Fear and Loathing in Baghdad

Times Staff Writer

It was a day everyone knew would come, yet somehow it fell with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

With President Bush's ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq within 48 hours, the uneasy normality that had prevailed in this capital disappeared Tuesday, as if swept away by the fierce windstorm that howled through the city.

Ashen-faced and on the edge of frantic, the men and women of Baghdad looked to the days ahead with dread, wondering how -- and if -- they will come out of a war.

"The Americans lay down such ridiculous conditions," said 39-year-old Ahmad Hassan, who was taking a break from emptying the tire store he manages, in an attempt to prevent looting during the war. "They know such demands cannot be fulfilled. They simply want to have their war by any means possible.

"It is impossible for our president to go," he said. "Nor would we allow him."

As heavy machine guns sprouted on the roofs of government buildings and sandbag bunkers appeared randomly everywhere, even in front of monuments and statues, pro-Hussein demonstrations erupted around Baghdad, organized by the ruling Baath Socialist Party.

The largest rally was in suburban Mansour, home to many of the city's Baath Party elite as well as embassies and impressive diplomatic residences spread out along its palm-lined lanes. In the crowd, members of the Baath Party youth wing brandished Kalashnikov rifles, and, more unusually, middle-aged and elderly women held up pistols as they chanted that they would give their lives for President Hussein.

One woman, Aliya Ali, 48, came with her 10-year-old granddaughter, Tamara, who stood in front imitating the grown-ups' shouts and fist-waving.

"Yes, we will fight," Ali said over the din.

Numerous such demonstrations have been put together by the authorities in recent weeks as the crisis with the United States mounted, but this one seemed to have a new passion connected with the knowledge that the hours were indeed counting down.

"This is our answer toward Bush," said one party member, Gilan Jamil. "We sacrifice ourselves for our president."

Mohammed Fayak, 59, was carrying a Kalashnikov that he said he had bought when he was 19 and which had seen action in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. He said he was eager to use it again to defend his country, although he emphasized his wish for peace, "not only for us but for the whole world."

Interviews like his suggested that Bush made little headway with the people here when the U.S. president spoke about his hopes for Iraq.

When Bush speaks about removing the "tyrant" and bringing democracy to Iraq, people here hear it as American bombast. The United States may have a number of motives for its 12-year campaign against Hussein, they believe, but interest in the well-being of the Iraqi people is not chief among them.

Instead, they see the real U.S. agenda as twofold: securing control over Iraq's oil wealth and redrawing the strategic map of the Middle East to make it more palatable for the United States.

And they scarcely believe that it is happening. How could a military superpower like the United States want to launch a preemptive strike on a Third World country thousands of miles away for what Iraqis see as a flimsy, made-up and discredited excuse: the fear that Iraq might have hidden stores of weapons that threaten America?

An older man outside the Mr. Milk grocery store in Mansour was dismissive of Bush's rationale for war: "They keep changing the reason. Now it's that the president must go."

Around him, people rushed to tie up loose ends -- changing money, taping windows, checking food supplies, buying candles and lanterns. He had bought only one head of lettuce and was worried that it would spoil if the bombing interrupted electricity.

"They will destroy us from the roof to the ground, so what is the use?" he said of the rush of shopping going on around him.

Like many Iraqis, he had heard excerpts of Bush's address on foreign radio broadcasts when he woke up.

"It is all rubbish," he said, asking to be identified only as a man living on $2 a month, the worth of his state pension, thanks to a plunge in the value of the Iraqi dinar. (Because of the impending war and the demand for hard currency, the exchange rate soared to 2,950 dinars to the dollar Tuesday from 2,300 a few days earlier.)

A few miles away downtown, a diminutive luggage-store owner, white-haired with a neat mustache, stood among his suitcases and duffel bags on the sidewalk of Sadoun Street, one of Baghdad's commercial thoroughfares. Two customers were in his store, picking out a couple of enormous suitcases, perhaps planning their flight.

But realizing that he had an American in front of him, the shop owner -- who identified himself only as Karim -- turned his back on his clients and instead launched into a rant.

"Do you know how I see it?" he said in rusty English. "Bush, he is the drummer. [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair makes the music. And [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon is directing the band.

"What do they want from us?" he asked. "We don't know exactly. This is our country. This is our land. We can protect our country as we like. I was living for 20 years in Europe. I know how Western people think about us. They believe that we have things, that we have wealth that we don't deserve."

He said Europeans went to the Americas and wiped out the native people to get their wealth. Now they want to come to the Arab world to do the same thing.

"It is not honest. You killed 30 million Indians to get what they had. Now you want to kill 300 million Arabic people to get our petroleum.

"You are thieves," he said. "Please, let us keep something of our country."


Special correspondent Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.

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