- The Washington Times - Monday, February 10, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Feb. 10 (UPI) — Could a last-minute miracle change the course of events and the war on Iraq be avoided? That was the question on my mind while traveling to Baghdad Sunday.

At Beirut International Airport, a General Security officer reflected the mood in Lebanon. He routinely asked me my destination and was surprised when I told him Baghdad. "They are preparing for war," he said. "Why would anyone want to go there?"

In contrast, Baghdad, when I arrived, appeared calm and its people trying to lead a normal life.

Cars jammed the streets, shops were open and business was being done as usual.

Iraqis were doing their last-minute shopping for the Id al-Adha, the Muslim four-day feast that begins Tuesday and celebrates the willingness of the Biblical Abraham to sacrifice his son, Issac.

Buying clothes for children and making special sweets, called Kilaija, was being given priority over a growing concern about the prospect of war.

"Iraqis are right to be worried because of the constant U.S. threats to invade their country, said Muhammad Jasim, a Baghdad resident. "If this happens, there will be bloodshed and massacres that will take the lives of thousands of Iraqis."

U.S. bombing, Jasim believes, will not distinguish between soldier and civilian.

Iraqis are well placed to know what war means. In the past two decades, they have endured two intense and destructive wars. One, against Iran, lasted eight years, starting in1980. The other, in 1991, saw a U.S.-led coalition oust the Iraqi army from Kuwait. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed or wounded in these wars.

A U.N.-imposed embargo to punish the government of President Saddam Hussein for having invaded the neighboring, oil-rich emirate only added to the Iraqis' hardships.

The impact of the embargo, that had the effect of an international siege, affected every aspect of life and, according to official Iraqi counts, brought death to 1.5 million Iraqis.

At the moment, there is a thin glimpse of hope after U.N. chief inspectors Hans Blix and Mohammed ElBaradei concluded weekend talks with Iraqi officials on a positive note.

Blix said he discerned a more serious approach by Iraq to international demands for its disarmament.

Iraq gave the inspectors some 35 new documents about its biological and nuclear programs, including one for anthrax as well as ballistic missiles.

Brig. Amer al-Saadi, Saddam's scientific adviser, also promised a reply to a U.N. request to allow U-2 spy planes to be used by the weapons inspectors before Friday, when Blix and ElBaradei are scheduled to report to the U.N. Security Council.

Babel, the newspaper run by Saddam's son Uday, said Monday the talks with Blix and al-Baradei were held in a "clear, positive atmosphere."

Al-Saadi said he hoped the inspectors' report would be fair. In the past, he said, "we were optimistic and then Blix's report was contrary to our expectations."

Before leaving Baghdad early Monday, ElBaradei said he was cautiously optimistic. Most Iraqis, however, appear to believe war is inevitable, regardless of how much their officials cooperate.

"We are almost convinced that this matter has nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction," said Farid Hamudi, a shop owner. "It is rather about oil and Israel's security."

That's why Iraqis were taking the U.S. threats seriously, he said, and were stockpiling food and other essential goods to face the coming days.

According to Iraqi officials, a war would target the country's infrastructure, rebuilt after the 1991 war.

Friday will be a crucial day for Iraq when the Security Council meets to hear the inspectors' reports. Will Iraq's latest concessions make a difference? Have they come too late to avoid war?

Last-minute efforts to avoid war were continuing with the arrival expected in Baghdad Tuesday of a special envoy from Pope John Paul II. The pontiff has repeatedly denounced any military action against Iraq.

The envoy, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, was to meet Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, a Christian, and was also expected to see Saddam.

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