On Saddam's Shaky Frontline

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FALEH KHEIBER/REUTERS

An Iraqi soldier observes the movement of U.S. and Kuwaiti troops across the border from the Basra province

"The Road of Death" is the name Iraqis give to the highway that runs from the border with Kuwait to the city of Basra. Scores of Iraqi tanks and soldiers were blasted in to oblivion here during the Gulf War, and now Iraqis are wondering whether American troops will soon pass be passing through. Although the road has been mended, the debris of the last war have yet to be fully cleared. Deep in the desert stand vehicle graveyards, where tanks, trucks and artillery pieces mangled by Allied bombing a decade ago lie heaped in the sand.

To learn how Iraq is bracing itself against the world's most powerful army, it is important to travel to the south, which is currently the frontline facing the U.S. forces massing in the Gulf. At the Um Qasser port, where sacks of rice are being unloaded under the UN oil-for-food program, the director waves a hand around him and says, "We are surrounded by the enemy. American ships are just outside this port." And yet, on Iraq's side there is no deployment at all to protect this precious region which floats on a sea of oil, the key to Iraq's treasury. A few trenches have been dug through the desert, where sheep amble peacefully under the watchful eye of haughty Bedouin women. There are some soldiers, but hardly enough to defend the crucial oil fields that burn brightly on the horizon. Along the highway from Basra to Baghdad, the army posts have been freshly whitewashed but are poorly fortified: the walls are low and there are just three men with a machine gun on guard. "If America attacks, only Baghdad will stay," a former soldier admitted after making the usual promises of a do-or-die battle. "There is no one to fight in the south or the north."

Still, Iraqis are remarkably nonchalant about the imminent conflict. "It is a media war," Wathek Al-Oubiedie, the chief cleric of Baghdad's Abu Hanifa Mosque declared blandly last week, after haranguing at length on American treachery. "I hate the news." Which is probably a good thing, because he does not get much. The local newspapers only report government statements and pledges of support from countries around the world. There is no access to international news channels and most web sites are blocked. (Ever since Iraq's top officials received an email from the Pentagon urging them to defect, the country's server has stopped delivering mail.) "Let the Americans come," a baker said in southern city of Basra. "We will show them that the Iraqi man is a real man."

But if it comes to actual war, how many Iraqis will fight? If the scrambling retreat of soldiers after Operation Desert Storm is anything to go by, no civilian is going to jeopardize his life. "Everyone will get into a car, pack their TV, gold, clothes and dollars and drive away to the border," Ahmed, a Baghdad businessman says laughing. Iraqis might resent the American intervention — and they do — but there is no great love for Saddam Hussein either. If it looks as though the regime might topple, they will quickly back an alternative. But unless a change in leadership is assured, they will not risk the wrath of their ruler.

Saddam may no longer be as powerful as he once was, but his people still dread the ubiquitous network of informers that help him rule by fear. On the surface, everyone in Baghdad loves their leader as they cross the Saddam bridge to the Saddam hospital or pass the Saddam airport on their way to the Saddam shopping complex or take a look at the half-built Saddam Mosque. Less so in the south, where hardly any shops bother to hang the president's portrait. But people are still cautious. Even in Karbala, the heart of the majority Shia community, Abdul Sahib Naser Nasrulla, the chief of the biggest mosque, gripes about America's lust of Iraq's oil. "Will Americans accept it if Saddam Hussein wants to change their president?" he says. "Who gave the Americans the right to tell Iraqis that their President is not good?"

Almost every Iraqi raises similar questions, some out of fear, but mostly because they are strongly nationalistic and believe that the U.S. is forcing a war upon them. There are no anti-American protests however, and the few banners that hang outside Baghdad's al-Rasheed hotel seem to be there for the benefit of the various peace missions streaming in from all over the world. In a country that has never known free speech, it is hard to judge the truth. Perhaps, though, the children are still honest. One little boy suddenly approaches in a crowded market to announce that he is ready to fight. Fight whom? "Saddam," he says brightly. "If I have a gun, I will kill him." He is quickly hushed by a stranger standing nearby.

At Najaf, base of the 1991 Shia rebellion, a woman laughs as I struggle with my slippery hijab, then helps tie the scarf that covers my hair. Is she scared of war, I ask, miming planes and bombs. She shrugged and pointed to the sky. God will decide. Then she turns to pray at the beautiful, golden shrine. She looks extremely devout, and perhaps her God is listening. She is praying for peace.