Faced with U.S. threats of war, people on the drab streets of Baghdad speak of dying for Saddam Hussein — but as a remote possibility and without much anger or emotion.
They seem more concerned about why Washington is so focused on Iraq and not on Iran or North Korea, other countries President Bush has labeled part of the "axis of evil."
"Bush, like his father, obviously has something against us Iraqis," Nawar Adnan Al Baidi said as he sipped tea at the Spinach Cafe across from Baghdad's University of Technology, where he is a student. A government minder was nearby during the brief interview.
The United States says Saddam must stop trying to develop nuclear weapons and give up the biological and chemical arsenal he was building even before the first President Bush recruited a coalition to drive Iraq out of Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War.
Bush the son said Iraq, Iran and North Korea were an "axis of evil" for allegedly trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction and sponsoring international terrorism.
"Even if it's true that Iraq developed weapons of mass destruction, so did Iran and North Korea — and Bush is not threatening war against them," said 20-year-old Al Baidi.
"Why only us then?" he asked, offering no answer.
Officials here regularly speak of Iraqis happily standing up to American invaders and defeating them decisively. Only Friday, Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said the Americans "will be sent to hell if they attack Iraq."
Tunai Sabah, another student at Al Baidi's table, said she was ready to fight the Americans "until the last drop of blood." But then she added that she did not understand why Americans hate Iraq.
"They say they want to get rid of Saddam, but it is the ordinary people who will suffer and bleed," she said.
Privately, Iraqis speak of knots in their stomachs and growing worry for their children in case of another war. None, however, would acknowledge that to strangers, especially to foreign reporters accompanied by government employees.
Still, vendors selling vegetables, nuts and spices at Baghdad's bustling open air Al Suq Aurubi market seemed more fatalistic than the regime's patriotic rhetoric would indicate.
"For 12 years, we have suffered under wars and sanctions, so one more suffering won't make a difference," said Isaa Kadum, selling home made cookies. "If Bush thinks his threats are scaring us, he is wrong."
Around him, shoppers bargained for flour, sugar, spaghetti, oil and spices — goods only recently becoming a little more plentiful and affordable in isolated Iraq.
Iraqis say life has gotten slightly easier in the past three or four years. More money and goods have been coming in under a U.N. program easing sanctions imposed since the Gulf War to try to force Saddam to stop cultivating banned weapons.
The Iraqi government, thanks to oil revenue from the U.N. program, has lifted salaries for state employees and some others slightly beyond the national average of $10 a month. The size of the monthly government ration from the so-called oil-for-food program has recently doubled, so citizens can store food reserves in case of attack, Baghdad's people say.
But, Iraqis are preoccupied with survival, and the looming American attack is something too far away to be confronted immediately.
"All we think about is one day at a time, and the priority is food for our children," said Saddam Nuri, an employee of the Iraqi state oil company, who shopped for cheap food with his wife and three small children.
Asked who is to blame for the dismal life in Iraq, he stopped, pointed his finger up as if to say someone high up in the regime. But, perhaps fearful of the implications of his gesture, he said with a tinge of sarcasm: "Of course, America!"
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
APTV 11-02-02 1344EST