SPECIAL REPORT: WITNESS TO WAR :...

BAGHDAD

As the days and hours ticked toward doom, the Iraqis' survival psyche fueled a boastful confidence while masking a benign neglect that would have been comical were it not so fundamentally lethal.

The problem isn't Kuwait, said a sweets vendor in Baghdad's downtown Shurja market. "It's all over oil." He smiled as the market bustled indifferently all around him. "Maybe Saddam will give some of the wells to Bush."

After all, Bush was offering to seek talks with the Iraqi leadership, and Baghdad seemed more than willing to negotiate. It would go the way it does every day in the souks , the bargaining bazaars of the Arab world; and the Iraqis figured Kuwait just wasn't worth dying for--not for them, and not for the Americans.

What's more, the brutal conquest of Kuwait already had brought Iraq a windfall--a cornucopia of looted merchandise that lifted the mood in the souks of Baghdad all the more. "What embargo?" most outsiders wondered as they wandered through the amply stocked marketplaces where, most Iraqis seemed to think, a distant day of reckoning would be just another day of marketing. The basics of life? They could be gotten from Iran. And then, there were all these wonderfully strange things, both new and free, that were coming from Kuwait, Iraq's new Province 19.

Slime-Slurp candy shaped like cartoon monsters that no one had seen before were now selling next to Arby's liquid cheddar cheese that no one could really figure out how to use. Streets and highways accustomed to wheezing and battered Japanese imports suddenly were awash with Mercedes-Benzes, Land Rovers and large-sized Chevrolets. There was a high-fashion revolution under way in the dress shops of Baghdad's fashionable Jedariyah district, where Armani dresses and suits looted from the modern souks of Kuwait replaced 1950s-style house frocks to tempt Iraqi women. Rolexes and Seikos overflowed from the watch bazaar on Saddoun Street. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, an official in an impeccable new suit showed off his even newer IBM personal computer, still in its sealed box. He asked all comers if they knew how to set it up for him.

Even night life was picking up. Rationing had forced every restaurant and sweet shop to close months earlier, but the nightclubs needed only endless supplies of the anonymous brown bottles of Iraqi beer, called Sheherazade. So, the Embassy and Star discos reopened to throbbing crowds. And, along the Tigris River, the open-air mazgouf restaurants had a ready and endless supply of Baghdad's sweet, grilled river fish delicacies. The restaurants, too, stayed open well after midnight.

"No one can impose a date on Iraq," Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz declared, reflecting the buoyant and overconfident mood of his nation. He puffed on his ever-present Havana cigar. "Iraq will no longer play the underdog."

It wasn't until just a few weeks before the doomsday deadline that civil-defense lectures began appearing on Iraqi television. In one video, a teacher told Iraqis how to make their own gas masks: Place a kitchen towel over your face. Another showed an atomic bomb blast; and, as the mushroom cloud rose, an instructor's voice told viewers that, if caught in a nuclear bomb attack, hit the dirt and, again, cover your face. There were equally halfhearted attempts at civil-defense drills, like the day officials attempted to evacuate more than 400,000 urban peasants jammed into a ghetto of shanties called Saddam City. A few thousand packed onto army buses, but most hid at home in fear--a grim foreshadowing of what so few really believed was to come.

The relentless TV public-service ads and bomb drills dampened Baghdad's spirits a bit, but it was the military draft that should have sent the strongest signals to a nation that simply did not want to think the unthinkable. Seventeen-year-old boys suddenly were told to report for duty, lowering the draft age a year. And not all of them went. Army dragnets began combing neighborhoods and banging on doors looking for draft dodgers. Then came the ominous rumor of the Mukhabarat, Saddam's long-armed security agency: The family of any young man who failed to report for duty would be shot. That, at least, was believable. It had happened before. So, out of the woodwork of Baghdad suddenly emerged the teen-agers who a few months later would willingly surrender to the allies at Iraq's southern front, hundreds of miles away.

