A Baghdad family braces for another attack on their city

Iraqi has distributed extra rations to try to stave off hunger and unrest during a possible war with the US.

The painting by one of Iraq's best-known artists should have been done three weeks ago, a vibrant image of a peace dove and blue Islamic-style dome, with an emerging deep red backdrop.

But news of impending war carried by radio into Selma al-Allak's studio has sapped her inspiration, and is forcing her to confront the uncertainty of war that today is menacing every Iraqi, like the pointed barrel of a loaded gun.

"I sit, but I don't know - I lost something here," Mrs. Allak says, tapping the side of her head while showing her latest canvas.

"We try to be strong on the outside, to cover what fear is on the inside," says al-Allak's husband and fellow painter, Moayad al-Haidari. "We are crushed by the daily news reports. We can make a kingdom for ourselves, but we can't isolate ourselves from our people."

The Haidari family shares a conundrum with their 23 million Iraqi compatriots: How do you maintain enthusiasm for work and life, while facing a US-led war that promises to be orders of magnitude larger than the 1991 Gulf War?

This upper middle-class family of four are well-educated and erudite, speak fluent English, have traveled in Europe to exhibit their work, and are familiar with America through close relatives living in the US, and a host of other Iraqi friends and family who have been educated there. Giving insight into the hopes and fears of Iraqis who plan to stay in Baghdad - and whose hopes for peace have been buoyed by the millions of antiwar demonstrators on streets around the world last weekend - the Haidaris spoke in their comfortable house over tea, without the presence of a government minder.

The family spoke candidly about how their lives are being affected by the topic that is obsessing Iraqis, Americans and Europeans alike: the chances of war, and what that war will bring.

"Our problem is that the plan is not clear," says Mr. Haidari, whose expertise is hand-painting flowing robes and dresses with intricate designs and calligraphic poetry. "Will they bomb in my street? Will American commandos arrive here? Or will Iraqis fight with Americans near the gate of my house?

"We can't do anything, because all those things could happen, or none," says Haidari, whose bespectacled face and neat graying moustache would easily fit in in the US or Europe. "It is one of the weapons of American psychological war - all this talk of war, all these years."

Like most Iraqis, the Haidaris are nationalists who say they are proud of their country, and its thousands of years of civilized history.

But they also have been jolted by the events of the last two decades - two devastating wars so far, and nearly 13 years of economic sanctions - to the point where fatigue is limiting their efforts to prepare this time. The family has gathered more water tanks, stockpiled batteries, and candles, and has banked rice, oil, and sugar. In keeping with government efforts since last summer to distribute food rations in advance, Iraqis this week were issued food for June and July to forestall hunger and unrest in case of war.

Some neighbors are having their own backyard wells dug. And in anticipation of a shutdown of telephone, electricity, and fuel-supply services, many are readying bicycles that haven't been in use since the 42-day Gulf War.

"All the students are waiting and afraid, because they all went through the last war," says son Nabil, a clean-cut second-year medical engineering student at Baghdad University. He is starting three new courses, but is uncertain about whether he will be able to complete his work. His brother Hashem, in his fifth year of college study to be a pharmacist, is also worried.

Though such concerns are universal, officially no specific preparations are being made in schools for the possibility of war - and dates have already been set for spring exams. "They are going on as usual, as if there is nothing," says Nabil.

"We can't imagine what will happen, and it frightens us, because we remember where we hid the children in 1991," says Allak.

That place is in the center of the Haidari home, far from windows and adjacent to the kitchen, where the two-foot thickness of the concrete walls is evident. After leaving Baghdad for 11 days at the start of the 1991 bombing, the family returned home to wait out the war.

Father and mother each night protected the two young boys from the bombing, wrapping their arms around them on mattresses on the floor.

The vibrations of the blasts were "like an earthquake," and brought most of the window glass cascading down inside the house.

The violent explosions in their upmarket neighborhood along the Tigris River caused a structural crack on the outside of the house, which is still visible despite efforts to cover it with spackle; Haidari had to build a new support column to strengthen the wall.

The family describes the constant smell of burning in 1991, and how "one day, it rained black rain." A mention of reports from the Pentagon that any new bombing campaign is meant to deliver 10 times as much punch is met with a playful attempt to toss a couch pillow at the visitor bearing this bad news, and then disbelief.

"Ten times?!" Haidari asks incredulously, his face dropping. "Send this message [to America] from a small Iraqi family: Think about the civilization of the country, the human beings, not only the strategic issues like oil and power. The best way to win a war is to prevent it."

Just such a hope was rekindled here last weekend, when Iraqi television offered full coverage of the antiwar protests that surged through the streets of London, Rome, Paris, New York, and across the US.

"I cried when I saw that," Selma says, her eyes tearing up again at the thought. "I felt that the people are with us. But stop the war? I don't think so. It is part of a great plan."

Still, the demonstrations were a welcome surprise that Iraqis are savoring, no matter how fleeting it may be.

"I see some people understand what is the human being," says Haidari. "I see people, brave people, who will stand up and say 'Stop!' ... Maybe on the surface [of Iraq] you will find some black points, but if you go deep, you will find a real treasure of people. Now after 20 years of war and sanctions, some things change. But the root is pure."

That root is all the Haidari family has to nurture, and it is key to their coping mechanism. Family discussions about the utility of continuing to work - even with little inspiration - boil down to this advice for the boys.

"We tell them: 'Son, do your best,' " Haidari says. " 'It is the best way to show the others, the Americans and Europeans, by trying to do your best, even to the last second of your life.' "

The family also has a personal tale of hope, though, which they suspect tells more about Americans than any other - war or no war. It began two years ago in Paris, when Allak came across the purse of a 20-something American tourist at a photography museum.

The purse was packed with money, but returned intact to its shocked and grateful owner. The family still keep in contact with the young woman, who sent an e-mail this week saying that she had been on the streets of San Francisco over the weekend - marching for peace with Iraq.

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