In a hushed Baghdad, a family waits
Iraqis scramble to prepare for war as Hussein rejected Bush's ultimatum.
BAGHDAD, IRAQ — The apartment block where Karima Selman Methboub and her eight children live is almost empty - abandoned by families fleeing a coming war.
"When the neighbors left and took their children, I sat on the doorstep and started to cry, because I felt I had no one," says Mrs. Methboub, whose husband died in a car accident in 1996. "Without my neighbors, I felt strange, and started to be afraid," she says, wiping her eyes with the palms of her hands. "Because I cried, my daughters cried, too."
The Methboubs, a family the Monitor first profiled last December, do not have the money to escape Baghdad. And so, like others stranded here in this increasingly hushed and fearful city, they brace themselves as best they can for an attack that appears imminent.
Tuesday, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein appeared in military uniform for the first time during this months-long confrontation, rejecting President Bush's 48-hour ultimatum for the Iraqi strongman and his two sons to depart Iraq as "impossible." An Iraqi government statement read over television said: "Iraq doesn't choose its path through foreigners and doesn't choose its leaders by decree from Washington, London or Tel Aviv."
Iraqis remaining in Baghdad kept close to home Tuesday, as more and more shops shuttered their windows or moved stocks away from likely target areas in the capital. Escape to Jordan, once $100 per car, now costs $600 - and the border is rumored to have been closed to such refugees on Monday.
The sense of dread and desperation in Baghdad is palpable - especially in the Methboub household.
So impoverished that they had to sell furniture to pay school fees, the Methboubs are far removed from the geopolitical chess games over weapons inspections and regime change that have seized the UN Security Council for the past months. They're just trying to figure out a way to survive.
If bombs begin to fall, Mrs. Methboub says she will gather her children, some jugs of water and bread, and head out of their ramshackle, second-floor apartment to an unfinished house one block away that may be sturdier.
"We have the blankets all ready, but we are relying on God," Mrs. Methboub says, surrounded by her five daughters and a son in a cramped living room where a portrait of Hussein is displayed in one corner.
The price of potatoes in Baghdad has surged in the past three days from 250 dinars (10 cents) to 1,500 dinars a kilo. Bread lines stretch long and customers often come home with nothing.
The family has been hoarding double rations that the government has issued in advance since last summer, and has managed to find extra dough to make bread. They bought two new glass elements for their paraffin lamps. "We tried to get paraffin for our lamps, but couldn't find any," says daughter Amal, 13, who, like her mother and siblings, spoke without the presence of a government minder.
Like the majority of Iraqis impoverished by two wars, 12 years of sanctions, and a government that has built vast palaces instead of new hospitals or schools, families this poor say they have little recourse now beyond divine Providence.
The timing of the war seems personal to them. Oldest son Ali, serving the compulsory term in the Iraqi military, is part of an anti-aircraft squad in the northern city of Mosul - a place where US air patrols have increased targeting of positions in a no-fly zone. His leave ends March 21, the day he must report back.
Ali's sister Amal will celebrate her 14th birthday on March 23 - a date she would dearly like to celebrate. But instead, she is convinced that it will be a day of battle.
Despite a computer exam coming up, Amal stopped going to classes on Monday - a decision she took with other students, after class on Sunday. "We told each other: 'If I die, please pray for me,'" Amal says. "All of the teachers are afraid of the war."
As a member of the ruling Baath Party youth group at her school, she attended an hour-long course late last week, taught by a uniformed civil defense official.
"They gave us first-aid training, told us to shut off all the lights in case of emergency, and told us not to store gas in the house," Amal says, as her siblings listen. "If you find anything strange on the street, don't touch it - it could be a bomb, or carry a disease."
Twin girls Duha and Hibba, 11, are still in school, and had exams Monday on religion and science. Duha tells of people she heard joking as they walked down the street, telling merchants to "close down your shops! [President] Bush is going to bomb!"
The family wonders what will happen to them.
"I feel comfortable - I don't feel that something strong is going to happen," says Fatima, 16, clearly voicing the contrarian view. "Bush said he won't bomb schools - he promised! He promised not to bomb schools or houses."
Hibba borrows a retort from her schoolteachers. "We are not afraid of Bush, and we are not afraid of his bombs," she says. "The greedy Bush wants to kill children and steal our oil.... Bush even wants our trees and simple things."
Brushing her sister's words aside, Fatima echoes the thoughts of many Iraqis on the eve of war. "Of course we are afraid, because ... some will lose family members and people close to them," Fatima says. "I'm afraid to lose anyone."
That is her mother's greatest fear, too, as she thinks of the coming battles and a likely American occupation.
"I'm afraid for our children, and [afraid of] any chaos - I don't know what will happen," Mrs. Methboub says, offering very sweet tea. "When we welcome a person very much, we make their tea sweet," she explains. "If Americans come, we will welcome them with tea, too," Amal interjects. "But without sugar."