Iraqis flee as Baghdad mobilizes defenses

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld urges Iraqis to stay in their homes.

Even before US forces began their ground attack in southern Iraq Thursday, Iraq was mobilizing thousands of defenders armed with assault rifles and shoulder-held rocket launchers here in the capital city. The degree of menace in Baghdad toward an approaching enemy could not have been more palpable.

Minimal traffic inside this ancient metropolis gave way to frenzied preparations on the outskirts. Armed men clustered on hilltops; others in uniform took up roadside positions with rocket-propelled grenades; edgy travelers packed pistols. This correspondent also saw a canvas-draped truck carrying two Al Samoud 2 missiles - of the 30 or so that remain after most were destroyed by UN inspectors - trundling toward a palm grove a half-hour outside of Baghdad.

Some 300 miles south, the sight of burning oil wells Thursday - reportedly set afire by Iraqis - acted as a trigger for US ground forces. The US 3rd Infantry Division's artillery in Kuwait opened fire on Iraqi troops. Iraq's Rumeila oil field near the Kuwaiti border is one of the country's largest. "Needless to say, it is a crime for that regime to be destroying the riches of the Iraqi people," US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday.

The opening salvo of the war came earlier Thursday, when US forces hit Baghdad with cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs. The bombardment, Iraqi officials say, hit mostly empty government buildings and civilian areas. The International Red Cross reported at least one person had died and 14 were wounded.

In an attempt to show Hussein survived the first US "decapitation" strike against him, Iraqi TV on Thursday showed strongman Saddam Hussein - or someone who closely resembled him - giving a speech mobilize Iraqis to his defense. US officials were studying the tape to determine whether it was indeed Hussein or a double.

Later the same day, Secretary Rumsfeld warned Iraqis not to go to work, appealing to them to stay in their homes and listen to coalition radio broadcasts.

His comments came in the wake of countless families choosing to head for the unknown of the open road rather than to be subsumed by the claustrophobic fear gripping the capital. Vehicles crammed with children and belongings - some with military officer fathers at the wheel - tried to get away. Waits at gas stations along the way were an hour or more.

Despite the marked boost of Iraq's defensive moves - which coincided with the passing of Mr. Bush's deadline for Mr. Hussein and his two sons to leave Iraq - it is unclear whether the hearts of Iraqi defenders are more intent on preserving Hussein and his repressive rule, or protecting their nation from foreign invaders.

The regime has always presented Hussein's leadership as inseparable from modern Iraq. The view among Iraq's legions of defenders may well stray from the official line - separating their nationalist aims from those of Hussein's survival. That factor will likely determine the course and speed of America's war.

Clues to the dislocation of the regime's leadership are clearly found in Foreign Minister Naji Sabri's diatribe Tuesday against the "despot dictator" and "idiot" Bush, who with British premier Tony Blair was a "warmonger" whose war was an abuse of human rights - words that are often used, outside Iraq, to describe his own leader.

But it is often what goes unspoken here that tells most. "I have a lot to say, but I can't," says an educated Iraqi on in the southern holy city of Karbala. "It is dangerous - they are looking at me," the man adds, noting the growing interest of people nearby. "I don't know what will happen to me now. We are not free."

Still, Iraqis are free enough to defend their nation from American troops, regardless of their private views of Hussein. "We can use everything in war," says one black-robed guardian at Karbala's Al Abbas Mosque. "Even this," he says, holding up a small shard of wood in his hand, "I can plunge into America's heart. We want you to see the graves of Americans - they won't have time to bury them."

The mosque guardian, who refused to give his name, spoke after putting away in a blue-tiled side room a collection of curved swords that had been brought out and dusted off for use in a pro-government demonstration.

"It represents that we are ready for fighting - it is the traditional Arab weapon," the guardian says, with a nod of his maroon velvet hat. "It belongs to the situation we are in."

Hussein has tapped into a militant Arab history like few other Arab leaders to maintain a brutal regime that has never loosened its grip on its people in a generation. In recent years, he has worked had to cultivate one other defensive shield as well: Islam. A common image is Hussein, wrapped in white pilgrim's robes, praying at the holy Kabah in Mecca.

At the Mother of All Battles mosque in Baghdad - where the minarets are designed to resemble Scud missiles - one imam confirms that all the talk of war has drawn Iraqis, and their leader, to renewed faith.

"All religions live naturally with love, but if God believes that war is going to begin, then that is God's way," says the young-faced imam Abdullah Mohamed. "People will defend - it's natural - even chickens do it."

And after years of leading a fiercely secular Baathist state, what is Hussein's commitment to Islam? A 605-page Koran handwritten over a two-year period with 24 liters of the leader's own blood. It is on display in a special room at the mosque, and "is an expression of gratitude for God," Mr. Mohamed says.

Are there any plans to move the Koran to a safer place, or to defend it in the way that Baghdad is now ringed with guns? "None at all," Mohamed says.

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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