The conventional wisdom in the West is that a war against Iraq would be relatively swift: a brief interval of awe-striking U.S. and British bombing; a juggernaut invasion by armor fitted with the latest in weaponry; airborne troops swooping down on key installations; many Iraqis rising up against their government and the Iraqi army and Republican Guard tripping over one another to surrender or desert.
But for all of the U.S. military's technological superiority, many Iraqis -- in government offices and in the streets -- foresee a more difficult battle awaiting the allies.
They believe that their nation has something going for it that could prevent such an easy victory: Iraqi troops, civilians and ruling Baath Party activists would be fighting an invader on their own ground for their own homes and families and, at senior levels of the regime, for their very existence.
If resistance can survive the initial shock of the bombardment and land-and-air assault, these Iraqis reason, they may be able to inflict high casualties and force allied troops into urban warfare. Over time, they believe, they could subject U.S. and British soldiers to stubborn sniping, sabotage and other forms of harassment, bringing about a Vietnam-style quagmire that Iraq could conceivably win.
According to sources in Baghdad and military analysts abroad, the Iraqi armed forces likely would try to be fleet and spread out, having learned to avoid concentrating troops in the open or on military bases that present easy targets from the air. After the initial bombardments, they would try to disperse to civilian areas, retreating from large swaths of territory in the north and south -- possibly leaving behind scorched earth in the form of blown bridges and flaming oil fields -- until they reach Baghdad.
Defensive rings have been built around the city, one diplomat here noted. If the expected force of more than 200,000 British and U.S. soldiers is drawn into urban warfare, Iraqis believe that they can contest Baghdad, street by street and block by block, in a war of small arms, heavy machine guns and mortar shells.
To the world, which would likely see much of the fighting on television, it would seem a David vs. Goliath struggle. And the Iraqis surely are aware of how that biblical battle ended.
So far, the assumption of U.S. military planners has been that the Iraqi people are sufficiently ambivalent about President Saddam Hussein to be unwilling to sacrifice their lives for his regime, so that resistance would start to collapse as soon as an allied victory seems inevitable.
However, Iraq is an old, proud country with a long tradition of opposing foreign domination, especially by non-Muslims. There's a chance that many citizens would resist, viewing U.S. and British troops as occupiers rather than liberators.
In theory, Iraq could field an army of 350,000 troops, along with 2,600 Soviet-era battle tanks, 2,100 artillery pieces and hundreds of rocket launchers and surface-to-surface missiles, albeit all technologically inferior to what the U.S. and Britain possess.
Anger Over Sanctions
The stiffest troop resistance is expected to come from six Republican Guard divisions and the four elite brigades of the Special Republican Guards, which also would guard against civil unrest or coup attempts. The regular army is the worst equipped and in poor morale, Western analysts say. Iraq's small air force is not expected to be a factor.
If all else fails, some Western analysts believe that the Iraqi regime could use any chemical or biological weapons it managed to hide from arms inspectors or even the few dozen Scud missiles that it is believed to still possess against Israel or American troops in Kuwait. U.S.-led forces could be slowed by the mere threat of such attacks, analysts agree. Few Iraqis, even those privately critical of their leader, express faith in the Bush administration's assurances that the U.S. aims are only to remove Hussein's regime from power, eliminate its alleged weapons of mass destruction and bring democracy and human rights to this nation.
Rather, still bitter over a dozen years of sanctions, they tend to share the view widespread among Arabs that this would be an avoidable war instigated for America's own interests, with the real goals of curtailing their country's sovereignty, weakening Arab opposition to Israel and controlling the region's oil wealth.
"There is only one reason they are coming, and it is in the ground," a government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Such views are one reason why Iraqis feel that they are in the right and are ready to fight, argues Mohammed Mudheffar Adhami, chairman of political science at Baghdad University, who believes that Iraq might prevail in spite of significant disadvantages.
In Adhami's view, the allies might enter Iraq only to find themselves in quicksand: burdened by unreliable allies in the region; undercut by anti-American demonstrations across the Middle East and Europe; their troops forced to inflict suffering and casualties on Iraqi civilians, which in turn would put the U.S. government on the defensive.
All the while, he said, allied troops -- faced with an armed population -- would absorb higher casualties than in other recent conflicts. Adhami predicted that American politicians would turn back from war as those casualties mount.
"Really, it would be difficult" to take over Iraq, Adhami insisted. "The nation of Iraqis, they do like foreigners but they do not like to be governed by foreigners." The prospective allied force is not large enough to win out in a country slightly larger than California with a geography that includes desert, mountains and marshes, he asserted.
In northern Iraq, he argued, U.S. troops would be burdened by the unreliability of their Kurdish allies, who may have separate agendas, either to fight any Turkish forces that might enter the north under U.S. command, or to seize the oil center of Kirkuk.
In addition, the Turkish parliament's vote last week -- if it stands -- not to allow the country's bases to be used by the U.S. military for an attack on Iraq could mean a smaller allied presence in the north, leaving those troops more vulnerable to a counteroffensive.
