Surveying the wreckage of their shattered capital and the spectacle of their armed forces retreating under fire from allied artillery and aircraft, many Iraqis seemed convinced Wednesday that they face a daunting enemy whose main goal is their nation’s humiliation, not the liberation of Kuwait.
Baghdad Radio reported for the first time Wednesday that coalition paratroops had landed in southern Iraq, blocking the “dignified” pullout that had been sought by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
With the news that the fighting was occurring on Iraq’s soil, many people reacted with disbelief as the consequences of their government’s actions became clear.
“We are obliged to fight, for our nation and honor,” said Haider Jabouri, 53, owner of a clothing store.
But had Iraq gained anything from the conflict? He shook his head. “Until now, nothing,” he said.
The losses here have been catastrophic. There is no electricity, and water is scarce. Three of the busiest bridges in the heart of Baghdad have been destroyed by allied air raids. Fuel in one of the world’s biggest oil producers is extremely difficult to find and very expensive.
On the road that leads west from Baghdad to the Jordanian border, the mangled carcasses of destroyed trucks form a grim gallery on the side of the road. In some sections, the road is pockmarked from allied aircraft strafing.
Along the road, most communication towers are still standing, but they apparently have been rendered useless by pinpoint bomb or missile strikes at transmission centers.
As the danger seems to shift from the reversal of their conquest of Kuwait to the territorial integrity of Iraq, people appear to feel more directly threatened. Kuwait may or may not have mattered to Iraqis, but their own nation clearly does.
“Bush is coming in order to invade Iraq and destroy our country, not to free Kuwait,” Suhad Salien, 22, a housewife, said in an interview outside of Shorja market, the city’s oldest and largest. “We’re proud of our history and our heritage and we’ll never let Bush impose his will on the Iraqi people.”
Many people interviewed in the course of three hours of brief interviews in downtown Baghdad appear to view the war in intensely personal terms, perhaps more so than they had in the past, when what was at stake was a tiny emirate that few had ever seen.
“It’s true we’re only 18 million, but all of us are ready to fight,” said Fawzi Hussein, a 45-year-old lawyer. “In the new world order, which Mr. Bush is so concerned with, he is not prepared to respect Iraq’s strength and independence.”
Like many others, Hussein said that Bush, in league with Israel, had used Kuwait as a pretext for the destruction of Iraq. But through the bitterness and recrimination and conspiracy theories involving the supposed American-Zionist alliance, there is also a frank recognition here that Iraq has suffered tremendously from its president’s decision to invade Kuwait.
In the sprawling capital of 4 million, a visitor can drive through some neighborhoods admiring the beauty of shrines and the Tigris River, then turn a corner and encounter utter devastation. Around the corner from Shorja market, which is piled with trash from an interruption in pickups but otherwise undamaged, there is the ruined complex of the Central Bank, its roof collapsed, its pillars buckled inside their masonry lining. Crushed vehicles lie scattered on the ground.
Next door is the Souk al Benat, where youngsters used to window-shop for the latest fashions. Now it is a mess of splintered glass and boarded-up windows, a victim of “collateral damage,” in Pentagon terms, from the hit on the nearby Central Bank.
Although commercial life has been impaired by the relentless bombing and missile attacks, it has by no means ground to a halt. In the Shorja market, a busy retail trade goes on, squeezed but not choked by shortages and higher prices.
Candles, which are in great demand as the main source of light, have quadrupled in price. Eggs, like many other farm products that must be trucked to the capital amid fuel shortages, cost five times as much as before the war. But candies, nuts and spices, kitchen utensils, children’s clothing, shoes and paper products are all in abundant supply.
At first blush, the impression is that life in the Iraqi capital has become difficult, but not impossible.
“We are living as normal a life as possible and tending our offices despite the lack of petrol,” said Soad, 25, a typist.
Was the annexation of Kuwait worth so much destruction and suffering?
“There were many more important matters,” she replied.
This report was reviewed by Iraqi censors.