BAGHDAD, IRAQ -- In a closed society, information is often the most severely rationed commodity. Here in Iraq, the long war with Iran has reinforced that truism. Even weather forecasts are now secret, as a western diplomat trying to get information from the government about an imminent dust storm discovered recently.
But like blind persons who develop a sharper sense of hearing to compensate for sensory deprivation, politically aware Iraqis are among the world's most resourceful hunters for the stray fact that reveals a larger meaning. They stalk them between the lines of official communiques, in the arrangement of stories in the government-controlled media, or, as in one recent case, at a funeral service for a fallen soldier.
It was a service that attracted some of the nation's senior military and political leaders as well as friends of the family. At the end a Moslem cleric delivered a closing curse on all of the Iraqi Republic's enemies and summoned down a special wrath on the two Arab leaders who have supported Iran in the war, Syria's Hafez Assad and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.
An embarrassed silence fell over the ranks of the VIP crowd. A senior military officer approached the holy man and with a pained expression spoke to him in a low voice. The holy man apologized to the crowd for having unwittingly made an error and delivered the curse again -- this time limiting it to Assad.
Thus did a few Baghdadis become aware that Libya's erratic leader has switched sides in the war and is seeking better relations with Iraq. A check of the official media, in which criticism of Libya has now disappeared, expanded this clue into fact.
Why hasn't Iraq trumpeted this? In large part it is because officials are not sure why Gadhafi has changed his mind, or how permanent the switch will prove to be. They want more time before welcoming the mercurial Libyan back into the Arab tent.
Gadhafi has let it be known in other Arab capitals that he had learned of the secret Iran-U.S. dealings before they were disclosed last November and was furious at Tehran for dealing with the Great Satan behind his back.
His switch, if sustained, is of more than political interest. Libya is thought to have been a principal source for Iran of Scud surface-to-surface missiles and his defection may have helped cut off one part of the Iranian supply network.
THE DUST STORM swept into the Iraqi capital at midday, blotting out the burning 95-degree sun and giving a local double meaning to Arthur Koestler's politically chilling image of "Darkness at Noon." Observed from a balcony of a modern hotel overlooking the Tigris, parts of the city disappeared behind a stinging, moving curtain of sand.
Despite the war, President Saddam Hussein has pursued an ambitious development policy that has changed the face of this ancient seat of the Abbasid caliphate. Until the price of oil dropped through the floor last year, the Iraqis had guns and butter, using their own oil revenue and grants from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Arab friends to pay for the war and a building boom that brought impressive new office buildings, public monuments and housing developments.
Many projects have now been put on hold, and luxury imports have been halted as scarce foreign exchange is used to pay for imported food supplies, which seem plentiful, and defense needs.
Not even the most skilled fact-hunters seem to have been able to bag solid estimates on how much it is costing Iraq to fight the war. The highest estimates, which tend to come from the West, range up to $12 billion a year and are usually accompanied by guesses that Iraq must now be $50 billion to $60 billion in debt to the Saudis and others.
But these estimates probably convey a wrong sense of the pace and continuity of the fighting here, as does much of the more episodic outside media reporting. Inevitably, such reporting focuses on the most intense periods of battle, which total perhaps four to five months of the year. The lengthy intervals in which both sides regroup, such as the current lull, tend to get ignored.
If the fighting was as intense all year long as it was last January, Iraq would easily be spending $12 billion a year, says one economist who has studied the subject. But the extended lulls produce a figure much closer to $5 billion, in his view, suggesting that Iraq's debt to its Arab neighbors is probably closer to $25 billion than to $50 billion.
A DECADE AGO, an American journalist arriving in Iraq was treated as the enemy. The reporter would be berated for America's backing for Israel and the Kurdish rebels in the north, or for helping to support the Central Intelligence Agency's plots to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Only afterward could the journalist get a few questions in and begin a more measured dialogue.
It is not like that today. Just as the modern Sheratons and Meridiens with room service and in-house videos have displaced the funky old Baghdad Hotel's dank precincts, so have more polished, noncommittal information policies been designed to accommodate but not illuminate a visiting scribe from a country that is a potential ally.
Today you are ignored rather than hated. And as a result, you come away with the sense of learning even less than you could in the bad old days about one of the Middle East's most stubbornly independent and willful nations, which still determinedly pursues its own course, no matter what outsiders think. -- Jim Hoagland