But on the public stage in Baghdad during those final weeks and days, Saddam Hussein was staging the official prewar shadow play with the zeal of the Mesopotamian forefathers he so admires: Nebuchadnezzar, the brilliant military strategist and ancient king of Babylonia, and Saladin, the great Muslim warrior who finally drove the Crusaders from the Holy Land. It was a drama that went far beyond Saddam's usual cult of personality. The Iraqi leader started appearing on TV in the widest imaginable variety of guises: The enlisted man in simple fatigues, the dapper officer in dress blues, the red-scarfed warrior atop a white horse, the holy man on an Islamic prayer rug.

And, as the clock ticked down, his words were as brave as his deeds. Only a few days before the Jan. 15 deadline for destruction that so few still considered real, Saddam stood before several hundred Muslim leaders who had gathered in a Baghdad auditorium. He delivered a fascinating, lengthy discourse on just how the battle would proceed--the coming events of the world, according to Saddam. The sophisticated allied planes and rockets would be no problem, he explained, as Iraq's own state-of-the-art radar and surface-to-air missiles would pick them out of the sky before they got within 12 miles of their targets. Radio jamming? No problem, he said. "We do not need communication. We are people who do not speak from military manuals but from eight years' combat experience."

Had Saddam Hussein, one of the world's most notorious procurers and admirers of sophisticated, 20th-Century weaponry, simply not heard of a cruise missile? Was it yet another in what even some Iraqis were beginning to see as a litany of their leader's miscalculations--a series of high-stakes errors beginning with his underestimation of U.S. and allied resolve and ending with his overestimation of his own forces?

Or was it as pictured by one Iraqi, a veteran of Saddam's brutal, eight-year war with Iran? Contradicting many experts, this elderly veteran, just days before the deadline, declared in a whisper: "Saddam is crazy."

As the ominous U.N. deadline drew near, the overwhelming majority of Iraqis thought their ruthless and stubborn leader was still sane enough to stop just short of disaster. Saddam would sanction a huge public rally where his people would, perhaps for the first time, genuinely demand a pullout from Kuwait, many people thought. When the rally failed to materialize, the Iraqis looked to the country's rubber-stamp National Assembly. Sighs of relief went up when the Iraqi leader announced that it would convene on the evening of Jan. 13, two days before the deadline. "A perfect foil," one Iraqi theorized on that Sunday morning. "He'll get the Assembly to vote for withdrawal. He'll save face and make it look like democracy is working in Iraq at the same time.

"Look, we've gotten all we need from Kuwait. We refused all concessions to Baker and Bush. We'll do it our own way. You watch."

The world's best analysts did watch that night--but with horror, not relief--as Saddam's loyal Assembly voted 220 to 1 in favor of a resolution reiterating Iraq's annexation of Kuwait and authorizing all military force to defend it.

The die was cast, and diplomats began to flee Baghdad. There was only one question among them now: "When are you leaving?" An American diplomat, who had honed terror-mongering to a high skill during his months in the Iraqi capital, told Western journalists: "If you stay, you'll die."

And finally, even a number of the Baghdadis seemed to get the message.

Some of them, too, fled the city, streaming out by the tens of thousands in extended family caravans. Unlike the foreigners, though, they could go no farther than their home villages, where most simply hunkered down and waited for the worst.

Others pretended nothing was happening.

In neighboring Jordan, panicky residents had been taping their windows like mad for days, trying to keep them from splattering glass during bomb blasts. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in camps scattered across Jordan prepared for Israel's involvement in a now all but inevitable war that clearly would place that nation in the cross fire. Frantically, they organized camp militias, built bomb shelters and stowed food stocks. The Safeway store in Amman set up a separate table near the checkout counter piled high with emergency medical kits, flashlights and batteries.

But in Baghdad, just a few hundred miles to the east, many of those who did not flee simply went to the races.

On Jan. 16, there were six of them--horse races run every hour on the half-hour--and the stands were jammed with bettors. In the souks , many of the shops had been closed for two days, a precaution by many merchants. But the ones that reopened the following day were full of shoppers. And, in the evening, there were even a few weddings in town.

"What struck me was there were all sorts of these bizarre normal things going on," said a British television cameraman who made moving portraits of Baghdad's final day as a modern city. "But you clearly got the sense that they knew what was coming. If not that night, well then, the next, or the one after that.

"There was just nothing they could do about it. They sat back and waited, expecting the worst but refusing to really acknowledge it."

