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Story Publication logo January 29, 2003

In Baghdad, Life Appears Untouched by Threat of War; But People Feel Certain That U.S. Will Attack



The following article ran as part of a thirteen-part series by Jon Sawyer, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch January 23-February 15, 2003.

As President George W. Bush prepared Tuesday to make his case for confronting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the only sign of impending war in Baghdad was the stoic anticipation by average people of havoc to come.

Emergency personnel at a Red Crescent ambulance station said no special preparations for war were under way. Classes continued as normal at local universities, with students excited about the start of a two-week semester break.

No defensive preparations were in evidence on the bridges that cross the Tigris River or near key water and power stations. On the western side of the river, touch-up work continued on a statue of Saddam so colossal in size that workmen on the scaffolding looked like puppets on a string. In interviews across the city, there was little reaction to Monday's critical report by chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix. No one professed any interest in getting up early (5 a.m. today, local time) to hear immediate reports on Bush's State of the Union address.

They already know, they're quick to say, that Bush has Iraq squarely in the crosshairs of a full-scale military attack.

"Please don't talk about the war; it would be too terrible," said a woman working on her master's in English at al-Mustan Sariya University, chatting with friends and looking forward to the break that begins today.

A male friend said he expects to be called up to fight, perhaps in a matter of weeks. He insisted that he, and all of his friends, would answer the call, despite widespread unhappiness with Saddam's rule. If the issue is Iraq against the United States, he said, his countrymen would unite.

"We have a proverb," he said, "that goes like this: 'With my brother against my cousin. With my cousin against our enemy.'"

Iraqi officials brushed aside Blix's report to the Security Council. Gen. Amir al-Saadi, Saddam's top science adviser, told reporters that the report had been "disproportionate." He said it had ignored Iraq's acceptance of widespread inspections while stressing what he called "small" discrepancies as to the country's continued stockpiles of chemical and biological warfare agents.

"We have cooperated fully and we are ready to cooperate more," al-Saadi said.

Al-Saadi told more than 100 reporters and cameramen attending an evening news conference that Iraq was eager to pursue "technical" discussions with U.N. officials on questions that have been raised concerning Iraq's disclosures in regard to stockpiles of anthrax and the nerve agent VX gas, as well as allegations that Iraq has attempted to extend the range of its missiles.

Meanwhile, at the U.N. compound outside Baghdad, officials reported that inspectors had concluded another day of what Blix has called "mixed" results. Inspectors examined DNA work at Baghdad University's Saddam Center for Biotechnology Research and returned for additional assessments at the Ukhaider ammunition and storage site where chemical rocket warheads had been discovered this month.

U.N. spokesman Hiro Ueki said inspection teams had also visited a state-owned plant that manufactures rayon and chlorine products and had tagged surface-to-air missiles at another site to ensure that they would not be modified for longer range. Ueki said the inspectors had failed again, for the 16th time, to persuade an Iraqi official to agree to a private interview. As on each previous attempt, he said, the individual insisted on having a witness from the Iraqi government present.

The spokesman refused to acknowledge, however, that time for inspections is running out.

"As far as we're concerned, the time is to be determined by the Security Council," he said. "In the meantime, we just continue our work on the ground."

What strikes a visitor most is how normal the pace of Baghdad life still seems, despite every external indication of impending conflict.

Michael VanRooyen, director of the Center for International Emergency, Disaster and Refugee Studies at Johns Hopkins University, has been in Iraq the past two weeks, working with an assessment team from the New York-based Center for Economic and Social Rights.

"There's not enough capacity here to meet even existing needs," VanRooyen said, referring to basic health, sanitation and power networks that were severely crippled during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and that recovered unevenly at best during the prolonged U.N. sanctions that followed.

"On the ground, people are more concerned with the impact of the sanctions, of coping with day-to-day problems, than they are with dealing with potential threats," VanRooyen said. "And besides, they've been dealing with the potential threat of war for a long, long time."

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