by Satish Jacob
(IPS) BAGHDAD --
Al Rashid hotel in downtown Baghdad has been the world's window on Iraq since the Gulf War of 1991.
It was from here that CNN, with the incomparable Peter Arnett, launched the coverage that became exclusive because few other reporters stayed around when U.S. bombs started falling.
Al Rashid is the place also where Iraq makes its point to the world. This is where the United Nations inspectors stay - and journalists from leading TV stations and publications across the world, although most of them began leaving this week as war loomed again.
Many embassies in Baghdad closed on Monday. Staff from the German embassy left and staff from the French and Swiss embassies were due to leave Tuesday. The United Nations weapons inspectors and journalists were also due to leave Tuesday.
The correspondents in any case were under strict watch, for fear of espionage, and their movements were restricted.
The Iraqis, rankling from the 1991 defeat, made their point to the world visitor by drawing a portrait of the earlier George Bush on the floor by the entrance. You had to walk over the portrait, a way of suggesting what you should think of him.
Over the last couple of days the management at Al Rashid has covered that portrait with a carpet. Is it because they think the Americans are coming? At the hotel, no one says.
But if they are, there is little to stop them. Senior military officers come in their uniforms to dine out. They look strangely calm. Despite the brave words of Iraqi leaders that they are ready for war at an hour's notice, very little seems to suggest such preparedness.
Many people do not expect the Iraqi army to retaliate convincingly against a U.S. assault. The Iraqi military seems to be waiting for war like everyone else. But there are few signs that it is waiting to fight a war.
People in Baghdad too are waiting. But since the announcement by Secretary of State Colin Powell Sunday that Baghdad is now a dangerous place, people are acting with increased alarm.
Business offices and shops were open Monday as usual, the traffic flowed as normal, and children went to school.
But there are signs that Baghdad is nowhere near as calm as it appears on the surface.
Panic buying has begun. People are stocking up fuel, food and water. The government distributes free rations, and on Monday there seemed many more takers than on other days.
There are signs also that many are stocking fuel and food because they want to move out of Baghdad at the first signs that the attack --- let's not call it a war -- has begun.
There is speculation about which of the four zones Iraq has been divided into would be the safest. "At the moment it seems any place outside Baghdad will be safe," says a shop assistant. He is having a quiet day in his store for household goods. The only business doing really well is the food and water business.
People were also rushing to buy medicines and essential provisions in preparation for digging in at home or fleeing Baghdad. "This is where Saddam would take a last stand, and this is where the fighting would be," says a school teacher as she waits for a bus home. No one knows any more whether the next day will be a working day.
Many shopkeepers said they had no intention of opening shop again on Tuesday. Some were seen loading their wares into trucks to take them out of Baghdad. An Iraqi company has launched an advertisement campaign on TV to sell shelters it claims are proof against biological and chemical weapons.
Sandbags have been piled up outside government installations. But if the so-called elite Republican Guards elite compared to who? are going to make a last stand in defence of Saddam Hussein, people have seen no signs of them.
Saddam Hussein has warned of retaliation around the world if Iraq is attacked. But it is not certain how much force he can command around the world, and how much even within Iraq.
If there are preparations for defence, they are well away from the public eye. But few think that the Iraqi military has either the means or the will to make a fight of it.
It is a time of waiting, a time of fear.
March 19, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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