WASHINGTON

Right after the U.N. Security Council voted its Jan. 15 deadline, President Bush announced an offer to send Secretary of State James A. Baker III to Baghdad to talk to Saddam Hussein. And, for a brief time, optimists in Washington resumed their speculation that perhaps war could be avoided.

Disagreements on timing ostensibly scotched the initiative. But within Bush's inner circle, hopes for avoiding a war had waned earlier.

Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that even as the Administration was negotiating in the United Nations for a resolution to endorse the use of force against Iraq, he had begun to conclude that military force would be necessary to expel Saddam's armies from Kuwait. The realization that war was inevitable did not come to him suddenly, like a light bulb being switched on, he said, but rather like a light growing steadily brighter, as if it had been controlled by a dimmer switch.

"It (the light) came on in the fall when he (Saddam) did not respond to the second phase of the buildup, when he did not seem to be reacting to our sending a heavy, heavy, heavy corps, a whole bunch more aircraft carriers and a whole bunch more air power. (He) essentially just sat there right where he was without making any tactical redeployments, no fundamental change to his defensive posture even though we were fundamentally changing the force he was looking at," Powell recalled. The only logical explanation for the Iraqi leader's behavior was ominous.

As November gave way to December, and as the U.S. Army VII Corps left Europe and began arriving in Saudi Arabia, "there was only one assumption one could make--and that's that this guy was gonna fight. . . . I always hoped he'd show some signs of being a rational actor . . ." Powell said. "But with each passing week, he seemed not to be one."

And now, in late December, George Bush left his senior aides behind and retreated to the solitude of Camp David, in the Maryland mountains. For decades, Bush has been the most gregarious of men; and for the first two years of his term, his desire always to be surrounded by a crowd had been a most enduring hallmark of his presidency. Now, his sudden desire to be alone was significant.

There, in the rustic quiet, he began to write a speech--one he wouldn't deliver for three weeks. He was already at work on his announcement of the war. In the mind of the President, and increasingly in the thoughts of the rest of his inner circle, war now seemed inevitable.

On Dec. 27, Bush returned to the White House briefly for meetings, then prepared to go back to Camp David. As he departed, he encountered a group of reporters. And what he told them seemed to reflect his deepest thoughts. Was there any chance that a compromise could still be struck with Saddam Hussein? one journalist asked him.

"That's the problem," the President responded. "Everyone wants you to compromise.

"There's not going to be a compromise with this man."

Once the new year arrived, he returned to the White House, and what he told his senior staff left little doubt about what was to come. "For me, it boils down to a very moral case of good versus evil, black versus white," he said. As a young Navy pilot in World War II, Bush had risked death to do what he saw as his duty. Now, he told his aides, he would do his duty again. Even if Congress refused to go along, even if public opinion condemned him, he said, "If it's right, it has got to be done."

Days passed. Bush read reports about atrocities committed by Iraqi troops from sources as diverse as Amnesty International and the Kuwaiti government in exile. He became even more convinced of the morality of his cause.

For nearly two decades, American presidents, leading a nation traumatized by the defeat in Vietnam, had shied away from the use of military force. Even Bush's predecessor, Ronald Reagan, while making stirring speeches about American resolve, balked at confrontations that carried serious risk of losing large numbers of troops. In 1983, for example, during America's last military foray into the Middle East, Reagan had sent Marines to Beirut only to quickly withdraw the force when a truck bomb killed 241 servicemen.

In an interview, one of Bush's closest advisers made clear the Administration's distaste for the legacy it had inherited. Military force, he said, was meant to be used as an instrument of policy, not simply as a final defense against an invading onslaught or as an expensive way to whip small Caribbean islands into shape.

In a world that now truly had only one superpower, long-term stability required a United States that could threaten to use force and be believed.

Saddam Hussein did not know it, but Iraq was about to be made an object lesson.

SAUDI ARABIA

As the Jan. 15 U.N. deadline approached, the contrast in Saudi Arabia was remarkable.

Columns of allied tanks, troops and trucks rolled north along Saudi highways toward the border with occupied Kuwait.

