Iraqis Prepare to Hunker Down
Expecting war as early as this weekend, ex-soccer star Khaled Hadi -- like many in this city -- had things to do and people to see.
For Hadi, 41, those things included packing up the contents of his silver shop in one of the city’s best-known bazaars and spiriting them to his home.
“I don’t want to leave all my treasures to Ali Baba,” he said Wednesday, referring to the wily thief of “One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.” “I don’t want Ali Baba to steal my treasure again.”
During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he said, looters took advantage of the confusion to rampage through the souk. “I don’t want to make the same mistake again.”
Amid fears that war is just days away, people here are stocking up on rice, buying generators and kerosene lamps, and storing gasoline. Some are trying to get passports so that they can make a quick exit. Baath Party volunteers are digging trenches and filling sandbags all over the city. Families are drilling wells to ensure a supply of water if bombing disables the water system.
The government, too, is getting ready. In one move sure to bolster popular support, it announced Thursday that the last of Iraqi prisoners in Iranian prisons would be freed. In exchange, Iraq agreed to free all of its Iranian prisoners. The swap, involving 349 Iranians and 941 Iraqis, including some held since the two countries’ 1980-88 war, is supposed to take place next week.
Although no one knows exactly when a war might begin, there has been a noticeable rise in tensions over the past few days, based on the Iraqis’ reading of maneuverings at the U.N. Security Council. With the United States and Britain apparently in a diplomatic cul-de-sac in their quest for support for a new U.N. resolution on Iraqi disarmament, many here worry that President Bush will give up and go straight to war.
That prospect disturbed one haggard-looking man outside the passport office here Wednesday. He said he had obtained passports for his wife and son, allowing them to leave for Syria, but had not yet received one for himself.
“I bought their passports through a friend -- cost me $200 each. If I had gone about it officially, it would have been free but it could have taken me weeks if not months,” said the man, who would not give his name.
He said he was frantic to get his passport because he feared the war might start Saturday, after the Ashura holiday sacred to Shiite Muslims.
“They promised it today but said there was some delay. They said after the holidays. I am afraid I won’t have it before time runs out. And then I may not be able to see my family.”
Hadi, the silver dealer, was nervous too. “There are two days of holidays and then comes Saturday, and after that Satan will start the bombing,” he predicted, holding a beautiful silver vase that he said was worth $1,500.
“Of course, I am not so afraid of bombs as of Ali Babas! So this had better stay in my house, like the rest of this stuff. At least at home I have a Kalashnikov.”
Souhad Raad, a mother whose four children are all younger than 6, said she had obtained the usual: candles, kerosene and extra food. But, anticipating the terror her children would feel at the dropping of bombs, she also found a pharmacist who would sell her Valium for the two girls and two boys, “so they can sleep.”
She and her husband plan to stay in their two-bedroom home, fearing that public bomb shelters might be hit by the Americans, as happened at the Amariya shelter in 1991.
“We hope God will protect us,” said the 28-year-old homemaker, who cried softly as she made tea for visitors. “We are trying not to think about what we may endure.”
One man benefiting from the fears was Ali Abu Abdullah, a shopkeeper who in January invested in equipment to drill wells in people’s yards. “We’ve dug almost 100 wells in two months,” charging about $35 a well, he said. In a country where $100 a month is a very good salary, the cost is significant.
Others have been digging foxholes. On Thursday, 57-year-old Abbas Khamza headed a crew of volunteers digging bunkers in southwest Baghdad. Using picks to scratch at the rock-hard soil of a field where hundreds of children were playing soccer, the workers made slow progress. The foxholes were about 2 yards square, each big enough to hold four fighters, and the dug-up earth was used to fill sandbags.
“We are going to dig lots of holes like this, every 200 yards,” said Khamza, a Baath Party activist. “And we will dig day and night.”
Daniszewski is a Times staff writer and Loiko a special correspondent.