An Ancient City, Bracing for War, Lives in Moment

Times Staff Writer

When dusk falls on the Tigris River in old Baghdad, the street lights glint off its steely surface and the motorboat skiffs that ferry workers back and forth tie up for the evening. It is a moment of stillness and calm, a pause before the great events that most people here sense are just around the corner.

"Sometimes after work I just sit here," said Amin Badi, a 29-year-old presser, perching on a small stone wall and watching life on the river shut down, soaking in the melancholy of another spent day.

"It's natural to feel sad. If there is a war, no one will feel happy. You will not find a better place than Iraq," he said, his voice trailing off.

For Iraqis, who feel that they have been living in a quasi-permanent state of war for more than two decades, these days are measured by the news that crackles over the radio every evening. When a report comes that the United States plans to drop 3,000 bombs on the first day of the expected conflict, people begin to look to their storerooms and buy extra kerosene lamps. When chief weapons inspector Hans Blix reports at the U.N. Security Council that Iraq is doing better in terms of its compliance, people breathe easier and begin to hope that maybe war will not happen after all.

This is a city that exists in a kind of suspension between normality and abnormality, with people simultaneously in denial that war is imminent and taking precautions learned from experience -- digging private wells for when the water pipes are broken and stocking up on rice and dates for when it is unsafe to go outside.

Because war has been more or less a constant in their lives, people have a grim and rather fatalistic view of it. That may explain why there are few signs of panic and people keep going to their jobs and schools, building homes, getting married and attending soccer matches as though nothing special was afoot.

Talk -- sometimes stronger, other times milder -- of war with the United States has been going on since 1991, Badi pointed out. "It is like a tape recording that keeps replaying," he said. "We get used to it."

Many people do tire of thinking of war, though, and just wish that the whole topic would go away. For them, it's like a chronic ache that intrudes on their lives in subtle ways.

An Iraqi man riding on one of the boats was asked if people ever go out on the Tigris for floating celebrations in the evening like Egyptians do on the Nile.

"Well, we used to do such things," he answered. "But since the war, we don't think about it anymore. It would not be appropriate. Our eids and celebrations are not as enthusiastic as they used to be."

And people realize that even if any looming war is short, they face more misery: Children will be traumatized by the sounds of explosions. Mothers and fathers will have to pretend not to be afraid. Inevitably, some innocent Iraqis will die. That reality often is reflected in the bitterness that lies just beneath the surface in conversations when the topic is the United States.

"I consider Mr. Bush as a joke," said Badi, a newlywed whose monthly take-home pay is less than $15. He works at a small clothing factory at the end of River Street in the oldest part of Baghdad, just down the embankment from the 13th century Mustansiriya School, a center of learning for the medieval Arab world.

Badi, born in Iraq to Palestinian refugee parents and who holds an Iraqi passport, says he would willingly blow himself up to help Iraq. Using the secular term for someone who will sacrifice himself, he declared: "I am a fedayeen who would give his soul for Saddam Hussein, and it is not just talk. That is my reality."

Most Iraqis are not so grim. At the cafes of old Baghdad, people still gather to gossip and pass the time: playing backgammon, smoking their water pipes and listening to Iraqi folk songs or the music of the late Egyptian songbird Umm Kulthum.

From his hole-in-the-wall barbershop just off Rasheed Street, 68-year-old Rasoul Jazari snips hair every day just as he has since 1947, and he laughed merrily when a visitor observed that he had hardly any gray.

He hopes that the problems between Iraq and the United States will go away and suggests that Americans have a distorted image of his nation. "Maybe they have been told some bad things [about Hussein] by the Iraqi opposition," he said. "But they should come here and see for themselves.... People are people, not governments."

Issam Taha, 42, the co-owner of the factory where Badi works, also projects a mood of hopefulness, as if Iraq is going to come out all right. He studied in Wales in the early 1980s and went to the United States as a tourist, retaining fond memories of his time abroad as well as a good command of English.

Americans, he said, should understand that Iraqis are moderate and only want to be left in peace. "America is America, and Iraq is Iraq," he said.

"Here in Iraq, we respect foreigners. We believe in Islam, and we do not believe in [Osama] bin Laden. We are not Afghanistan. Our women can work and walk around the city."

Calling for tea for his unexpected visitors, Taha pointed out the lines of men hunched over sewing machines making women's dresses under bright fluorescent lights.

"Look, everything is normal here," he said. "Even if Bush attacks tomorrow, they would still come to work."

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