There were M-109 155-millimeter self-propelled howitzers, with their distinctive long barrels. Bradley Fighting Vehicles, with their 25-millimeter cannons--steel-treaded troop carriers that look like tanks but aren't. Rubber-tired LAVs--light armored vehicles--that look like bugs, but aren't. One MLRS after another--steel-treaded multiple rocket launchers that fire 12 missiles, each missile containing six radar-guided bombs. M-1A1 Abrams tanks--huge roaring hulks, painted camouflage colors and armed with 120-millimeter cannons and machine guns.

Alongside rode Bedouins astride loping camels, herding a dozen or more additional camels along with them through the sand. They cracked long whips, and their faces were wrapped in cloth against the dust churned up by their fellow travelers and by military helicopters overhead.

Somehow, the world of the Bedouins remained largely untouched. They wandered through the no man's land between the two armies at will, and they regularly made their way to the ancient camel market at Hofuf. As dawn broke, the roar of F-15 fighter jets overhead would mix with the sounds of camels coughing and the tinkling of teacups in finely woven goat-hair tents. One of the sellers, Mohammed Marri, told a potential buyer: "Someone offered 9,000 riyals for this camel, but I think it costs more. This is good. She has a baby, and she has milk." He removed a hand-woven bra from the camel's teats and squirted a line of warm milk into the sand.

Other things remained unchanged as well.

Five times a day, beginning at dawn and ending after dark, the call to prayer was broadcast from the mosques that dot every neighborhood. Shops and restaurants were shuttered and the country seemed to halt. The devout in the faith of Islam who could not get to a mosque fell to their knees wherever they were, facing Mecca. Desks in hotel rooms were marked with arrows pointing toward Mecca for travelers who might be confused about the proper direction.

Still, the mix between Saudi tradition and impending war was an uneasy one at best.

Even the camels weren't entirely safe. One night an American soldier operating a .50-caliber machine gun nearly blasted a herd of camels and its owner into oblivion when he mistook them for approaching Iraqis.

In Al Khubar, near Dhahran, two GIs posed beside a billboard-sized sign on the main shopping street as another snapped their photograph. A sign behind them showed instructions in English and Arabic about what to do in the event of a poison gas attack. A sure warning, the sign said, would be birds falling from the sky.

At the train station in Dammam, another warning posted in Arabic and English cautioned women that they were forbidden to travel alone and must be accompanied by a brother, father, husband or son--and that they were forbidden to drive cars and could not enter restaurants without a male relative.

If seeing women covered head to toe in black robes was strange to American soldiers, the clothes worn by American women were shocking to conservative Arabs.

At the Dhahran International Hotel, the center for the media corps covering the war, a Yemeni taxi driver was visibly agitated when he encountered female journalists walking around the lobby in jeans and short-sleeved shirts.

"They have uncovered women in there!" he told a passenger urgently, as though the women were naked. "They are uncovered."

The horror was compounded when female soldiers arrived. They drove. Some even drove trucks.

Acceptance came partly from a lack of choice--unaided Saudi military defenses probably would have withstood an Iraqi attack only briefly. So, the Saudis found themselves embracing many of the Westerners who had come to help. "George Bush! George Bush!" one grinning, black-bereted officer shouted enthusiastically as two reporters followed northbound tanks and trucks past a Saudi checkpoint.

There had been concern that the foreign press would ridicule Saudi society, with its unfamiliar customs. But the worst did not happen. Although the correspondents' dispatches reflected the novelty of experiencing Saudi culture, they only seemed to help the world gain a better understanding of the country and to better distinguish Saudis from Iraqis and Jordanians and Yemenis. No longer would Arabs be lumped into a single group in the minds of Americans.

The Saudis also made strides in attempting to explain themselves. Signs posted outside a military briefing room at the Hyatt Hotel in Riyadh promised Arabic lessons to reporters who wanted to begin learning the language.

It would be only a temporary diversion from the business at hand, however. For at about this time, deep below the dry and dusty streets of the Saudi capital in a command bunker sealed by blast doors and protected by tons of hardened concrete and steel, visiting Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Powell, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, would sit down with Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, U.S. commander of forces in the Gulf, and his corps and division commanders.

