With the deadline for possible war over Kuwait drawing near, whispered expressions of dissent from the unyielding hard line of President Saddam Hussein are heard more and more frequently inside the generally tight-lipped population of Baghdad.
As the government has prepared for war during the past four months, the willingness of common citizens, at least in private, to voice objections to official policy seems to have grown.
Over the weekend, the play of public opinion in Iraq suddenly became a subject of intense conjecture when the government went out of its way to knock down a rumor circulating here. Word had spread that Hussein was planning to call a massive demonstration of supporters who would, on cue, demand peace. To the hurrahs of the crowd, Hussein would respond by pulling his troops out of Kuwait.
Hussein and the close-knit ruling Revolutionary Command Council blamed the rumor’s force on foreign newspapers. But in Baghdad, the speculation had surfaced long before the international press mentioned anything about it.
Humble flour vendors, rug merchants, schoolteachers, Iraqi journalists--it seemed that everyone was repeating the demonstration-pullout scenario.
Was it all just the phenomenon of an uninformed citizenry groping in unison for news? Or was the rumor mill a source of mass wishful thinking?
The hopeful tone in which the rumor circulated raises what is perhaps a haunting question for the government: In Hussein’s calculation of his popular support, which decision would enhance his rule--to stay in Kuwait or to withdraw?
In Baghdad, there is no apparent enthusiasm for all-out war. That is not to say that Baghdadis generally reject the notion that Kuwait is historically part of Iraq. Nor do many Iraqis seem to like the Kuwaitis, who are viewed as haughty, or the Kuwaiti royal family, which is considered greedy and immoral.
But fighting for Kuwait is a different matter, particularly because the wounds of Iraq’s devastating eight-year war with Iran are yet unhealed.
Disenchantment with Iraq’s military buildup in Kuwait is usually expressed by lamenting the induction of young recruits into the army or the return of veterans to the fighting ranks for possible new battles only two years after the close of the Iran-Iraq War.
“The young have no happy life,” complained a disabled veteran of the last war. “And the men who came back from fighting Iran, they started families, a new life. They don’t want to lose it.”
Although tens of thousands of young Iraqis have been inducted into the country’s million-man armed forces and thousands of older men answered a call to serve in local militias, there is evidently resistance to putting on the uniform, and the government is actively hunting for draft dodgers.
Near Saddam International Airport in Baghdad, a new vehicle checkpoint has been set up to examine the documents of drivers and passengers. Teams of military police have swept into neighborhoods looking for draft evaders.
A favorite refuge for deserters and runaway youths is Saddam City, a warren of ramshackle housing on Baghdad’s outskirts. The neighborhood is primarily home to poor Shiite Muslims, Iraq’s restive majority religious group. Police are not welcome.
“The harub (deserters) feel safe here,” said the owner of a musical instrument store in Saddam City. “Police come in at their own risk.”
The final, political resolution to the war with Iran seems to have undermined faith in the government’s power of decision. Soon after Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, Hussein announced that Iraq would unilaterally withdraw from the Iranian land it had occupied to turn a two-year cease-fire into a long-lasting peace.
Iraq settled with Tehran by agreeing to borders set in a 1975 treaty--one that Hussein renounced when he launched his invasion of the neighboring country in September, 1980.
Iraqis have begun to recall with bitterness the losses incurred by Iraq to take and hold the disputed land.
“Many boys died. Many lives were ruined because Saddam said the borders were wrong,” said a middle-aged portrait painter. “Now he says the same thing about Kuwait.”
The recent appearance at a Baghdad hotel of an Iranian civil aviation delegation brought a caustic rebuke from one Iraqi onlooker. “Suddenly, they are our friends. They bring cassettes and play Iranian music in their cars. We can hear it. It brings bad memories,” a taxi driver said.
The wildfire spread of yet another rumor underlined the dissatisfaction with the coziness with Tehran. Word ran in the street that the Iranian government had asked to rebury the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late fundamentalist Shiite Muslim leader and Iranian ruler, in Najaf, an Iraqi city considered holy by Shiites. Reaction was negative. “We will dig the body up and burn it,” a Shiite war veteran said.
Criticism of the Hussein regime itself surfaces from time to time, often in references to the reputed wealth accumulated by Hussein family members.
Iraqis seem to have a mental catalogue of all the houses built specifically for Hussein relatives or associates. “He has palaces just like the sheiks in Saudi (Arabia),” said a man strolling near a stretch of the Tigris River, where several guarded residential compounds stand. “Why does he need so many houses, and so big?”
Baghdad residents who espouse preference for peace talks rather than conflict find the official drumbeating for war an irritation. “ Haki faadi . Empty talk,” complained a customer at a traditional teahouse as he listened to a broadcast government threat to crush the heads of invading American troops.