-- With U.S. forces 30 miles from the outskirts of Baghdad -- once the destination of invading armies of Arabs, Mongols, Ottoman Turks and the British -- the ancient capital hardly projects the air of a fortress.
The four- and six-lane highways that radiate to the south and west are more burdened with pickups carrying onions and garlic than transports ferrying troops to the front. A scattering of checkpoints, pillboxes and sandbags mark the city's entrances -- a barren landscape interspersed with factories and groves of date palms and apricots. The sentries go largely unnoticed by children playing soccer in dirt fields and women in black chadors selling tomatoes and eggplant on straw mats along the street.
On the strategic road from Karbala, a concrete arch bears the inscription, "Baghdad welcomes you."
But with the swagger of confidence or delusion, the government of President Saddam Hussein has publicly relished the coming battle for Baghdad. Officials boast that the country's most vaunted units are primed to repel an assault for which they have planned for years.
In public statements, officials have predicted prolonged battles on the city's outskirts, where troops have deployed under the canopies of palm trees in farms watered by the Tigris River. As those forces fall back, the government has said it will revert to tactics employed with some success in southern cities -- bands of loyal militiamen holed up in poor, crowded neighborhoods harrying U.S. forces as they rumble down Baghdad's wide-open highways.
The strategy suggests that U.S. forces may enter Baghdad, and even claim victory in the heart of the city, long before resistance ends.
"There's nothing that prevents the enemy from doing anything in Baghdad, so be it," the defense minister, Sultan Hashem Ahmad, said last week of airstrikes that have struck the city night and day. "But the enemy must come inside Baghdad and that will be its grave."
Added Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz: "Stay in Baghdad and watch what will happen."
Iraqi officials contend they can neutralize their adversaries' dominance of the skies using block-by-block guerrilla warfare, with civilians caught in between. Iraqi forces can venture far closer to U.S. troops in the confines of the city -- perhaps to carry out the suicide attacks officials have promised. The Iraqis can also exploit their formidable ability at logistics, tapping the resources of the Baath Party, which has been in power for three decades, and fighting on terrain that it has kept under blanket surveillance.
"Our strategy is based on a long war, and I believe we've so far succeeded in defeating the enemy's strategy," Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said this week. "Every day that is added to the duration of the battle is in Iraq's interest."
There are many intangibles in that scenario, not least those contained in Baghdad's geography and urban landscape.
In its medieval heyday, under the centuries-long rule of the Abbassids, the city was shielded by towering brick walls with gates facing the ends of its domains -- China to the east and Spain to the west. Just one remains -- Bab al-Wastani. Today, the city's south and west, the likely approaches of U.S. forces, are linked to the rest of the country by smooth freeways laid across the remarkably flat, flood plain spreading out from a U-shaped bend in the Tigris River.
From the center of Baghdad to the west, the road stretches through Mansour and Kindi -- two of Baghdad's wealthiest neighborhoods -- and past the ruins of the Salaam Palace, with its four busts of Hussein in medieval Arab headdress, and the rubble of the Maamoun telephone exchange. At the city's edge, it opens into a six-lane highway, with a tangle of overpasses that inspire comparisons to Los Angeles.
To the south, two roads diverge to the cities of Kut and Karbala, through some of Baghdad's grittiest, most crowded neighborhoods.
As elsewhere in the capital, there are hardly any fortifications on the road to Kut. On its way out of the city, the road runs through middle-class areas like New Baghdad, past the military's sprawling Rashid Camp in Rustamiya and the Military College. It crosses the Diyala River, suffused with the stench of sewage, and past a modest, metal sign that reads, "Baghdad bids you farewell."
Beyond a checkpoint manned by the Republican Guards, the road opens into an industrial wasteland of shuttered workshops and abandoned car plants with signs for Volkswagen, Fiat and Volvo dusted from a searing sandstorm. A lone woman, in a flowing black abaya, herded goats along a moonscape of dirt clods and patches of grass.
