Tough American rhetoric about toppling Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, and the resolve shown by US forces in Afghanistan, is causing deep unease in Baghdad.
Iraq's military forces are now on the highest state of alert, and intelligence services and a host of pro-regime militias are strengthening their grip on the streets.
"Saddam is extremely worried," says a young businessman who escaped a southern Shiite Muslim business center a week ago, and like all defectors interviewed for this story could not be identified because of possible retribution. "Our people are like a time bomb. They need someone to switch it on, and it will blow."
Recent military and civilian defectors here in opposition-controlled northern Iraq describe a 'siege' mentality.
But they also speak of a deep demoralization within the armed forces that could lead to mass defections and a popular uprising in the face of any concerted US military action a critical ingredient to any Pen- tagon strategy to carry out Washington's policy of "regime change" in Iraq.
After two decades of war, deprivation, and steady, bare-knuckled repression to stamp out the slightest hint of dissent, these defectors say that Iraqis are ready for a change. They are both afraid of their uncertain future while hopeful that American rhetoric turns into action.
While President Bush says that he has not yet decided how the US will expand its declared war on terrorism to Iraq, he has warned that he will "deal with" Saddam Hussein.
Vice President Dick Cheney scoured the region last week for anti-Iraq support. And Pentagon planners have already begun to reconfigure US military assets around the region, from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to, reportedly, Bulgaria and Romania. Opposition sources say a CIA assessment team visited northern Iraq late last month, to check the capabilities of Kurdish opposition forces and survey three airports.
The US goal may have unexpected support among disgruntled Iraqi troops as long as any US attacks focus on Hussein and his regime, and not on the Iraqi people.
"Everybody is fed up with this regime, because it has been in continuous battle since 1980," says Hamed (not his real name), an 18-year veteran tank commander, who fought during the Gulf War and defected a year ago. He has the sharp eyes of a determined, professional officer.
"If a US strike happens, nobody will resist," Hamed says. He estimates that 85 percent of military forces will surrender. Citing several examples, he also says that Iraqi quick-reaction ability has dropped 90 percent in the past decade.
"The Iraq Army has nothing to fight for," agrees Tariq (not his real name), a well-educated Iraqi military doctor who defected several months ago. "If there is a possibility that Saddam will be removed, the majority of the army will put down their weapons."
Republican Guard units that gamely resisted US attacks during the Gulf War are weaker today, Tariq says, and plagued by defections. Even the hand-picked Special Republican Guard (SRG) the best equipped and paid, created after the 1991 uprisings with the sole purpose of defending Baghdad is not immune. "A lot of people are waiting for a US strike, not because they like the US, but because they hate Saddam," Tariq adds, stroking the dark stubble that frames his face.
No matter how deep that sentiment, turning it into a victorious sweep that washes Hussein from power in Baghdad won't be easy.
"It is true that the strength of the Iraqi Army is half what it was in 1991, that they have gone leaner ... and have had to cannibalize their equipment to get by," says Judith Yaphe, a former intelligence analyst now at the National Defense University in Washington. "But that does not mean that they are not a formidable fighting force. They still have a core of well-trained soldiers and are more than a match for any opposition inside the country and most of their neighbors as well.
"We can't say that they are all going to put down their weapons at the first smart bomb," Ms. Yaphe says. "The question is one of [US] credibility: What will it take to convince these people that this is a serious effort? We can't afford to do what we did in the past, and pull back or leave."
The Bush administration is not likely to make that mistake, Yaphe adds, "but I am not sure they understand what it will take to achieve that end."
Defectors say Baghdad is getting ready. Iraqis are hoarding food and fuel, being given three months of food rations in a single week, and those trying to leave main cities are being turned back. Ruling Baath Party officials have been issued military gear, and Army units are reportedly being issued with large supplies of ammunition.
"Saddam is creating a new militia every day there are so many that we lost count," says the Iraqi businessman. Several of his relatives were executed after the 1991 uprising. His father was tortured to death in 1997 for allegedly betraying the regime. Because of that, he had to report to local intelligence authorities every 10 days. "Every time you pass one checkpoint, you get another one. Now they are on 24-hour red alert you just can't live there anymore."
This businessman hid in one room for 11 days in before he left, he says, to avoid being forced to sign up for one of the latest militias called Al-Qods, which means "Jerusalem."
"There are hundreds of families, with only women left," says a relative who also escaped, his serious eyes crowned by thick brows.
The number of defectors who have made it to Kurdish Democratic Party-controlled territory turned into a safe haven after the Gulf War has jumped by one-third in the past two months. Until January, there were 62 here many for five or six years. Today there are 92.
"The Iraqi Army is tired, and they are not prepared to be killed for something they don't believe in," says Lt. Col. Wagih Barzani, commander of the KDP's 1st Army Special Forces. Other groups such as the SRG "will fight to save their own skins not for Saddam, but because their own fate is linked to him."
Defectors and Kurdish opposition leaders here agree that there are legions of Hussein's footsoldiers waiting for an excuse to turn against the regime, as entire units did in 1991, in the aftermath of Iraq's defeat in the Gulf War. That uprising threatened Baghdad, as Kurdish militias advanced from the north, and Shiite guerrillas from the south.
Buoyed by a promise of assistance from the first President Bush, tens of thousands of Iraqis took up the fight. But Hussein counterattacked, brutally re-establishing control. US forces did not intervene.
This time, options include the "Afghan model," in which US special forces would work closely with proxy militia forces on the ground in this case the two main armed Kurdish factions in northern Iraq and Shiite guerrillas in the south. Their advance would be made possible by a heavy, targeted air campaign. Another option is an all-out, go-it-alone US invasion involving tens of thousands of troops.