Uneasy Calm Marks Passing Of UN Deadline in Baghdad
BAGHDAD, IRAQ — AT 8 a.m., a misty fog engulfed Baghdad, adding to the eery calm that characterized the passing of the United Nations deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. Few cars were on the streets and few people outside. There were none of the customary traffic jams on Sadoun Street, the capital's main thoroughfare.
Many families kept their children home from school. Some schools were closed despite government instructions to have a normal work day because a large number of Baghdad residents have left for the countryside. Some said there was no mass exodus because the military turned back people who were leaving the city.
Iraqi Christians met in all the capital's churches Tuesday night to pray for peace.
Young Iraqi men are searched as they go through military checkpoints, apparently in an attempt to apprehend Army deserters.
Almost complete stillness has replaced the usually bustling, noisy traditional market of Souq al-Arabi. By 9:30, only four shops were open in the market.
``I will remain open for one hour. But if the other shops remain closed, I will just leave,'' said a shopkeeper, as he hesitantly hung up clothes for display in front of his cluttered store.
Until Monday night, many residents in the capital still seemed to hold out hope of a last-minute breakthrough as they closely followed news from the UN Security Council meeting in New York.
Some residents say they had been encouraged initially by the growing antiwar movement in the United States and Europe and by reports of diplomatic initiatives.
But hopes were dashed by Tuesday morning. The Iraqi government maintained a complete silence over an 11th-hour French diplomatic initiative at the UN, while state-run Iraqi newspapers and news media screamed defiance in their headlines and broadcasts, intensifying the war-like atmosphere.
``Today the fingers are on the trigger and Iraq's valiant men and women are awaiting zero hour to wage the most honorable battle in the history of mankind,'' wrote al-Qadissiyah, the Defense Ministry newspaper.
``We shall never compromise Iraqi and Arab rights.... The struggle for the liberation of Palestine is Iraq's final stand,'' said the banner headline of al-Jumhouriyyah newspaper.
President Saddam Hussein visited his troops in Kuwait Tuesday night, confirming the views of Arab diplomats and analysts that the Iraqi leader believes war is inevitable.
Saddam's visit to the main battlefield in Kuwait is a characteristic of the man, who has always exuded bravado in the face of confrontation.
According to Arab diplomats and Iraq officials, Saddam used to go to the front line at peak of the fiercest battles during his eight-year war with Iran. ``According to one story, [Saddam] was about to be captured by the Iranians during one battle,'' said an Arab diplomat who is well-connected with the Iraqi government.
But the confidence displayed by Saddam and his officials does not seem to be reflected in the empty streets of Baghdad and the gloomy, subdued mood expressed by some local residents.
``Of course we are afraid of war, but they, the Americans, will also suffer,'' said an elderly shopkeeper with sadness, remarking that his two sons are in the Iraqi Army in Kuwait.
An Iraqi intellectual claims that what people in Baghdad fear the most is that Israel will strike using nuclear weapons. Some Iraqis feel Saddam has missed an opportunity and probably committed a grave mistake by not responding to the French initiative. Many Iraqis are convinced that Saddam has just claims, the intellectual said, but now some people do not know how to explain his intransigence.
``I do not understand what he's doing. He could have succeeded in breaking the alliance if he had shown more flexibility toward the French intiative,'' says the intellectual, who asked not to be named.
``Saddam is committing genocide,'' said another intellectual, who conceded that this was not the prevailing view.
Residents of Baghdad who tuned into the Arabic service of Voice of America said they were alarmed by reports that most American journalists had left Iraq. According to Information Ministry officials, the number of foreign journalists has dropped from 300 to no more than 80, with most leaving in the last 24 hours.
In addition to the American journalists, most German, Japanese, French, and Italian reporters were pulled out by their newspapers. A few chose to stay.
``It is my job to be here. The newspapers are being pressured by the governments,'' said Stefano Chiarini, a reporter for Il Manifesto, an Italian newspaper. ``It seems they [the governments] do not want witnesses. For me, this is a form of censorship.''
The main American and British networks, and the major Italian network, have also stayed. Information Minister Latif Nassif Jassim promised on Monday that journalists would be provided maximum protection and that their mission would be facilitated by the Iraqi government.