Just hours from the UN Security Council deadline, tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities in a show of defiance against the United States-led forces in the Gulf region - the carnival atmosphere surprising for a nation that might be a target for a devastating attack. At the same time, however, signs of growing tension and apprehension are more evident, as the capital's streets - with the exception of the Jan. 15 demonstrations - have become thinly populated over the last few days.
Many Iraqis have moved their families, especially children and the elderly, outside Baghdad to the countryside amid growing fears that the city will be the target of some of the worst bombing.
So far there has been no evident mass exodus from the capital, but some residents and taxi drivers expected that roughly half the population would spend the night of Jan. 15 in the countryside. Many families, especially among the poorer classes, have decided to stay, having no place to go.
Concern is growing among city residents about the possibility of war, and almost everyone is glued to Iraqi and foreign radio stations for news.
Merchants and businessmen say that business has almost come to a halt as the deadline approaches. There were no long queues in the capital, except for the usual lines for staple food provided by the Ministry of Supply.
In the Jan. 15 Baghdad demonstrations, students, women, workers, and school children raised Iraqi flags, anti-American banners, and scarecrows depicting President Bush as they paraded in the winter sunshine through 14th Ramadan Street.
Shouts of ``Down with Bush'' and ``Peace not War'' rang out as Baath Party officials and Western peace activists stirred the crowd with calls for peace.
A German peace activist - wearing a Palestinian headdress - shouted through the microphone ``No blood for oil'' to a cheering Iraqi crowd waving portraits of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat, King Hussein of Jordan, and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Meanwhile, at Rara, a desert post about 12 miles from the Saudi border, a group of Roman Catholic bishops who had arrived from the Vatican led prayers for peace together with more than 200 Western peace activists. The activists are camping there as a voluntary human shield in an attempt to prevent war.
Although the demonstrations were organized by the Baghdad government, those participating seemed both cheerful at having a holiday from work and school and confident in what they saw as Saddam's ability to fight.
``As long as we have someone like Saddam leading us, we are not afraid,'' said 15-year-old Ashwaq Muhammad. Eighteen-year old Leila Tariq, who lost a cousin and an uncle in the Iran-Iraq war, said Iraqis will stand up to the US-led forces because they are convinced that they are right.
``We have the will and the conviction, which they do not have,'' said the pretty, dark-eyed girl in her school uniform, as her friends nodded in agreement.
Over the past week, Saddam and his aides have made confident statements despite apparently dimming hopes for peace. This week the president ordered that the phrase ``Allah Akbar'' - the rallying call for the Islamic jihad - be added to the Iraqi flag.
So far, Saddam's call for the great ``duel between good and evil'' appears to have made a strong impact here, gaining support from many Iraqis and other Muslims.
Last week, a conference held here of Islamic clergymen and theologians - including representatives from Egypt, Syria, and one Saudi Arabian delegate - pledged to launch a holy war against the US and its allies.
Meanwhile, last minute attempts to avert war were being made on the diplomatic front. France produced a six-point plan which it presented to the UN Security Council late Jan. 14. The proposal qualified as an ``ultimate call'' to Iraq for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.
In the works since the failure of US-Iraqi talks Jan. 9 in Geneva, the plan combines elements of resolutions and declarations already passed by the UN. But the plan couples a ``rapid and massive'' retreat from Kuwait by Iraq with the calling of an international conference ``at the appropriate moment'' on the larger Arab-Israeli conflict and Palestinian issue.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Daniel Bernard said France was now awaiting ``a clear signal from Baghdad'' indicating willingness to ``engage itself'' in such a plan - a signal the spokesman said could be followed by a trip to Baghdad by Foreign Minister Roland Dumas.
The Foreign Ministry claimed the plan has the support of the quasi-totality of the Arab community, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt. As for the US and Britain - which support a Middle East conference ``at an appropriate time'' but reject a link to the Gulf crisis - Foreign Ministry officials stressed that the plan had not been rejected by them.
Mr. Bernard noted specifically that the reference to a ``rapid and massive'' retreat of Kuwait was a direct citation of President Bush.
In Baghdad, Iraqis eagerly approach foreign journalists, asking them if there will be a war. When two reporters told an older Iraqi that it was not clear, he nodded in sadness and said: ``We hope that there will be no war, for the sake of our children.... They deserve a future.''