Saddam Hussein's capital, which Iraq's oil wealth transformed into one of the most modern cities in the Middle East, hasn't looked so good since the 1980s at first glance, anyway. Bridges and buildings destroyed in the 1991 Gulf War were repaired years ago. Work is proceeding on new presidential palaces, towering mosques and urban expressways.
Saddam may be a pariah in the West, but in Baghdad he is the father of the nation, or so the cult of Saddam would have it. His image is everywhere, in the huge bronze statues at traffic circles, in the mural-sized portraits emblazoned on government buildings and even in music videos shown on Iraqi TV that feature Saddam repeatedly firing off his rifle.
The most startling thing, however, is encountering ordinary Iraqis. They are doing their best to enjoy themselves during the holy month of Ramadan, despite 12 years of harsh economic sanctions and fears of a coming war with the United States. "It's on our minds every day," smiles Lina Ibrahim, 26, an accountant I met while dining at Al Gouta, a fashionable restaurant by the Tigris river. "But life is good."
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True, the majority of Iraqis are living in miserable conditions, citizens of an oil-rich nation who have become dependent on government rations of flour, rice, sugar and tea. But thanks to oil-smuggling as well as the gradual easing of United Nations sanctions, Baghdad's markets have not been as well stocked in years. There is a plentiful supply of dates, almonds and desserts, a Ramadan tradition throughout the Arab world.
The poorest are barely getting by, but wealthier Iraqis are making the most of the Muslim holiday season. Just prior to the iftar meal that marks the end of each day's fast, traffic jams occur outside Baghdad's famous sweet shops. Iraqis in their finest suits and dresses are packing into restaurants like Al Gouta, where they dine on heaping plates of grilled Tigris river carp, shish kebab, hommus and spicy olives. The tab for a family of four runs about $12. That seems like a bargain, but in Baghdad it's the equivalent of a year's salary for a school teacher.
If Iraqis are living like there's no tomorrow, that's because they seem gripped by an ever deepening sense of fatalism. This week, UN weapons inspectors, led by Swedish diplomat Hans Blix, are back in Baghdad after a four-year absence. But Iraqis see their arrival as delaying war rather than preventing it. Even Saddam himself seems to echo the anxiety. The letter from Saddam's government accepting Security Council Resolution 1441 is full of defiant rants about injustice, but its key passage cites the normally defiant Saddam's "sacred duty" to spare Iraqis from disaster.
Despite years of Saddam's anti-American diatribes, much less the looming threat of a major war with the United States, an American in Baghdad is welcomed with a remarkable degree of friendliness. Many Iraqis seem to feel that the confrontation is not about them, but about their leaders. Any Iraqi quarrel with America, they are quick to add, is with the U.S. government and not the American people.
Even government officials are surprisingly engaging. Far from being nasty to journalists from the U.S., for example, Ministry of Information officials can be as cordial as if America and Iraq were allies rather than enemies. During a half-hour trim at a common barbershop, I received smiles and handshakes and nary a complaint about U.S. policies.
Two nights later, Lina Ibrahim and her friends were even nicer. After inviting me to join them for iftar at Al Gouta, they proffered an endless supply of soft drinks and sweets. At the evening's end, Roua Ghassan, a 20-year-old medical student, handed me a ceramic key chain after stripping off her own keys, laughing, "We have to give you a souvenir of Iraq!"
If there's one subject few Iraqis will discuss in public, much less with an American, it is Saddam Hussein. Political discussions can go late into the night with scarcely a mention of, much less a favorable comment about, the man who has ruled their country for more than two decades. Such omission seems to be a way of damning the Iraqi leader with faint praise.
But judging from the talk in Iraqi tea houses, it may be going too far to suggest as Bush Administration war planners seem to do that Iraqis who hate Saddam would love an American invasion of Iraq. In Iraq, as in the former Communist bloc, you do find oppressed people who look to America as the land of freedom and prosperity. But as Iraqis are Arabs, many of them are quick to qualify their positive feelings, citing bad memories of British colonialism in Iraq and longstanding resentment of America's support for Israel.
The Iraqi government is using its monopoly over information to exploit such sentiments. Echoing official propaganda, Yasser Thamer, a 21-year-old engineering student, told me that he was convinced that the U.S. wanted to attack Iraq to control its oil. "Iraq has the biggest reserves in the world," Yasser said. When I asked Lina Ibrahim's younger sister, Zina, 21, a translator, how she could actually believe that President Bush actually was planning to bomb schools and hospitals and kill Iraqi civilians, she replied, "I read it in Babil" the tabloid daily newspaper run by Saddam's son Uday.