It was December, and Cheney and Powell had arrived for the first of two such meetings--the next would be in February--to be brought up to date. All through the fall, Schwarzkopf and his commanders had pored over maps trying to figure out how to break through Iraq's defenses. He told colleagues at the Pentagon that he spent much of October "staying up at night to figure out where (Saddam's) Inchon was"--a reference to the daring amphibious assault by U.S. Marines that Gen. Douglas MacArthur used to rout the enemy in Korea.

To avoid leaks, Schwarzkopf's commanders had kept the details of their plan to themselves until now. To reach the command bunker, Cheney and Powell had been brought to a long, low brick-and-concrete building housing the Saudi Ministry of Aviation. They got into an elevator, went down four floors and through several sets of heavy, sliding metal doors. Behind the last was the planning room, its walls lined with maps.

A handful of journalists got a brief glimpse inside during a pre-meeting "photo opportunity," then were quickly ushered out so that Schwarzkopf and his commanders could outline their plan for the attentive Powell and Cheney:

Massive American and allied air power would destroy Iraq's air defenses, then disrupt key communications, command-and-control facilities. Once Saddam Hussein's forces were essentially blind and unable either to attack from the air or to conduct reconnaissance, allied ground forces would begin to move, undetected, into positions from which they would be able to launch a massive flanking maneuver deep into Iraqi territory.

That flanking maneuver was what Schwarzkopf would later call his "Hail Mary play."

On the streets above the command bunker, meanwhile, the machinery of war kept rolling north. Toward the Saudi border with Kuwait. Toward the Saudi border with Iraq.

Tanks. Armored personnel carriers. Howitzers. Rocket launchers. Missiles.

Relentlessly, the clock was ticking down.

THE HOME FRONT

It was all so maddeningly open-ended, maybe war, maybe not, maybe sooner, maybe later. Now that the United Nations had set a deadline, the Iraqis had 47 days to clear out of Kuwait. And if they didn't, then pow!

But what would "pow" mean, Donna Langlois wondered. Was her son Marc, a Marine corporal, going to end up dead in a desert halfway around the world? The whole darned thing confused her. Sure, we couldn't let that awful Saddam Hussein get away with overrunning a little country. Yet, was that the real issue? If instead it was some dispute about oil, well then let him keep the oil. She'd keep her son.

Days passed. "There was like a big clock ticking in my head," she said. "Everyone felt it. As the time got close, people would come up to me and pat my hand like they were at a funeral, telling me, 'Donna, I just don't know what to say.' "

Hope would surface from time to time. Diplomats hurried to Baghdad. Saddam released his "human shields." The know-it-alls on TV said the Iraqis were just driving a hard bargain. Who really knew? She was tired of it all. Some days she drove to the beach from her home in Coral Springs, Fla. She'd see young men playing volleyball. How dare you! she wanted to shout. How can you enjoy yourself when others are in harm's way?

She was crazy with worry. "The deadline was getting closer, and my life was like in slow motion," she said. Plenty of others were in the same fix. Parents of servicemen and women met once a week at the hospital where Langlois, 45, works. There were rallies and parades. "At times, it was almost like a party, everyone sending goodies to the Gulf."

She could joke about the mess being left in the desert, with so many school kids sending shoe boxes of stuff to the soldiers. The entire Middle East was probably filling up with broken crayons and moldy raisins. But joking did not stop the fear. Jan. 15 was closing in. Her Marine son was 21, and her three other children were 20, 17 and 14. They were all tense and preoccupied. When was the killing finally going to start?

There was an anti-war movement again this time around. Shades of Vietnam. Like the Iraqi army, the movement was said to be a tough opponent.

With six months to prepare, peace groups at first seemed successful in bringing disparate agendas and constituencies together: social justice, the environment, education, AIDS. The movement had tough questions for George Bush, who, to them, seemed to have tinkered with the lyrics to a Vietnam-era anthem. Wasn't he really saying: Give war a chance?

What's the rush? they wanted to know. And why spend billions to liberate a tiny emirate that most people had never even heard of? What about the problems right here in America? This seemed a rich, white people's war. Blacks and Latinos were overrepresented in the armed forces. The same people redlined by the nation's ruling elite were on the front lines when it came to battle.

"No blood for oil!" became the battle cry.

