For one Iraqi family, an uneasy wait for war

Definitions for the words "lack," "fear" and "resignation" are abundant in the cramped household of Iraqi Karima Selman Methboub, a widow with eight children.

Like the majority of Iraqis, this poor Baghdad family leads a tough life. They say it's made even more difficult by anxiety about any new US war. In fact, statements about the future often begin: "If I am still alive..."

Still, despite their hardship, they show personal support for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

A visitor is welcomed to sit upon a thick quilt that replaced furniture Mrs. Methboub sold just two days earlier to pay an annual $20 school fee for a daughter who loves math.

"We believe the American people are like us, and want peace - they don't want to hurt anybody," says Methboub, a substantial matriarch draped in a gold-embroidered black velvet robe. During a visit without the presence of a government minder, her family offers a rare glimpse into the lives of typical Iraqis.

"But let every American family be in our place, and feel what we are feeling, and fear the American bombs," says Methboub, to the assenting nods of several bright-eyed daughters. "If they are like us, they will prevent war."

Determining the true thinking of Iraqis about the leadership of Mr. Hussein, or their views on how Hussein has contributed to Iraq's current predicament, is virtually impossible in a country where more than three decades of brutal authoritarian rule have made Iraqis afraid of sharing such thoughts, even among themselves.

But one thing is clear from official and unofficial conversations: Iraqis are exhausted by the combined effect of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the 1991 American-led Gulf War that ousted Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and 12 years of United Nations sanctions.

That means they are woefully unprepared for another war - no matter how swift or dramatic Americans promise it will be.

In Methboub's low-ceilinged living room, there is a framed photograph of Hussein, smiling from beneath an Arab kafiyeh headdress. There is also a framed "certificate of honor" given to daughter Zainab, who, two years ago, trained to march, use weapons, and learn first aid as a volunteer with Hussein's "Al Qods Army." The army declares its aim to "liberate Palestine, and its crown Jerusalem, from Zionist occupiers."

Methboub's husband was killed in a car crash in 1996, the same year the UN launched its oil-for-food program. That deal gave the family sufficient food for the first time in the 1990s. But it is still a daily struggle to make ends meet. And this large family, like so many Iraqis, is resigned to what they see as an inevitable war, and so place their hope in the benevolence of a higher being.

"We were really concerned in the first Gulf War," Methboub says. In 1991, the family used to climb onto the roof of the cinder-block garage they have called home for 30 years - and which is now held up by rusting beams - to watch American bombers flying overhead.

"Now it is different, because these threats have built up over time, so we are used to it," Methboub says. "Of course it concerns us when America talks with that high voice, in this way. But it is in the hands of God. Whether our life ends, in a war or not, is up to God."

Relying on such divine providence can also cut the other way, points out daughter Amal, who at 13 is a member of her school's Baath Party youth group. Her 25,000 dinars school fee - less than $10 - was paid out of her late father's tiny quarterly pension of 20,000 dinars.

"If God wants America to be burned, it will be burned," says Amal, who speaks confidently while sitting on the floor quilt with a pillow on her knees.

"I'm not the only one," she adds. "When people hear America threatening Iraq, they wish a disaster on America, before they start a war with Iraq."

Some Americans are welcome

That antipathy is not directed at all Americans. Members of a group of US antiwar protesters who regularly come to Baghdad to highlight the adverse impact of sanctions have impressed this family, and are not included in the negative sentiment.

But anti-US convictions will persist, Amal says, "as long as people live in fear of dying. [People] think their lives are in danger, especially those who protect children - mothers and fathers - because they have no place to hide from the bombing.

"Even pregnant women: They worry for the future if there is a war," Amal adds. "They worry, how will their baby take its first breath?"

Such issues of war and peace can get lost in the mundane: Methboub apologizes for the smell of burnt rice that wafts across from the neighbors' home. She lights a stick of incense to mask it. Her family home is officially considered a "garage," as spelled out in the eviction notice delivered early last month that came from the local branch of the Ministry of Justice.

The thought of moving - and of raising the $800 security deposit necessary for even the cheapest available place in this middle-class neighborhood - brings tears to Methboub's eyes.

During the 1998 US bombing campaign here, the entire family slept on the floor under blankets.

A small china tea set sits on a shelf; glamorous magazine advertisements selling a different life - a black Mercedes, couples smoking cigarettes and happily courting - are taped to the refrigerator, which stands in the corner of the living room and hums noisily, the two bare wires giving it life poked into a wall socket blackened with short circuits.

The oldest son is in the Army, based near the northern city of Mosul. The next oldest was released in mid-October from Abu Ghraib prison - as part of a mass release analysts say Hussein used to boost popular support - and will enter the Army in five months when he turns 18.

The youngest boy, Mahmoud, who is 8, wears a skeleton T-shirt and leans on a visitor's leg to draw, using that visitor's red, green, and blue pens.

The oldest girl, Fatima, who is 16, left school two years ago. Fees were too high and her help was needed in raising the younger children while her mother tries to scrape together cash by baking bread.

Methboub insists - "if I am still alive" - that she will correct that and send Fatima back to class as soon as any new war is over.

The war enters the classroom

Those already in school are hearing more and more about a possible war, though, and the official view of it. Duha and Hibba, both 11, are twin girls who bound into the living room after their classes, and settle right in to test their budding English.

"All people are concerned about the war," says Duha, who sports a long braid and a blue bangle necklace. "They are afraid somehow."

"Teachers are not allowed to talk about the war," interrupts Hibba, still wearing her school-length skirt.

"They tell us: 'Don't worry, we don't fear America or its threats. We should be afraid of God, not war,' " Duha continues. "We asked our civics teacher about the war, and she told us: 'Don't fear, we are under a great hero leader in Saddam Hussein.'"

At the mention of that name, Hibba began to chant the refrain, well-rehearsed in Iraqi schools and almost everywhere else: "Yes, yes, Saddam Hussein."

As if on cue - and showing how deeply the regime permeates every level of Iraqi life - little Mahmoud stopped his drawing for a moment, to add his voice: "Down, down Zionists.'"

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