THE systematic bombardment of Iraq has produced two reactions among Iraqis toward their leader: On one hand, criticism of the lack of political freedoms has intensified. On the other - and this seems to be the stronger impact - the war has reinforced Saddam Hussein's image as a symbol of Iraq's struggle for sovereignty and survival. According to a young Iraqi in Baghdad, friends have become more open in expressing their political views.
``A group of us was discussing the situation in Iraq last night,'' Kareem says. ``Some of us were very pro-government, others were against.... But at the end of the discussion we decided that we should remain reunited until the battle is over.... It is not the right time to allow our differences to erupt,'' he says candidly.
The development is significant in a country where friends are not used to revealing feelings to each other.
For Kareem and other young men including those who dislike al-Qaaid (the leader), as he is called in Iraq, Saddam is leading the war in an impressive manner. His regular visits to the front lines, his composed voice as he addresses his people on the radio during bombardments, seem to capture the imagination of these young people, even the most cynical.
An evaluation of Saddam's status among his people has always been a problem for outsiders who are confronted with ubiquitous displays of the Iraqi president's personality cult - and with what seem to be programmed answers from ordinary people who are full of praise for Saddam.
Iraqis interviewed before and after the war started have conflicting feelings toward Saddam. A conversation might start with the most flattering praise toward al-Qaed and end with scathing criticism of his repressive rule.
Despite the criticism, almost everyone - except for disillusioned intellectuals who were once in the crushed political opposition - says they are proud of Saddam. ``He is courageous, he is a real leopard,'' says Adnan, who has served in the Army, echoing a widely repeated view.
Courage and bravery - and sometimes, in more narrow terms, manhood - are revered by the Iraqis who view themselves as a nation of soldiers who have fought across the centuries for their survival. Most Iraqis express contempt for the Arab leaders who have joined the alliance.
``He might be ruthless but [he is] dignified. He is not like those who are kneeling to the US,'' says Kareem, a taxi driver who says he does not like Saddam.
``None of the leaders who have joined the US alliance provide a model for the Iraqis,'' says an Arab analyst who has lived in Baghdad for the last 10 years.
Yet at the same time, Iraqis interviewed did not conceal their resentment of the continuing dictatorial rule. ``It is just unfair for him to expect us to tolerate hardships and make big sacrifices without thinking of consulting us ... without taking into consideration our feelings, without giving us freedoms,'' says Kareem in a frustrated tone.
A senior Arab official, who met Saddam before the war, told the Monitor that liberalization of the Iraqi system was the last topic he discussed with Saddam. ``He seemed ready,'' the official said.
Some young Iraqis agree that Saddam will open up the system if he survives. ``I think he is getting the message ... the current crisis has shaken all of us, himself included,'' says Mohammed, who fought in the Iran-Iraq war.
Apparently aware of the criticism that he, his family, and close entourage are under, Saddam widely publicized a farewell letter to his elder and reputedly spoiled son who has been sent to the front.
Saddam has also used the shelling of Israel to boost morale and secure the support of his people. Iraqis have been deeply moved by scenes of Israeli suppression of the Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories.
``He is a man of his word. He does what he says. He might be many things, but he does not break his promise,'' Kareem says.
Iraqis are also being influenced by reports of demonstrations in support of Saddam in Arab and Islamic countries.
``If they all like him, that means he is expressing their feelings. He must be right on many things,'' notes Saadoun, who could not join the Army for health reasons.
The most difficult question remains: If the hardship continues, will Iraqis overcome their frustrations and the accumulated resentment of years of repression and rebel against Saddam. So far there have been no signs of political organization.
But according to Arab analysts in Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, and even Syria, regardless of his fate and of the Iraqi people's reaction to his long rule, the continuation of the war and his refusal to bow is already making Saddam the strongest if not the only candidate to become the symbol of Arab nationalism for generations.