Iraqis Wait for Return to the Norm: War
By John Lancaster
"You make it as if you can excuse yourself by saying your bombs are accurate," said Khedairy, who has spent the last several days packing up her inventory of pottery, paintings and antique rugs in anticipation of an American bombardment. "What sort of logic is this? What sort of beginning is this to the 21st century?"
Khedairy and three friends who gathered in the sun-splashed courtyard of her shop today expressed a mixture of anger, helplessness and passivity in the face of a U.S. military threat they know they are powerless to stop. In that regard, they seemed representative of most people in this sprawling, palm-studded capital of 4 million, exhausted by seven years of crushing economic sanctions and -- at least for now -- exhibiting scant evidence of preparations for another American bombardment.
Some residents have stocked up on water, and others have left the country or fled to relatives' homes in rural areas. But they appear to be the exception. Grocers report no run on supplies in recent days; the streets are filled with traffic; and young couples stroll hand in hand across bridges or riverside promenades, enjoying a warm burst of early spring.
On Thursday night, the sound of folk instruments and ululating women signaled the arrival of a wedding party at the Babylon Hotel, where many foreign journalists are staying, and soccer games filled a threadbare park next to the Information Ministry on Friday, the Muslim day of rest.
"Even those who are not fatalists have become fatalists," said Khedairy's friend Souad Radhi, 80. Radhi recalled a birthday party, complete with champagne and smoked salmon, that she threw for one of her daughters during the last bombardment. "We are staying in our home."
"For them, if there is a war, they have nothing to lose," said a diplomat of considerable experience here. "They sort of look at war as a sort of missile response on selected targets. A few targets are destroyed, some people are killed -- well, life is cheap here."
Iraqis have plenty of experience with war and its attendant hardships, having fought a grueling eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s and invaded Kuwait in 1990. "War is a normal situation in Iraq," the diplomat added. "Peace is the exception."
The populace certainly has proven adept at survival. Returning here for the first time in more than two years, an American visitor has the impression that living conditions have improved somewhat, at least here in the capital. Markets are well stocked with oranges, tomatoes, cabbages and other produce. And under the oil-for-food plan, which permits Iraq to sell limited quantities of oil to buy food, individuals now receive a monthly ration of 20 pounds of flour, among other staples.
There are plenty of consumer goods for those who can afford them, and a few Iraqis, at least, appear to be prospering. The evidence includes the recent opening of several new boutiques and restaurants catering to an upscale clientele, including one, the Captain's Table, where the waiters dress up as pirates. Government liquor stores feature multiple brands of Turkish beer.
While most cars are shabby and ill-maintained because of a shortage of spare parts, plenty of new ones are on the road, including a fleet of shiny new Hyundai sedans recently purchased by municipal police.
"There are more supplies," confirmed a foreign envoy. "You can get anything you want here. . . . You want Pierre Cardin suits? Better to buy them here than in Jordan."
The sanctions, of course, have caused tremendous suffering, depriving hospitals of antibiotics and other basic medicines, triggering a surge in infant mortality and nearly destroying the country's once-thriving industrial base. The middle class, once one of the Arab world's largest, virtually has disappeared in a country where a policeman now earns about $3 a month. Sidewalks are cracked and strewed with refuse.
"We don't care for anything anymore," said Murtaza Khafaf, one of the guests in Khedairy's garden. "You have jewelry? You don't wear it. Nothing interests us anymore."
She has particular reason to feel bitter, having been treated for breast cancer last year in New Delhi, where her daughter lives. Now she needs follow-up tests with sophisticated medical equipment unavailable in Baghdad.
"We don't have bone scans here, and I can't afford to go to Amman [Jordan] to do it, so to hell with it," said Khafaf. "I'm just sitting here."
Whatever their feelings about their authoritarian leader, Iraqis interviewed here over the last two days were happy to tell foreign journalists of their anger toward the United States.
"The Americans are not believers," said cleric Wafiq Obeidi, 36, as he prepared to enter the imposing yellow-brick Abu Hanifa mosque for prayers on Friday. "The Arabs and Muslims must unite against the people who don't believe in God. . . . They want to destroy the infrastructure of Islam."
This weekend, the government has sought to capitalize on the presence of foreign journalists allowed into the country for the visit of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, whose aim is to negotiate a peaceful end to the crisis over U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq. Among the events it has orchestrated was a macabre procession this morning of taxis carrying the bodies of children in coffins on their roof racks. The children purportedly had died because of shortages of medicine.
Ordinary Iraqis and government officials alike were delighted by the spectacle of three top U.S. officials -- Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and National Security Adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger -- being jeered Wednesday night by anti-war protesters at a "town meeting" in Columbus, Ohio.
"Angry Americans have turned a live interview with three top officials of the U.S. administration into an open and fair people's court in which they issued their sentence, condemning and rejecting their government's aggressive policy toward Iraq," the Iraqi news service reported Friday.
Radhi, who was educated in American schools here and in Beirut, concurred. "When we listened to it, I said, 'These are the Americans I used to know, the Americans I used to believe in,' " she said.
But, given their recent history, few Iraqis appear to be betting on a peaceful outcome. "It's not something new for us," Khali Bakr, 36, said before sitting down to a game of backgammon in front of his small grocery shop. "If they bomb us or not, it's the same thing. We haven't taken any precautions. It's something normal."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company