In this capital rocked by bombings and the constant echoes of air-defense fire, where most normal business has been stilled by war, an unusual convention took place over the last three days that provided insight into how President Saddam Hussein hoped to win his battle against the U.S.-led coalition.
About 300 long-robed sheiks, some coming from as far away as Mosul in the north and Basra in the south, were drawn by long-cultivated obligations of fealty and state patronage to receive official instructions on how the estimated tens of thousands of rural tribesmen in Iraq should resist and harry the allied forces now marching on Baghdad.
The sheiks mostly arrived in their own cars -- dust-covered Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs. Most had a pistol tucked somewhere inside their robes and an entourage of similarly armed aides and close relatives.
The conference took place at a small downtown hotel. Foreign journalists were not admitted, but the sheiks and their followers sometimes crowded the street and parking lot outside, where they boasted of the shooting ability of their fighters and bragged that they already have harassed and bedeviled U.S. troops in the south, west and north of the country.
"I have 2,000 men under my command who can shoot and fight. They already took part in five days of fighting," said Sabri Turki, 45, from Karbala, who identified himself as a sheik of the Al Boamer tribe, one of the largest in Iraq.
"I lost some men, but their families know they fought like heroes and are proud," he said. "The Americans did not expect us to fight."
Rejecting conventional warfare, he and other tribal leaders unabashedly said they have relied partly on surprise and deception -- approaching the Americans and the British in native costume, looking like ordinary farmers and herders.
And although their tribes are a throwback to another century, they said that their arms are not primitive: They have received guns and ammunition from Hussein's Baath Party, along with instructions that they should give their opponents no rest.
The coalition has been trying to woo tribal leaders away from Hussein's government, according to some sketchy reports. But appeals based on Islam, patriotism and Arab solidarity, and years of patronage in the form of money, foodstuffs, seed and jobs, seem so far to have cemented the loyalty of most of them to the ruling Baath Party.
Despite the coalition's technological edge, the sheiks claim that their fighters' skills and guerrilla tactics are becoming a factor impeding the advance. U.S. and British troops who were preparing to confront elite Republican Guard troops and regular army units now have had to contend with nettlesome armed civilians as well, they said.
Iraq has long tried to encourage the myth of its fighting tribesmen, whose bravado is so ingrained that it becomes difficult to separate bluster from reality. State television (when it functioned normally before the war) featured films and dramas of their derring-do. And last week, news reports here made a hero of Ali Obeid, an Iraqi farmer who -- if the Iraqi accounts are to be believed -- was responsible for bringing down a U.S. Apache attack helicopter March 24 near Karbala with a shot from his antique Brno single-bolt rifle.
U.S. officials discounted that version, stating that they believed the Apache was shot down with more sophisticated weaponry. Two Army pilots were taken prisoner.
And because drawing the U.S.-led forces into a prolonged guerrilla war appears to be the cornerstone of Iraq's strategy, the tribesmen could be an increasingly important asset for the regime, alongside Baath Party irregulars and paramilitary groups like Hussein's Fedayeen Saddam, to try to make a conventional military victory for the allies impossible.
The several sheiks interviewed -- like almost all interviews in Iraq, conducted in the presence of a government official -- were in an expansive mood, believing Iraqi forces have already held their own against the American and British troops.
Turki said that when U.S. forces cut the road between Karbala -- a shrine city holy to Shiite Muslims -- and Baghdad on March 23, his men did not need any special orders.
"For two days, we were fighting in the streets of the town, in the outskirts and around it," he said. In the end, he asserted, the U.S. forces had to leave the settled areas and go back into the desert.
Often, he said, U.S. forces were surprised. "They thought that they would come to Karbala and we as Shiites will give them a warm welcome and rebel against the government. They learned a lesson that we are one people, and we are all fighting for our land."
Turki said that Obeid is the role model for his followers and that he already has received the $20,000 reward promised by Hussein for shooting down an American aircraft. Now his men all hope to try to get themselves similar bounties, he said, adding, "The enemy will have no time to rest."
Another leader, Fuard Abdel Hadi Hamed, 34, from a branch of the Al Agedait tribe in Mosul, claimed to have 400 "excellent shooters" at his command.
"We separate into groups of three or four, and they either don't see us on the ground or take us for peaceful farmers," he said. Then "they have a big surprise that they are shot at from every direction."
Ali Hussein Mohammed, a 30-year-old leader of the Al Buhasan tribe, said he had met many sheiks at the conference for the first time. "Everybody says his men are ready to fight to the last," he said.
Even though his men normally are farmers and truck drivers, Mohammed said, "now they have all stopped working and are taking up arms. Every day, more and more men come to me and ask for orders."
The tribes have banded together before to resist foreign invaders, such as when the British ruled in Iraq in the 1920s and again during World War II, noted Hadi Yosef Ersan, a 73-year-old patriarch with gray hair and beard. To make the point, he pulled out an ancient revolver, and said it was used by his father against the British. "I hope to use it against the new invaders," he said.
Hamed, from Mosul, said he felt certain of victory after attending the conference. "They don't have enough bombs for all the tribesmen in the country who have guns in their hands," he said.
What remains to be seen, however, is whether the tribesmen's loyalty may eventually be swayed if the tides of war sweep Hussein out.
Before leaving to return to Mosul, another sheik, Asaf Hassan Sheit, 65, popped open his car trunk to reveal four Kalashnikov rifles, a machine gun and several green metal boxes of ammunition within.
"It's a long road," he observed.
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.