Iraqis in Capital Rebound From Bombing

A WEEK after the United States-led coalition forces launched their first stunning ``surgical raid'' against Iraq, President Saddam Hussein's need to keep the country's military machine in fighting order has left civilians without basic necessities. Gas stations all across the country were closed down on the president's orders Wednesday in the most dramatic sign of Iraq's need to ration fuel to conserve it for the Army.

But despite shortages of food, water and gasoline, the Iraqi people - and Saddam - appear to have absorbed the initial shock of the massive bombing raids. Interviews with Baghdad residents - largely in the poorer neighborhoods where the populace remained in the city - indicate that many have rebounded from the first nights of fear and surprise to regain some sense of normalcy, and even will to fight.

By the fourth day, this reporter's unescorted trip around the capital found signs of a return to an austere but relatively normal life in parts of the city.

In the Shiite suburb of Kazimieh, a strident air-raid siren was ignored at midday Monday as people went about their work.

``We were able to stand in the face of the US and its coalition,'' said a proud shopkeeper in one of Kazimieh's market alleys. Similar statements were repeated many times that day, indicating a surge in morale among residents.

War With Iran Recalled

Iraqis seem to have begun thinking of this war the way they did the eight-year war with Iran - as a temporary, though long disruption in their lives.

``We survived that war. Why should Iraq not survive another war,'' said Ebtihaj, a middle-aged Iraqi woman shopping for groceries at Karadeh.

Although Iraqis might only be practicing a self-conscious act of morale boosting about the nature of the war, they are beginning to realize the extent of economic hardships they can expect.

As gas stations closed down, many drivers were stranded with their vehicles at stations and on highways in the middle of nowhere. But neither earnest pleas with station owners nor occasional outbursts of anger could change the edict.

``These are the orders of the president. We can do nothing about it,'' said a gas station manager in the village of Rutba.

Judging by the president's own statements, daily instructions to the Iraqi people, and editorials in state-run newspapers, Saddam has decided that the coalition forces are launching a war of attrition that he cannot allow to succeed.

Although the popular army and civil defense units are actively organizing distribution of tap water - which ran short in many areas following the first coalition strikes - the main objective remains how to secure the needs of the Army.

The government has made little effort to reextend electricity, which was cut off on many places by the bombings. Nor are there visible measures to ensure food supplies.

A wide variety of food stuffs ranging from fine coffee and processed cheese to sugar are still available. But as prices skyrocket, the goods are beyond most people's ability to pay.

Yet if Iraqis seem to tolerate the austere diet and have gotten used to the daily ritual of fetching water from mobile water trucks, government-ordered fuel rationing is something many resent.

Last November, Saddam sacked his oil minister in order to keep a lid on simmering discontent after the minister suggested a strict fuel rationing system.

On Wednesday once again Iraqis vented their anger as they waited helplessly in front of gas stations. ``We realize that we have to accept gas rationing for the sake of the Army. Could not he [Saddam] have taken our interests into consideration?'' asked a fuming taxi driver when he was told that gas stations were only serving Army personnel. Drivers were particularly angered by the abrupt nature of the decision.

Yet some Iraqis argue that resentment of fuel rationing is unlikely to cause a backlash as many agree that at this stage the priority has to go to the Army.

``We want to live in peace. We want to lead a good life. We are tired of austerity, but this might be the only way to prepare ourselves for a long war,'' says a taxi driver, trying to prove that fellow Iraqis understand and accept the tradeoffs.

But the sudden - supposedly temporary ban of gasoline sales - to an extent disrupted ordinary people's attempts to adapt and reorganize their lives as the war continues.

Residents Return

In fact as this reporter roamed from one station to another looking for gas on the way to Amman, Jordan, she saw cars and trucks loaded with mattresses returning to Baghdad. Iraqis explained that these were families who had moved out of the capital on the eve of the war and had decided to return.

``They are getting used to the idea of war. They prefer to stay in their homes in Baghdad rather than feel homeless and restless,'' said a resident of the border town of Heat.

Most people who left Baghdad were among the better off, who have houses or relatives in rural areas. The poor, as the relatively crowded alleys of Baghdad's traditional districts and old shantytowns attest, chose to stay.

But for those who have stayed in Baghdad and for those who are returning, Baghdad is not the same place.

Life has slowed down as the city sinks every evening into a gloomy darkness lit only by the panoramic scene of missiles and anti-aircraft tracers. An Iraqi woman who spends the night in the neighborhood shelter says that every morning many neighbors breathe relief that their ancient city has not been leveled after the night's heavy shelling.

Major landmarks such as the city's conference center - apparently considered by the US-led coalition forces ``as strategic sites'' - have been hit.

And although the coalition forces have so far been ``selective'' in their targets - some residential buildings have been hit.

Iraqis refuse to give details, but this reporter saw four residential buildings - including two small houses - badly damaged. An Iraqi resident of Amera, a working class residential area of the capital, said another building was hit there as the coalition forces tried to target another ``strategic'' site.

Iraqi newspapers on Wednesday showed pictures of damaged houses and of residents crying over the ruins. They did not give details of names or places.

Beyond the political differences that fueled the deadly confrontation in the skies of Baghdad, some residents take hope in the fact that their ancient capital has survived shakeups and wars for centuries.

Says a young Iraqi architect: ``Baghdad is not just another capital, but is a symbol of many human civilizations that we have to struggle to preserve.''

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