Waiting to Kill Americans

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Muntaha Keithem dismantles an AK-47 while her daughter Sabreen watches

Before the Americans take Baghdad, they'll have to roll over the dead body of Muntaha Keithem. The plump, brassy 40-year-old war widow has sent her family's AK-47 assault rifle to be repaired, and fully intends to use it to defend Iraq's capital. As she contemplates deadly gun battles in the streets around her brother's modest two-story home in the middle-class suburb of Bayaa, her leonine eyes blaze fiercely and she throws back her head to thrust out a defiant jaw. "The Americans should be warned that Iraqi women know how to fight and die as well as our men," she says. "We will give up our lives for our beloved country, our beloved Baghdad and our beloved Saddam."

Melodrama becomes Muntaha, a part-time social worker who looks like a socialite in her chic black woollen overcoat, heavy make-up, purple nail polish and chestnut-streaked shoulder-length hair. Her verbal flourishes borrow heavily from official pamphlets and presidential speeches. But the emotion they convey is her own. Over three days of long conversations, at her home and office, it becomes clear that this bright and otherwise positive-thinking woman is indeed willing to die for Saddam Hussein. Will she back away when the shooting actually starts? That's impossible to tell, but her loyalty to Saddam runs deep and strong.

Muntaha is, after all, a creature of Saddam's Iraq. "The president has looked after me," she says. A member of the ruling Ba'ath Party since she was 12, she was married just three months when her fighter-pilot husband was killed in 1981, an early victim of the Iraq-Iran war. Ever since, she's been wedded to the state, drawing her husband's pension, teaching 'home science' at a government-run high school for girls, and volunteering at the General Federation of Iraqi Women. Her daughter Sabreen, 21, studies journalism at Baghdad University, and Muntaha hopes she will one day work for the state-owned newspaper Al-Iraq.

She's not close enough to the presidential coterie to be rich. Between her salary and her husband's pension, Muntaha makes 48,000 Iraqi dinars ($20) a month, and she only gets by because she lives in the home of her older brother, Mohammed Zaki. But she does have some influence in the women's federation: as deputy director of a Baghdad field office, she's responsible for planning and logistics across a quarter of the city. Oh, and she's met Saddam four times. "The president's door is always open to his people," she says, lapsing again into officialspeak.

For Muntaha, the coming war will be as much about preserving a political system as anything else. "Who is George Bush to say how Iraq should be ruled?" she asks. "Saddam is our leader because we want him to be, and we're not going to let anybody take him away from us."

Whether or not Muntaha and her AK-47 can repulse G.I.s from Baghdad, she represents a serious problem for American military planners. The resistance they will face may not come only from Saddam's army or his Republican Guard. Millions of ordinary Iraqis, like Muntaha, have benefited from Saddam's rule and have a personal stake in his survival. And they won't all have to make the ultimate sacrifice for their leader in order to complicate matters for the Americans.

And then, there's another category of Iraqis whose hatred of the U.S. has nothing to do with Saddam Hussein. Like his sister, but for completely different reasons, Mohammed Zaki is also willing to fight to the death against the Americans. "This will be a war against Islam," he says, softly. "And as a Muslim I have a duty to give my life, if it is necessary, to protect my religion."

Zaki, 45, is not a jihadi, at least not in the sense that word has come to be understood in the West since 9/11. A small, frail man with soft eyes and a courtly demeanor, his voice is not much louder than a whisper. He has too much old-world refinement to join a screaming mob and burn an American flag. Nor would he dream of strapping a bomb to his stomach and blowing himself up in a shopping mall. Still, he sees the U.S. as a force of great evil that, along with Israel, is hell-bent on destroying Islam. "The Americans and the Zionists have started this war," he says. "What can we do but fight back?"

In Iraq, the Arab world's most secular nation, Islamists are a relatively new phenomenon. There's no telling how many there are. The government says Iraqi society is too open-minded for religious fundamentalism to take root, but many outside observers point to Saddam's massive programme of mosque-building as an effort to placate — and even foster — growing religious extremism.

It's rare to find both an ardent Islamist and a committed Ba'athist living under the same roof. Zaki could scarcely be more different from Muntaha. He speaks without a sense of bravado, and smiles wanly when his sister interrupts him with some pro-Saddam sloganeering. There's little in his bearing to suggest that he is patriarch of a family of 20, including three widowed sisters and 12 children. He is a calligrapher by trade and makes around 75,000 dinars a month. "I am poor in money," he says, shyly, "but thanks to God, I am rich in family."

A deeply religious Shia Muslim, Zaki bears the mark of the devout — the top of his forehead, just below his lace prayer cap, is darkened from repeated rubbing on the ground. Piety is the key to his influence over the extended household: with the exception of Muntaha, all the adult women wear traditional Islamic clothing, complete with tightly drawn headscarves. Even the token portrait of the president on the living room wall depicts Saddam deep in prayer.

In contrast to Muntaha, Zaki is visibly uncomfortable discussing politics, and prefers to quote scripture rather than Saddam. But if the family were required to put up resistance to an invading force, he will have the first right to the AK-47. Not only is he the patriarch, he's also a war veteran: as a medic during the Gulf War, Zaki saw active duty in Kuwait. "I know how to use a gun very well," he says, without a trace of bravado. "You won't find an Iraqi man of my age who hasn't experienced war."

Keen to show that the family women, too, know their way around an assault rifle, Muntaha arranges a demonstration at her office. Pulling some strings at the local Ba'ath Party office, she has two AK-47s brought to her office. She and her daughter, Sabreen, dress for the occasion in olive green military uniforms and black veils pulled across their faces to form masks. They then run through some basic drills they learned at rifle training two years ago. This includes dismantling and reassembling the rifles.

Muntaha, rusty from lack of practice, runs into some trouble: taking her rifle apart is easy enough, but she's forgotten how to put it back together. "I used to be able to do this in two minutes," she says, with an embarrassed smile. An instructor who arrived with the rifles gives her a few clues, and she soon remembers which parts go where. She goes through the drill again: It's closer to 10 minutes than two, but her confidence is returning. "When the Americans come," she says, her lips pressed in determination, "I will be ready for them."