The air raid sirens started their ululating screech at 9:20 in the morning this Sunday. The heavy traffic that was building up along the city's wide thoroughfares and its six bridges across the twisting Tigris River was halted almost in its tracks.
Civil defense units steered cars into side streets and hurried their passengers into doorways and underground shelters. Barely half an hour later the single note of the "all clear" galvanized the busy city back into life.
Despite frequent such air raid warnings -- and false alarms -- spirits remain high, and enthusiasm for the war effort against Iran remains undimmed. The enthusiasm is fanned by a daily diet of motivational material supplied by the state-controlled media. Television has a round-the-clock program of military documentaries, choruses singing patriotic songs in decidedly unlikely settings, and periodic military communiques listing gains and losses that claim Iraq has a roughly 10-to-1 advantage over its adversary.
These have been supplemented increasingly in recent days by the national TV's own films of Iraqi infantry and tank units continually advancing into Iranian territory, mainly over reddish-brown sand dunes.
Iraqi newspapers meanwhile are turning out endless supplements recording different aspects of what is hailed here as "Saddam's qadissiyeh" -- linking President Saddam Hussein to a historic victory of the Arabs over the Persians that has become a feature of modern Iraqi folklore.
Participation in this battle has become the latest status symbol. Bureaucrats and civil servants whose previous taste was for the immaculate three-piece suits once favored by President Hussein, now turn up for work in freshly laundered battle fatiques, stacking their AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles self-consciously by their desks.
(Saddam Hussein himself also has opted for a change of image recently. It involves much more informal dress and the kind of tight-wound checkered headcloth that could be a symbolic link between the cultures of Iraq's ethnic Arab majority and the ethnic Kurds in the north of the country. Most recently, this has topped the battle fatigues he sports for photographers in the military operations room.)
Morale in the capital is kept high by the quality of the city's air defenses, which appear to prevent the Iranian Phantom jets from getting in close enough to damage any vital targets, and by the ubiquitous and tightly organized civil defense system.
On an empty lot in front of the impressive new buildings of the National Union of Iraqi Students (NUIS), the students man their own civil defense camp during night-time hours. Like many others in the capital who have geared themselves up for a war that still seems quite far away, the students spend much of their time in discussion, jubilation over the Iranian's perceived weakness, and speculation as to how far the Iraqi forces will advance.
One civil servant, poring over a map, remarks that Iraqi forces would never go as far as Dezful, a key oil-pumping station north of Ahvaz, Iran. "Dezful is Persian and we don't want it," he says. "But Ahvaz is Arab, and now we have liberated it we will liberate the rest of Arabistan." (Arabistan is the Iraqi designation for the Khuzestan region of Iran, with a large Arab population and most of Iran's oil wells.)
Foreign Minister Saadoun Hammadi shortly after announced officially that Ahvaz and the surrounding region formed no part of Iraqi claim, and would be returned to Iran in any settlement.