- The Washington Times - Monday, September 23, 2002

BAGHDAD The Iraqi officer was surprisingly candid in his assessment of his army's fighting strength: The tanks and armored vehicles were relics from the 1980-88 war with Iran and desperately needed spare parts, and the men lacked morale and equipment, including boots in some cases.
The officer's asides to a small group of foreign visitors to the southern no-fly zone last week seem to reveal that, despite the fighting talk of its politicians, the country's military believes it stands little chance against a U.S.-led invasion.
Some preparations for war have, however, begun. Gun batteries have been erected on the edge of Baghdad in recent weeks, while power cuts in parts of the city are said to be the result of generators being requisitioned for military use.
Reservists have been called up, and even professional associations, such as the Union of Journalists, were being given military training last week.
Iraqi dissidents overseas also said that Qusay Hussein, Saddam's son and heir apparent, and head of the powerful State Security Organization, has been appointed to implement a new national security plan aimed at defending the main cities and suppressing domestic dissent.
The strategy is to turn cities such as Baghdad, Basra and Tikrit into "Saddamgrads" where elite forces units that can be trusted not to desert because they know they would face retribution from the population were Saddam overthrown would defend his last urban bastions in street-to-street fighting.
There has been little sign, however, of the redeployment of the Special Republican Guard to urban areas. Indeed, there has been little sign, either on the ground or from satellite surveillance, of any recent significant military activity, according to Western officials.
"To be frank, I am extremely surprised," said a senior European diplomat in Baghdad. "It seems that they know they would have no chance if it came to an invasion, whatever their dispositions and tactics."
The country's war-weary people are, by contrast, readying themselves for another conflict. In the dilapidated teahouses of the old town and the riverside fish restaurants, Baghdadis escaping the sapping heat afternoon temperatures passed 110 degrees last week held out little hope that Iraq's offer on weapons inspections would avert the threat of attack.
"Nothing we do will make any difference now. America is determined to attack us because they want to dominate our region and our oil," said a university lecturer who had joined colleagues for a lunch of masgouf, the local delicacy of grilled freshwater fish.
"If it's not the inspectors, they will find another excuse. They say they want regime change, but first they will have to change the Iraqi people. Saddam Hussein is our leader, and we need his strength now."
One of his friends added: "Why do you British want to bomb us? Our countries have always been friends."
Not everyone bemoans the prospect of war: Among the young are some who believe that the risks and bloodshed would be worthwhile. Out of the earshot of others, a university student said: "Of course I'm scared, but let them bomb us if it brings change."
Shoppers in bustling markets are already buying supplies of dried food, bottled water, oil and candles, while hospitals have started to stockpile bandages and antibiotics, prepare operating wards and draw up emergency 48-hour shift rotations.
Nobody doubts that casualties will be enormous in the event of a conflict both during an invasion and in the internecine fighting that is likely to follow.
"There are plenty of people out there with guns and scores to settle," said an envoy from another Muslim state. "I wouldn't fancy being a senior member of the Ba'ath Party or the Special Republican Guard if Saddam is overthrown."
Although Baghdad is far from flourishing, in recent years the city has started to recover from the devastation caused by the 1991 Persian Gulf war the shops are full, the roads are being repaired as the tough sanctions regime imposed by the United Nations has been eased and oil smuggling has made a few people extremely rich.
The Iraqi leader continues to stamp his image all over Baghdad. More posters of Saddam seem to appear by the day, and the hulking skeleton of the Saddam Hussein Mosque looms over the city, joining the Saddam Tower and the soaring cupola of his grandest palace as dominant features on the skyline.
Just a 15-minute drive away, however, is the squalor of Saddam City, a sprawling, impoverished satellite municipality of predominantly Shi'ite Muslims for whom life remains grim. Saddam and the country's ruling clans are from the minority Sunni population.
The people of Saddam City revolted after the Gulf war, and it was the scene of brutally suppressed anti-government riots in 1999. For now, things there are quiet, but diplomats predict that Saddam could face another revolt if the Americans attack.


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