No teeming streets, no jostling crowds in Hussein's capital city.
I didn't think they would let me into the mosque during prayers, but they did, and as the religious service began I noticed again the nagging incongruity. Here in a major mosque in downtown Baghdad in midweek, the sort of place that in neighboring Turkey would be bursting with worshipers, the sanctuary was close to empty. Barely 15 men lined up for the opening prostrations. A few more straggled in late. One was on crutches, and only two or three were young. It fit with the odd perception that had been scratching at my mind all through the five days I spent in Baghdad in March: the city seemed oddly uncrowded. Where was everybody?
As I traveled from the northern border down to the capital city, the vague question had jostled with my equally vague preconceptions. Maybe it's only in the Arabian Nights that Baghdad fits in the stereotype of Middle Eastern cities, the teeming streets, the jostling crowds? In Baghdad, a city whose population is listed as 3.4 million, nobody teemed or jostled -- not in the bazaars, not in the city buses, certainly not on the desolate pocked and rubbled highways. The functional stretches of road are plied by taxis with uniformly bullet-riddled front windshields, and it was in one such vehicle that the truth of the matter finally hit me. Idiot, I thought, of course there are hardly any young men around. These people just finished losing half a million people in an eight-year war.
Once noticed, it was inescapable: a year after the cease-fire with Iran, the singular hallmark of Iraq was its war-weariness. The talk I heard everywhere was of relief that the endless conflict was past, that efforts were finally afoot for rebuilding. Money, no longer needed for war, was supposedly going toward education and an industrial and technological buildup. There were new roads, more imported products, new construction in Baghdad and in Mosul to replace what had been shelled. Even the previously inaccessible outside world was said to be seeping in slightly more than aforetimes. The notorious iron security grip of the regime was still in evidence (the day I left, they hanged journalist Farzad Bazoft), but on the other hand, there I was, on a tourist visa, for the entirely unpolitical purpose of visiting the Babylon archaeological site. People complained cheerfully about the economy, and many said it was nice to meet a foreigner.
Still, the scars were fresh. Baghdad seems sparsely populated with young men because it is. A million young men altogether died in the Iran-Iraq conflict; the Iraqis' half million came out of a 17.5-million population. That means, in pragmatic translation, that just about everybody lost somebody; post-World War I Europe must have given off similar empty echoes. The Iraqi men behind the wheels of taxicabs were invariably veterans, and, if they spoke enough English, told horrible combat stories. One made a point of driving me past the gigantic dome of the new Martyr's Monument to the war dead. The place is done in garish monumental style: a lit dome, acres of gardens and an immense outdoor victory sculpture, one of many around town, of two 30-foot-high muscular arms holding giant swords in the air.
It is these people's misfortune that their country is run by the vicious Saddam Hussein, who started the Iran war in 1980 (it was supposed to be over in a week) and who on Thursday mobilized his still million-man army to attack and overrun tiny Kuwait. (Restrictions on entry by foreigners were, of course, reinstated immediately.) The invasion of Kuwait puts a bilious new complexion on the series of threats and rumblings from Hussein that have kept commentators busy this winter -- but also, and more pathetically, on the hopeful talk of Hussein's interest in stability, in recovery and in postwar reconstruction. The policy question now from the outside is whether Hussein will push further in his aggression, and, if so, how far; or will he, instead, withdraw from Kuwait now that his point has been made? For those inside, those questions must overlie a simpler one: How long, then, will this new war last?
Even in peacetime, I realized, conversation between Iraqis and foreigners under Saddam was not exactly an unfettered First Amendment right. I figured in March that the chin-up stories I was hearing weren't complete, that the Iraqis had problems and prejudices I couldn't dream of. But if their situation was hard and unfree, I remember thinking it was not hopelessly sad. Saddam was, after all, setting himself up as the rebuilder and touchstone of the region, and some benefit might accrue from that to the country's people; Iraq had plenty of oil money, was bolstered by American trade aid, the war was over, so why shouldn't some rebuilding be possible?
The answer comes in last week's invasion. Under Saddam Hussein the Iraqis' money and their bodies continue to be squandered on aggressive wars.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.