Baghdad, Iraq — Despite more than four years of war with neighboring Iran, the mood of most ordinary Iraqis seems upbeat and confident. After traveling across Iraq for two weeks, sampling public opinion, this reporter was struck by the determination of most Iraqis to continue fighting as long as the Tehran regime refuses to come to the negotiating table.
Granted, in this authoritarian state public criticism of government policy is not tolerated. Nevertheless, most Iraqis interviewed displayed more than surface enthusiasm in their support of the war. But at the same time, most predicted that the conflict would not end soon and were resigned to the possibility of several more years of war.
From an off-duty soldier in Mosul, near the Turkish border, to a housewife in the southern port of Basra, all stated their resolve to fight on and make the necessary sacrifices - both human and economic.
''It's something we must do,'' says the soldier, a young veteran of three war battles. ''We want peace, but (Iranian leader Ayatollah) Khomeini does not.''
The Basra housewife echoes that theme: ''We believe in our victory. My husband has been to the front many times and I am not afraid for his life because the victory is ours.''
According to several Western diplomats and observers here, morale among Iraqi civilians and soldiers was boosted when Iraq repulsed an Iranian military offensive last February.
Optimistic news reports about the war on the government-owned radio and television only add to Iraqis' enthusiasm. The local newspapers claim massive Iraqi battlefield successes and rarely dwell on losses - claims almost impossible to verify independently since journalists seldom are granted access to the front lines.
But the diplomats and other observers do point out that Iraq's war communiques are usually less exaggerated than Iran's.
In the capital city of Baghdad, life appears normal. Residents of Baghdad are proud of their city and eager to point to the new hotels and housing complexes.
Night life in Baghdad rivals that of almost any major city in the world. Currently, a troupe of six American girls from Hawaii are performing their native island dances nightly at the new $200 million Al-Rasheed Hotel.
The main boulevards are crowded with traffic; the sidewalks are swept clean. Western-style dress dominates, although women wearing black abayas, or cloaks, remind visitors this is a Muslim country. Marketplaces appear well stocked, though some Iraqis claim chickens and eggs are sometimes hard to find.
Once darkened because of Iranian air attacks, Baghdad's night lights have been turned on again, giving the city a sense of excitement.
With more than 60 countries, including the United States, represented at last week's annual Baghdad International Trade Fair, the official in charge of the event says that the large participation was ''an indicator of Iraq's strong economy and the global faith in our country.''
But there are reminders that a war is being fought only an hour's drive away. Major government buildings and even some apparently insignificant multistory complexes are guarded by armed soldiers in sandbagged posts; antiaircraft guns are strategically positioned on rooftops. Grade-school youngsters are taught how to use guns. A plethora of construction sites sit idle.
Some new highway and building construction continues, but not at the same pace as during the first two years of the war, when President Saddam Hussein's government launched a massive development program. After Syria closed the Iraqi pipeline that traverses its territory in April 1982, the government was forced to institute belt-tightening economic measures.
Foreign businessmen here say the economy still has a long way to come, but they say a gradual upturn has begun and foresee enormous growth potential once the war is over.
They cite Iraq's recent agreement to begin construction of an oil pipeline through Saudi Arabia and plans for other lines through Jordan and Turkey, which all told would more than double Iraq's current production of 1 million barrels a day.
''Even at the point of bankruptcy two years ago, Iraq always had a tremendous amount of credit because of its oil reserves,'' a Western diplomat remarks.
The holding of nationwide elections for the National Assembly last month also reinforces a general Iraqi view that life must move forward regardless of the war.
''We as Iraqis have confidence in ourselves,'' says a worker on a busy Baghdad street corner.
That confidence is perhaps best portrayed by Iraq's strong man President. Billboard-size pictures of him seem to be everywhere in the country - Hussein in a decorated military uniform, Hussein in a Western suit, Hussein in traditional Arab garb, his deep dark eyes casting a firm and confident look upon the population.
On TV, he is frequently shown receiving foreign dignitaries, meeting with his top officials, or visiting the front. Recently, TV viewers also saw their President welcoming several Iranian families to Baghdad. They had been invited by Hussein to visit the holy shrines in the country - more evidence to support official rhetoric that Iraq's battle is with Ayatollah Khomeini, not the Iranian people.
''We have no hatred against the people of Iran,'' says another worker in Baghdad.
''Iranian people are Muslims like us, but Khomeini has poisoned them.''
The worker, like most Iraqis interviewed, feels the war would continue as long as Khomeini lives. ''Nothing will change until he is dead, and we are prepared to defend our country forever.''