And, indeed, the nation was divided. Drawing a line in the sand was one thing, the polls suggested, but crossing it was another. Many wanted to give economic sanctions more time. And there were still other issues. The Kuwaitis, for one. Polished, suave Sheik Saud al Nasir al Sabah, Kuwait's ambassador to the United States, carried the Kuwaiti message to a banquet one night at a Beverly Hills hotel.

He spoke of murder, rapes, torture and looting by the Iraqis. And he spoke of his people's gratitude to the United States.

A 16-year-old Belmont High School student stood up. He said his name was Hoatran. Just Hoatran. He was the son of Cambodian refugees. And he had a question. Why, he wanted to know, should Americans fight to restore a monarchy that wouldn't let women vote?

Noticing that the young man had his question on a note card, the Kuwaiti sheik responded with silken scorn: "The question was written very eloquently for you to read." He paused for effect. Then he added: The United Nations recognized his government. And about letting women vote? "It's for the Kuwaiti people to decide, not for others to dictate."

Next question.

But that was the question. One diner shook Hoatran's hand: "You asked the right question, man." A Kuwaiti woman stepped forward to say that her countrywomen would get the vote without any help from Saddam Hussein.

Vice President Dan Quayle carried the Adminstration's case for war to a Town Hall luncheon in Los Angeles. About 100 anti-war protesters picketed as scores of police, several on horseback, stood guard. One demonstrator mocked Quayle's Vietnam-era National Guard service with a sign: "Dan Quayle: Draft Dodger, War Monger."

But it was an uphill effort.

Time and again, Quayle's speech was greeted with applause.

Twice he was interrupted by protesters, who were quickly ushered out by banquet officials. One was a black minister who, shouting as he was led to the door, noted than Jan. 15 was also the birth date of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"The 15th is Dr. King's birthday! It should be a day for peace! Say no to war! No to war!"

When the luncheon was over, disabled Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, balding and mustachioed, shouted from his wheelchair that war would be a disaster and that it could be avoided.

A few luncheon guests shouted back: "Do you like Saddam Hussein? Do you like Hitler too?"

Even so, it looked for a while, at least, like the anti-war movement might make its mark. From the pulpit of his wheelchair, Kovic became Los Angeles' Pied Piper of peace. The man whose autobiography inspired the film "Born on the Fourth of July" carried a well-thumbed book of writings by King.

Kovic preached tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience.

The best way to support the troops, he said, was to bring them home.

"Peace is patriotic!" Thousands stood and cheered. Men came forward to shake his hand. Women kissed his cheeks.

Thousands more rallied in Los Angeles, waving signs and lighting candles. A popular chant linked two crises, the one in the Persian Gulf and the one at savings and loan institutions from sea to shining sea: "Send George Bush/Send Dan Quayle/Send Neil Bush/When he gets out of jail!" You'll see, the protesters said. Just wait until the body bags come home.

They rallied at the Federal Building downtown. They blocked Los Angeles Street for hours in a standoff with police.

When a counterdemonstrator appeared, holding aloft Old Glory and urging support for the troops, the crowd surged.

"Burn it! Burn it! Burn it!" a few protesters chanted.

But then a new chant won the moment: "What do we want? PEACE! When do we want it? NOW!"

Old Glory was spared.

Tens of thousands demonstrated in San Francisco. Their march stretched for blocks. It snaked through the city and shut down the Bay Bridge for two hours.

As the deadline crept still nearer, others suddenly--desperately--came forward to oppose a war. These were Iraqi immigrants and political exiles, worry etched on their brows. For months, they said, they had been quiet. They feared not only anti-Iraqi scorn but also Saddam Hussein's ability to hurt their relatives back home.

They hated Saddam, too, they said, but now they realized their homeland--and this meant their families--would pay the horrible price. It never should have come to this. Why did the United States support Saddam for so long?

Why didn't America help the Iraqi resistance? Didn't President Bush say, over and over again, that America had no quarrel with the Iraqi people?

But the hours flew. The U.N. deadline drew ever nearer. Some thought they could see it: war.

KUWAIT CITY

The Iraqis who occupied Kuwait grew visibly nervous.

There were no signs that a pullout was imminent; to the contrary, checkpoints around Kuwait city were increased. Bridges across major roadways were closed. The seaside corniche was closed, and Iraqi troops dug fortified bunkers into the sand, stringing vicious-looking barbed wire, mines and sharp metal obstacles through the surf.

