowered oil revenue--daily production has fallen from 3 million to 300,000 barrels--many analysts say Iraq now lacks the foreign exchange to buy spare parts.
"The whole of the industrial sector and luxury-goods markets are all locked out now," a Western diplomat said. "But the billion-dollar question is whether that's enough to get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.
"This country can survive without a doubt. It's just that everything will be returned to pre-industrial, pre-luxury, pre-modernization Iraq. Instead of using imported shampoo, they'll go back to the traditional camel urine.
"Now, whether that's enough to cause a rebellion in Iraqi society and overthrow Saddam Hussein or force him to stand down, I just don't know. And I really don't think anyone has the answer to that one yet."
Times staff writers Nick B. Williams Jr., in Amman, Jordan, and Don Shannon, at the United Nations, contributed to this report.
RELATED STORIES, A6-A14