In southern Iraq, the U.S. should not count on uprisings among Shiite Muslims, Adhami argued, citing the last heavy U.S. bombing of Iraq in 1998, which did not ignite any significant unrest.
Iraq's military preparations for this fight have taken place mainly outside the view of foreign journalists, but there are many signs that both the military and civilians are girding for a battle.
Governors who met last month with Hussein informed him that they were forming "holy war" squads and commando units to hunt allied helicopters. Iraqi army tanks and heavy artillery are occasionally spotted moving on roads outside Baghdad. Antiaircraft batteries are visible atop government buildings. U.S. sources reported last week that elements of the Republican Guard were moving south from the city of Mosul to the area around Tikrit, the home city of Hussein and much of the governing elite. Iraqis, most of whom are interviewed in the presence of the government "minders" who accompany foreign journalists, almost universally put on a brave face when discussing the prospect of war, expressing faith in their nation's chances.
A puzzled look crossed the face of Maan Bunni, a 35-year-old engineer, when asked at Baghdad's booksellers market last week whether he could imagine U.S. soldiers patrolling the teeming bazaar a month from now. "If that were to happen, it would mean that we were all already dead," he finally answered.
At recent military parades in Tikrit and Mosul, reporters were shown tens of thousands of troops and volunteers armed with Kalashnikov rifles, mortar shells, rocket launchers and heavy machine guns, all chanting and swearing fidelity to the Iraqi government at all costs.
Unlike in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Iraqi ground forces were routed in 100 hours -- allied warplanes destroyed hundreds of tanks and vehicles and killed at least 200 Iraqi soldiers in one battle along the "road of death" outside Kuwait City -- "this time we are ready," claimed Fouad Adel, a student at the Tikrit College of Education. "We are strong now ... I think we will kill anyone who comes here."
An insight into how the Iraqis plan to fight the war could be gleaned from a visit Friday to the village of Abu Srewel, 20 miles north of Baghdad, where residents have been issued machine guns and ordered to dig defensive trenches by the local Arab Baath Socialist Party.
U.S. troops "will come here from the north, and my task is to stop them here," declared Nahzan Khalifa Jamil, 35, a father of seven boys and two girls. "I have a Kalashnikov in my home and God on my side. And the party promised to give me more guns and ammunition once the fighting begins.
"I and my sons will all die, but we will not let the Americans into or past my house," added the burly truck driver, who said he has instructed his sons, ages 10 to 18, in handling the weapons.
Villagers said they have been told to show up for twice-a-week training, attended by all males 10 years and older. Residents are exhorted at their village mosque to fight "the Americans and the Jews," and their spirits seem high. Bolstering the spirit is the belief common among Iraqis that, whatever the sins of their government in the past, this time it has done nothing wrong and that it is the U.S. and Britain pushing for war against the wishes of most of the world. Peace demonstrations in the West dominate Iraqi news broadcasts, as does the presence in Baghdad of Western activists willing to serve as human shields, adding to a perception that the world is on Iraq's side.
A few Western scholars also think that the war could at least be prolonged by Iraqi tactics -- even if many citizens turn against the Hussein regime.
If the coalition forces reach Baghdad, predicts Toby Dodge, a leading British expert on Iraq at Warwick University, Hussein loyalists will try to draw the soldiers into street fighting reminiscent of the traumatic U.S. experience in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, in 1993.
"Caught between a potentially hostile population bent on revenge and an invading army bent on regime change, those fighting alongside [the Iraqi leadership] will have little choice but to remain loyal to the end," Dodge wrote in a recent article for the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"The result could be the worst-case scenario for U.S. military planners: an organized, committed and disciplined force with nowhere to go, defending a highly populated urban area. In front of the world's media, U.S. troops would have the unenviable task of distinguishing these forces from the wider innocent civilian population."
Of course, in any hard-nosed tally of military hardware, Iraq comes up far short. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has cited the "vastly more powerful" U.S. forces in arguing that a war in Iraq most probably would be over in a matter of weeks. Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East security expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based research organization, doesn't rule out a surprising level of resistance but maintains that a swift allied victory is still the most likely outcome.
"It is not a highly skilled Iraqi resistance," he said in a telephone interview. "It is not a brilliant force. It has not been resupplied in a decade. It has virtually no air cover. It has no modern intelligence."
Cordesman believes, however, that there are many imponderables.
"The question is how much of the public rises up for Saddam, how many of the troops will remain loyal, how many can escape into Baghdad. We can't answer a single one of these questions," he said. "We might find out all the people who feel this will be a quick and decisive war are correct. But no one can afford to plan on it."
Adhami, for one, doesn't think in terms of surrender. At the end of an interview, the political scientist motioned a reporter into a small room off his office. There he had stockpiled rice, dates, kerosene lanterns and stoves, bottled water and other supplies for himself and his small staff.
A point to remember, he said, is that Iraqis have had plenty of warning.
Reminded that most analysts abroad hold that Iraq could not withstand what might be coming, he shrugged, and said, "Let them come. We will see."
Times staff writers Michael Slackman in Cairo, Sebastian Rotella in Paris and Janet Stobart in London contributed to this report along with special correspondent Sergei L. Loiko.