Houses looking out onto major avenues became mini-fortresses, their windows covered over with concrete blocks except for tiny gun windows in the center. Antiaircraft batteries were set up on top of buildings. A 5 p.m. curfew was imposed, and electricity was cut off a few days before the Jan. 15 deadline.

Meanwhile, the Kuwaitis prepared themselves too.

They taped over windows to prevent injuries from shattering glass; built safe rooms in their basement, stocked with water and food supplies; sealed cracks to keep out any poison gas.

To walk down the streets in this city was to feel a sense of nervous anticipation. It was palpable. Almost everyone stayed home, afraid of harassment--or worse--if they ventured out among the Iraqi occupiers.

They debated over back walls and during discreet visits with their closest neighbors:

Would the Americans do it? Would they come through? Yes, argued some, a deadline had been set, Bush seemed determined, the Iraqis would either have to withdraw or die. No, said others, America and the allies were losing their will, Bush had too much to lose if the war didn't go well, weapons manufacturers were interested in prolonging the conflict--not ending it.

Then there was the debate over what Saddam Hussein was going to do.

"Some guy said, 'I'll shave half of my mustache if he withdraws,' " recalled Tareq al Mazidi, a banker. "Another guy said, 'I'll shave all of my beard and half of my eyebrows if he withdraws.' "

MOSCOW

Soviet diplomats said that until the final moment, Iraqi officials doubted that Bush would attack.

In a relaxed conversation, Alexander M. Belonogov, a deputy foreign minister, put it this way: "There was a total lack of comprehension of what was at stake and what devastation a war would bring to their own country.

"It was a sheer denial of reality."

With a week to go before Jan. 15, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev called Bush and said he was ready to send a special envoy to Baghdad for a final effort at peace. Bush agreed in their telephone conversation, according to Yevgeny M. Primakov, the Soviet president's foreign policy adviser, in his detailed account in Pravda. But Bush later told Alexander A. Bessmertynkh, who was then the Soviet ambassador to Washington, that the only goal must be Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait.

This left too little room for maneuver, the Kremlin felt, and no envoy was sent.

At 1 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 17, the telephone rang at Bessmertynkh's apartment in central Moscow. He had returned home late after his third day in his new job as Soviet foreign minister. It was James A. Baker III, the U.S. secretary of state, calling from Washington. Baker's message was simple, brief, expected.

U.S. forces would commence their attack on Iraq in an hour's time.

With that alert, the Kremlin undertook a dramatic, 11th-hour appeal to Saddam to avert a conflict that Moscow had come to believe could spread quickly and unpredictably through the Middle East, setting back peace efforts in the entire region for perhaps a decade.

Bessmertnykh awakened Gorbachev at his suburban dacha .

Within minutes, the Soviet foreign minister called Baker back. He asked permission to tell Saddam that the attack was imminent and this was his last chance.

"We had no moral right to disclose the information we had received in confidence from the American side, but we felt a final appeal was essential," Belonogov recalled in his conversation. "President Gorbachev wanted to consult directly with President Bush, but there was only time for a second conversation between our foreign minister and Secretary of State Baker."

With U.S. warplanes airborne and nearing their targets, Gorbachev's appeal to Saddam was quickly formulated and transmitted to the Soviet Embassy in Baghdad. It was shortly after 2 a.m. Moscow time.

The Soviet ambassador, Viktor Posuvalyuk, alerted by Moscow, was standing by. He tried to reach senior Iraqi officials, but with little success.

By the time Posuvalyuk made contact, the first American bombs were falling.

In a mission of futility, the ambassador carried Gorbachev's message through the shrieking, pre-dawn bombardment to a Baghdad command bunker sheltering Tarik Aziz, the Iraqi foreign minister.

According to the message Posuvalyuk delivered, to be given to Saddam Hussein with U.S. agreement, was the following:

"If Iraqi troops withdraw from Kuwait, no one will attack Iraq, its security will be guaranteed and it can preserve its economic and other potential. After the withdrawal from Kuwait, the path to launch a mechanism for Middle East settlement will be open."

But it was too late.

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