President Saddam Hussein vigorously appealed to Iraq's tribes, militiamen, soldiers and civilians to rally against a U.S.-led invasion today, part of a government bid to define the war effort as a defense of the Iraqi nation.
Hussein and other officials seemed emboldened by Iraq's sporadic battlefield successes and its seizure of American troops. In a televised address that referred to recent fighting, he warned that the war against U.S. and British troops would become far fiercer, but insisted that the government's strategy to defend Iraqi cities would prove successful.
The speech was one of several signs in the past two days of an attempt to link the fate of the government with deep-seated Iraqi nationalism. After broadcasting hour after hour of paeans to Hussein, Iraqi television has begun airing new montages of Iraqi history and images from the Iran-Iraq war, as well as pictures of Baghdad mosques and fluttering Iraqi flags that declare "God is greatest."
With his capital under a fearsome air assault and invading troops expected at Baghdad's outskirts within a week, Hussein has precious little room to maneuver, and few Iraqis can devise a scenario in which he would remain in power.
But the initial phase of the war has pointed to the durability of a regime that survives despite its distinct unpopularity. In public and private conversations, many Baghdad residents volunteer that they see U.S. forces as an invading, rather than liberating, army, and that they believe nationalist sentiments can fuel a war of attrition over the Iraqi capital and other cities.
"The war is going to last a lot longer now," predicted Karim Mustafa, as he sat at a chicken shawarma restaurant in Baghdad.
Since Sunday, Iraqi media have repeatedly broadcast footage of U.S. soldiers killed in Nasriyah, an American helicopter the government claims was downed by a farmer, and prisoners taken in southern Iraq. In cafes and hotel lobbies, the footage has drawn whoops of celebration. The message is blunt: Despite technology that inspires awe here, the Americans are not invincible.
Like other officials, Hussein has not tried to rally support around the ideology of the ruling Baath Party. He has instead cast the war as a jihad in defense of a homeland that he termed today "the cradle and origin of prophets."
"The enemy has become embroiled in Iraq's sacred land, which is defended by a great people," he said.
With a fervor that was missing in the conflict's initial days, when lower-ranking officials predicted authority might crumble in days, perhaps weeks, Iraqi officials have sought to turn even skirmishes into the harbingers of a patriotic war. In their reckoning, the firefights in Umm Qasr, a southern Iraqi port, are a symbol of Iraqi steadfastness, the American setback at Nasriyah demonstrates the success of their guerrilla strategy, and the decision of U.S. forces to skirt Iraqi cities as they advance north is a sign of fear of the carnage that awaits them in Baghdad.
In striking ways, some officials seem startled that southern Iraq, with its repressed Shiite Muslim majority, has not fallen quickly.
In a news conference tonight, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, a member of Hussein's inner circle, ticked off what he described as U.S. assumptions about a war: that the leadership would quickly collapse, that Iraqi citizens would welcome U.S. and British soldiers, that uprisings in the south would rapidly ensue and that the promised "shock and awe" of a U.S. attack would devastate the Iraqi military.
"In a few days, in just a matter of a few days, all those allegations, all those false assumptions and premises have dramatically collapsed," said Aziz, who has joined other senior Iraqi officials in appearing in public since Sunday.
Hussein has long ruled Iraq through fear and intimidation. But over three decades, and especially since the 1991 Persian Gulf War when his government was on the verge of collapse, he has also welded together an alliance of tribal networks, a mass political party and clan alliances woven into the party, army, bureaucracy and economic elite.
If he loses, the logic goes, so do they.
"They underestimate his control of the country," said Wamid Nadhmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University and one of just a handful of independent voices inside Baghdad. "This is not to suggest he is popular or he has captured the imagination of the masses. But don't go to the extreme to say he doesn't have a base or a political party."
Echoing a line pushed by Iraqi officials, Nadhmi suggested the Bush administration was overly optimistic in its assessment of the regime's fragility. While he said resistance could still collapse in a moment's time -- particularly after the loss of a decisive battle -- the appeal to nationalism resonates.
Memories of Britain's imperial stewardship of Iraq after World War I casts a long shadow. Many Iraqis are skeptical of U.S. intentions. In conversation after conversation, Iraqis suggest the war -- despite steadfast U.S. denials -- is for the benefit of Israel, to curb Iraq's potential as a regional superpower and for the control of the world's second-largest crude oil reserves.
"Let's not pretend there are no differences between the people and the regime. They do exist," Nadhmi said. "But when an attack is launched against the county, you have to expect them to fight back. It is the homeland."
Hussein's speech was a window on those currents. Many in Baghdad are open in describing Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 as a disaster. They recall Hussein as rash and arrogant in refusing a negotiated solution. They remember the humiliation they felt as the Iraqi army beat a hasty retreat in 1991, only to be decimated by U.S. forces on the road from Kuwait to Basra that became known as the Highway of Death.
This time, Hussein has portrayed himself as exhausting all options ahead of a war. He and other Iraqi officials maintain they are the ones adhering to international law and have insisted they will abide by the Geneva Conventions in their treatment of captured U.S. soldiers. In his speech, he spoke of compromise, not ultimatum.
"We have always accepted things, even if they were illegal and unjust, which have been offered by the wicked hoping that the world would awake to lift the sanctions off our people and to avoid the evils of war," Hussein said.
Both U.S. forces and Iraqi officials agree that Baghdad will prove decisive in that war, and today, it was a city that looked the part.
The haze from oil fires burning for a third day cast a fog so thick that lights 100 yards away were concealed by black smoke. At the sound of air raid sirens and ensuing bombing, mosques blared "God is greatest" from their minarets. The howling of winds whipped up by a dust storm in Baghdad masked the thunder of blasts that have become routine on the capital's outskirts.
To steel themselves, to strike fear in U.S. and British forces -- or perhaps a mixture of both -- Iraqi officials have relentlessly warned of the cataclysm that looms in Baghdad. Aziz, speaking as an air raid siren sounded, insisted that Iraq's leaders remained in full control, behind Hussein. The fighting in southern Iraq, he said, would pale before the defense of the capital.
"They will be received by bullets," Aziz said. "Not music, not flowers, they will be received by bullets."
"Stay in Baghdad," he added, "and watch what will happen."