Iraqis Cope With High Prices, Fears of Losing Sons in Battle

WE have learned to be patient,'' said an old woman wearing a long black robe, as the news of the ground war reached the streets of Baghdad. On downtown Rashid Street and in the traditional souks of Sharjeh, Iraqis gathered around radios Sunday to listen to a short message from President Saddam Hussein. The speech came as no surprise. For the last four days, the Iraqi leadership had been preparing its people for the toughest round of the battle. But many Iraqis, it seems, had been pinning hopes on the last-minute Soviet diplomatic initiative and on the United Nations Security Council meeting. ``We were more than surprised by the ground assault. The US did not even give a chance for the Security Council meeting,'' said an Iraqi at the souk. In his strongly worded 10-minute address, Saddam asked his people to put up a brave fight. ``Fight them! Invoke all of the values that they have inherited from your history,'' he said. In his address, Saddam tried to explain that he had done his best to avoid the ground battle. ``We supported the Soviet initiative,... but [US President] Bush and his despicable agent [Saudi King] Fahd have stabbed us in the back,'' he said. At the same time, the speech marked two important shifts in the Iraqi leadership's approach to the confrontation: Saddam made no reference to Arab nationalism or to the Palestinian cause. Instead, he told his people that they were fighting for their survival and that they should have no illusions about Arab and international help or sympathy. Unlike earlier announcements, the address was made only to the Iraqi people, and sent no signals to the international community. Saddam, it appears, had given up on diplomatic maneuvers and was relying on his people and Army to defend the country. Weary of the prolonged suspense over the last week, Iraqis were generally relieved that it had finally broken. ``We were tired of waiting. It is either peace or war, but waiting was killing us,'' said an Iraqi soldier on 24-hour leave Saturday. There is hardly a family in Baghdad without a son or husband in the Army. For many, the memory of sons returning in flag-draped coffins during the Iran-Iraq war is too fresh to forget. ``We have lost many of our sons in the war with Iran. Now we have to go through the same nightmare again,'' says an Iraqi woman whose husband is on the battle front. Residents of Baghdad say that even if the bombing stops and their sons are spared, life may become impossible in the capital. Iraqis blame the coalition forces for disrupting their lives, although they are also critical of the government's inefficient handling of the situation. Telecommunications and power stations were among the first targets of the bombing. A month later, people fear a typhoid or cholera outbreak as the sewage system collapses. ``If they [the coalition forces] don't kill us directly, they will kill us indirectly, if epidemics spread,'' says housewife Umm Issa. At the souk, people try to buy staples for their families. Large quantities of flour - mostly smuggled from Iran - tea, and to a lesser extent sugar are available. But Iraqis nod in despair that the prices are too high. Two pounds of wheat costs six dinars ($18 at the official rate) and a small bag of tea 32 dinars (more than $100). Baby milk powder is only available for nine dinars - more than a 1,000 percent increase over its prewar price. Meanwhile, the ground assault has reinforced concerns here that Iraq was the target of the war and not the liberation of Kuwait. ``The US is not interested in Kuwait,'' says Hassan Fitlawi, a merchant at the souk. ``We are the target.'' -PATHNAME- /usr/local/etc/httpd/plweb/DBGROUPS/paper/database/tape/91/mar/week10/olam.

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