Bush Speech Falls on Skeptical Ears

Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD -- When President Bush told Iraqis in his State of the Union speech that Saddam Hussein is their enemy, many answered Wednesday that their enemy is in Washington, not Baghdad.

When Bush appealed to Iraqis for support, saying that the "success of our cause will depend on you," they stared back blankly.

And when Bush said that Hussein had missed his final chance to deliver up banned weapons -- issuing the clearest sign yet that war is imminent -- they responded by digging into a deep reserve of pride.

"Who accepts that America or any other foreigners interfere in our affairs?" asked Safah Rahim, a 26-year-old medical assistant.

Whatever the Iraqi people think of their president -- and in many cases that can only be inferred -- they say they will view the arrival of U.S. troops as an invasion rather than the liberation that Bush promised them. They are highly suspicious of U.S. motives in Iraq.

"Do you really think Bush is spending millions of American dollars just for the Iraqi people?" asked Ahmed Ghassan, 19, a dental student. "He wants a war to control everything. Iraq is rich in oil, and it is a fulcrum for the Middle East. If he can control this point, he can have access to Iran and the [Persian] Gulf."

Hussein continues to show defiance.

"If they believe their illusion [and attack Iraq], by God, America will be hurt," the Iraqi leader was shown on state television Wednesday telling a group of military officers.

"When we talk to the Americans in this way, we are not afraid of evil, but we are trying to avoid it, to drive it away," he said. "But when evil is determined, God willing, we break its neck in Iraq."

In the last few weeks, Iraqis have been stocking up on food, storing water and digging wells to prepare for war. Some of the 5 million residents of Baghdad have been making plans to send their families out of the capital to safety in the countryside. Others have been buying weapons.

Whether average Iraqis will use those weapons to fight for or against the government -- or just to protect their homes -- remains to be seen. Many say they will fight against "imperial America," or against the "colonizers." But when asked who, really, can stand up to the overwhelming military and technological power of the United States, they shrug in resignation.

"Some people say Bush will use all his weapons in this," said a 70-year-old retiree who stopped at the Al Zahawi tea house in central Baghdad. "If this is what America wants, what can we do?"

Western diplomats believe that, after more than 20 years of war and U.N. economic sanctions, Iraqi civilians will not have the will to fight for the regime. They say people are tired of being poor when they know the land beneath their feet is oil-rich.

But Iraqis blame the United States more than their own government for their poverty. They have been humiliated by the American policy of battering Iraq, diplomats say, and will not necessarily support a U.S. assault to oust Hussein.

"They are waiting to be liberated, but they are not seeing Americans as liberators," said a Western diplomat who asked not to be identified.

The Iraqis gathered at the Al Zahawi did not talk of liberation. Beneath the omnipresent portrait of Hussein, they read their newspapers, played backgammon and spoke of U.S. "disinformation" on Iraq. They said they hoped for help from God or for a last-minute diplomatic solution to save the country from war.

The cafe's arched windows overlook the columns and porticoes of old Rashid Street, where vendors hawk dates, pomegranates and gold-framed pictures of Hussein. Some customers said they wanted to escape politics, to read books or play the guitar or enjoy a smoke, and not to think of war; others were eager to speak about the Bush speech they had heard on Radio Monte Carlo and the BBC Arabic service, and to seek the opinion of others on the likelihood of war.

When asked what would happen if the U.S. military deposed Hussein and who would rule, customers found the questions unfathomable, or unanswerable.

"We hope there is no war, but if there is a war, it is the hour. We are ready," said Adeeb Louai, 43, a volunteer in the military.

"I believe they cannot exile him. They cannot defeat him," said Munguth Dabagh, 50, a medical appliances salesman.

More than half of all Iraqis are younger than 30 and haven't known any leader but Hussein.

"There is a saying in Iraq, 'Let the baker make the bread,' " said Ghassan, the dental student. "Saddam Hussein is the most experienced. He is the leader of the party, the most qualified. He is Iraqi. So give the government to the leader."

That clearly is not the answer Bush was hoping to hear.

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