The road to Karbala stretches through middle-class Christian and Sunni Muslim neighborhoods, then into the grinding poverty of Abu Chir, a Shiite Muslim suburb that houses a sprawling market for vegetables destined for Baghdad. From there, the outskirts open into more industrial sprawl of food processing plants, ice makers, cement and workshops, before reverting to groves of apricots and palm trees shadowing verdant, irrigated fields.
Other than checkpoints manned by Republican Guard troops and a handful of sandbags and pillboxes, the entrances are most remarkable for how much they resemble the outskirts of most Arab capitals, with a mix of dilapidated factories and the hovels of rural migrants.
The most visible preparations for an invasion are the towering black plumes of smoke from oil fires -- some spaced just 100 yards apart -- that have cast a black film over eucalyptus trees along the street medians and the once-tan facades of nearby apartment buildings.
It is a different story closer to the center of Baghdad, which has little of the legendary grandeur its name still evokes in the Arab world. Much of old Baghdad -- its mud-brick homes and narrow alleys -- has made way for two-story cement housing and low-slung commercial areas. In those neighborhoods, as well as impoverished Shiite areas like Zaafraniya, the Baath Party has imposed grid-like control, stationing cadres at every intersection, road and alley.
In some places, five and as many as 10 militiamen are stationed behind sandbags, some of them emblazoned with signs that read, "God is great and to us victory" or "Long live the leader." Pickup trucks, smeared in mud for camouflage, are parked in front of mud-brick homes. Along some canals, soldiers and militiamen are digging trenches, apparently to shield them from bombing.
"It's best not to fight them in the desert but to lure them into the cities and towns and to populated areas, the areas where planes can't work with great competence," Aziz said in an interview Tuesday with the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp.
Aziz and others have drawn on Iraqi history to prove their point, and to celebrate a national reputation for toughness. Iraqi lore includes the oft-repeated adage of a 7th-century Muslim conqueror who, angered by a restive population, proclaimed, "I see heads ripe for cutting and I am the man to do it."
As the story goes, he did.
In a prediction for U.S. forces that has become a refrain at news conferences, officials point to the wretched experience of British troops in Iraq in World War I and soon after. In 1916, beaten down by flies and mosquitoes and hampered by swamps, 13,000 diseased and demoralized men surrendered to Turkish troops, though another force entered Baghdad the following year. In 1920, an uprising left hundreds of British soldiers dead, serving as an early symbol of an emerging Iraqi nationalism.
"They are most welcome here," Information Minister Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf said of U.S. troops at a news conference today.
Like others, Sahhaf has dismissed as "trivial" the impact of around-the-clock bombing that pulverized the expansive Baghdad International Trade Fair, damaged a Red Crescent maternity hospital and wrecked two more telephone exchanges today.
He delivered a similar assessment of bombing that, for more than a week, has relentlessly targeted Republican Guard units deployed in farms and under the canopy of palm groves to the south, west and north of the capital. In a response to reports that U.S. attacks had destroyed the Baghdad division, a spokesman from the force appeared on Iraqi television tonight, insisting that only 17 soldiers were killed. He said the division was in excellent shape and will teach U.S. forces "lessons in the art of fighting."
The prediction last week by Sultan, the defense minister, that Baghdad would be encircled within 10 days has proved uncannily accurate. And today, perhaps more than any other time since the war began, an element of anxiety was visible within the government.
In a message to Kurdish leaders read today on television, Hussein warned them against "rushing and doing something you'll regret." Iraqi officials appeared only once today, down from the two and even three news conferences they have held since the start of the war. And television broadcast a warning that all Iraqis with satellite phones should surrender them so that the government could identity "infiltrating" transmissions. Those who don't, it said, would be treated as spies.
It was difficult to gauge the depth of unease in a government that, at one time, said it was deliberating what religious rites should be guaranteed for the corpses of U.S. and British soldiers and whether they should be buried in mass pits or individual graves. In more understated moments, Ramadan, the vice president, and other officials have said they intend to prolong the war, but offer little assessment of how it will end. Today, Ramadan suggested that giving U.S. forces a good fight might be a victory in itself.
"It is a battle for honor and dignity," he said.