BAGHDAD, IRAQ -- While President Saddam Hussein prepares his nation for war, ordinary citizens are debating the righteousness of Saddam's crusade against Kuwait -- and some say that what he has done to the tiny Persian Gulf emirate is immoral.
Although Iraqis seem to have a deeply ingrained resentment of Kuwaitis and their flaunting of oil wealth, many -- both Moslems and Christians -- have vowed, for example, not to purchase any product that they believe has been stolen from Kuwait.
"If I know something was purchased legitimately, I buy it," said an Iraqi businessman. "But if I think it was stolen, I don't."
Another persistent topic of conversation here is the prospect of war and Iraq's resolve to fight after having just emerged from a debilitating eight-year war with Iran. Some have vowed to fight to the death. Others say they are bone-weary of conflict.
One woman said that in the year and a half since the Iran-Iraq war ended, "people were just starting to relax. There was a big sigh of relief. And then this started. Nobody wants to go to war again. We are all so tired of it."
To be sure, Iraqis more often than not seem to tell a reporter what the government wants them to say, rather than what they really feel.
Before the television cameras and tape recorders of the international media, Iraqis will say that their fealty to Saddam is unwavering, that their support for his occupation of Kuwait is rock-solid, that their willingness to die for their country -- on the battlefield in Kuwait or by U.S. bombs in Baghdad -- is unquestionable.
But in the privacy of their own homes, the story is often quite different. Below the surface of public spectacle in this country is a mood of uncertainty, fear, doubt and even outrage over the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and the potential it has raised for war against a U.S.-led multinational force. Mixed with these sentiments appears to be rising resentment against the United States.
The morality of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2 and continued occupation has become a chief topic for discussion. There reportedly have been religious debates about purchasing goods suspected of being received illegitimately, and some Moslems are arguing that it is forbidden in the Koran to keep stolen goods -- even if purchased with money.
When Asians, Soviets, Europeans and Americans began pouring out of the country after the invasion, many needed cash and tried to sell their household goods.
"The Filipinos and people from Asia were willing to sell their televisions at ridiculously cheap prices -- anything to get money to leave," said a young Iraqi housewife. Her husband was approached by some expatriate workers about purchasing some stereo and video equipment but, she said, he refused because exploiting people in times of adversity is wrong.
A father of four confirmed, albeit reluctantly, that many Iraqis are viewing goods now available in Baghdad but not found here prior to the Kuwait invasion as suspicious, and are deliberately not buying them. Other people, he said, are deliberately buying and seeking profits from stolen Kuwaiti goods. "They don't care. All they want is to make money."
The Iraqi government denies that there is any such debate among the population. "The truth is like this: We haven't taken any hospital equipment from Kuwait. We didn't take anything from Kuwait," said Saadi Mehdi Saleh, speaker of the National Assembly. "Before the unification, Kuwait and Iraq were exchanging many goods, so Iraqi merchants bought many goods and brought them to Baghdad to be sold." He said that is why so many goods from Kuwait have begun appearing in Baghdad stores in recent months.
With the approach of the U.N. deadline of Jan. 15 for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait or face attack, the fear of war has grown here, and different people use different mechanism to cope with the uncertainty.
Some are following government advice on preparing such things as bomb shelters and home-made gas masks. Others say they have resigned their fates to God should American bombs start falling on Baghdad. And still others say that on the night of Jan. 14 -- the eve of the deadline -- they plan to leave the city.
"I will go to the north, I think, to Kurdistan. I have friends there. They will not find me," said an army veteran wounded in the Iran-Iraq war. "I do not want to fight again."
Another man said he heard on Voice of America radio that the United States has more than 1,000 jet fighters in the Persian Gulf, and he plans to leave Baghdad with his wife on Jan. 14. "The American planes are very big," he said. "They will drop many bombs and make a big boom in Baghdad."
International trade sanctions imposed after the Kuwait occupation have not significantly curtailed the average Iraqi's ability to purchase food and consumer goods, but inflation is making it difficult to make ends meet. The sanctions were intended in part to foment anger and dissent among the Iraqi people against Saddam, but instead, they appear to be causing resentment against the United States.
"We didn't have all these luxury goods before, so we'll just go back to the way it used to be," said a 50-year-old Iraqi woman who has lived in the West. "The way the world is behaving, I'm amazed they don't expect us to be defiant."
She and others said the occupation of Kuwait was a mistake for Saddam, yet the more he comes under pressure from the United States, the more the Iraqi people appear to support him. She said the outrage expressed in the United States about alleged Iraqi looting and atrocities in Kuwait might be true, but "war is war. War is not a nice thing. The U.S. troops in Vietnam -- what about the atrocities there? You can't have a gentlemanly war."
The woman suggested that if President Bush wants Iraq to leave Kuwait, his best approach should be to listen to Saddam's grievances and negotiate with him. "We're not innocent. I know we're aggressive," she said. "But there has to be some give and take."
She said she has listened to recent statements by Bush harshly criticizing Saddam and reiterating the threat to attack if Iraq does not withdraw, and she has become convinced that Iraq is right not to back down.
"I feel pretty smug sometimes" when Saddam stands firm. "I say, 'Good for you!' " She added, "The world can't handle defiance. Servility is really in for Third World countries like us."
At Baghdad University, where a U.S. television crew had just finished interviewing students, several young men ripe for the military draft said they are willing to die if it will help Iraq remain in Kuwait.
"We will not leave Kuwait -- war or peace," said Aqeel, 22. "We know our rights, and we will not give up. Kuwait is part of Iraq."
Mazin, 19, seemed less concerned about the danger of war than the hardships caused by trade sanctions. "Mister," he said, conveying a sense of urgency, "I want to know: If Iraq leaves, will the sanctions end? We have food in our homes, enough for several months. But we must have medicine and milk for our children."
When the television crew finished and most of the students left for classes, one student approached a reporter and whispered an apology. "We cannot say what we really think," he said. "It is not good for us to be in Kuwait."
That student's statement, echoed by the Iraqi army veteran, was symbolic of the awkward position Iraqis find themselves in. Out of fear as well as national pride, many feel the country must remain steadfast in its determination to stay in Kuwait. But privately, Iraqis say they believe Iraq should and will withdraw.
"If you're going to keep something, you look after it. You don't want to empty it out," the middle-aged woman said of the looting and pillaging of Kuwait.