Apocalypse Near

If the southern town of Suq al-Shuyukh is any indication, the crumbling of Iraq is on the verge of becoming an avalanche. The town, 185 miles from Kuwait City and just outside the allied forces' occupation zone, was "liberated" on March 2. Used as a staging area for rebel raids on the key city of Al-Nasiriya 18 miles away, it has been under heavy counterattack from loyalist Republican Guards. It also is filled with refugees from the merciless pounding of loyalist artillery farther forward, as Iraqis seek increasingly scarce medical treatment, food and water.

Suq al-Shuyukh is not much of a haven. As loyalist tanks and artillery pressed toward the town last week, the hospital ran out of medicine, and its filthy corridors were littered with bloodstained sheets and gurneys. About 20 patients were suffering from cholera - the victims of impure water supplies. "When serious battle injuries come in, we send them to the Americans," said Dr. Anwar al-Hadawi, member of a resistance group known as the Young Democratic Organization. By the side of the highway out of town, a U.S. Army battalion erected an aid station. It is now treating about 20 Iraqis a day - patients suffering from illnesses too long neglected, dehydration or lack of food. Last week two skeletally thin infants suffering from severe diarrhea were rushed into the surgical tent, so malnourished that medics couldn't find their veins to feed them intravenously. "Just look at what Saddam has done to his own people," said Warrant Officer Steven Barnhart, the battalion's medical officer. "It wasn't supposed to be like this."

But it was like that all over the country. Last week a United Nations mission returned from Iraq with a report on humanitarian needs, and it called the situation "near apocalyptic." The combination of allied bombing and multipronged rebellion has reduced Iraq to what the mission termed "a preindustrial age." The allied definition of military targets included all power-generating facilities. Plants that run on electricity have been crippled. There are no effective communications or transportation services. The breakdown of water-purification and sewage-treatment facilities has created an immediate threat of cholera. In Baghdad, water supplies are at less than 10 percent of prewar levels.

The power losses also affect irrigation projects on which Iraqi agriculture depends. Food supplies are "critically low" the report said, and prices are subject to "hyperinflation." Necessities now cost 1,000 percent more than before the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait. The price of a pound of rice, for example, is almost equivalent to the prewar daily wage of a typical civil servant. Families are selling off gold and jewelry to pay for staples. On some days, even government rations are unavailable because of damage to the distribution system. Malnutrition will compound the problem of disease. The report warns of "epidemic and famine if massive life-supporting needs are not met." The sanctions committee of the U.N. Security Council agreed late last week to allow food and fuel deliveries on humanitarian grounds, but the Council declined to formally lift the sanctions on Iraq.

The political chaos also intensified last week, with claims of success by Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq. For the first time, said exiled rebel spokesmen in Damascus, fighting broke out in Mosul, Iraq's third largest city. The Kurds also said they had taken the city of Kirkuk, an oil-industry center. Some clashes even broke out in Baghdad, the capital. In the south, seesaw battles continued with pro-government forces making gradual gains. In southern Al-Nasiriya last Wednesday, an Iraqi rebel leader who called himself Lieutenant Muhammad predicted that his outpost would fall. "Saddam Hussein's Army has taken all of Al-Nasiriya except this small part," he said. "Soon they will come this way." Frontline rebels fired mortar and rocket-propelled grenades at the Guards. One paused to yell "Down with Saddam." But another confessed to NEWSWEEK, "[The loyalist] artillery is really hurting us. Isn't there something the Americans can do?" (By Friday the group had fled.)

It was a dilemma for the United States. Ever since fighting erupted in a dozen southern cities the first week of March allied troops in Iraq have tried to steer clear of the insurrection. Soldiers of the occupation force stay below an official demarcation line, south of a railway and causeway network and out of population centers such as Al-Nasiriya. "Indian country starts here," drawled an American soldier at an 82nd Airborne checkpoint on the highway leading toward Al-Nasiriya. "Iraq's at civil war and it's happening right down there." Ten miles down the road, a scraggly gang of nine armed Iraqis materialized last Wednesday to set up their own checkpoint, searching vehicles in the name of the "Arab Liberation Front." Gathering excitedly around a journalist's vehicle, the Iraqi rebels clearly hoped to get a little help from their friends. "American troops should overthrow Saddam," said a rebel named Hussein Khalifa, who wore a leather jacket and a pistol tucked into the waistband of his jeans. "The U.S. Army should intervene in this conflict to help us."

At the height of rebel strength in the area, between 5,000 and 7,000 "revolutionaries" had sought sanctuary in Suq al-Shuyukh. Islamic slogans and posters of the Shiite Prophet Ali had been erected where giant portraits of Saddam Hussein once stood. More than 80 percent of the residents were Shiite, and a 500-member rebel faction known as the Islamic Front seemed to wield the strongest influence. But it was hard to know who was running the show. At the local girls' primary school, a chaotic meeting with rebel leaders produced representatives from the Islamic Front, the Young Democratic Organization, the now banned Iraqi communists and a dissident faction of the ruling Baath Socialist Party. When one tried to explain his policies, another would interrupt. (Included was a former Iraqi ambassador to Germany, who admitted, "I have joined the revolution but have been idle, waiting for people to organize themselves.") At one point a man in jeans corrected a colleague: "It's not an Islamic revolution, but a revolution of the people." Then he began chanting in English, "We need help from America."

Washington has made no secret of its wish to see Saddam toppled. But at the same time the United States does not want to engineer Iraq's destabilization. Anti-government rebels in southern Iraq have met with U.S. officers to ask for weapons, military support and sanctuary from the Americans. "They say, 'Why don't you go and kill Saddam?'," explained medical officer Barnhart at a U.S. checkpoint near Al-Nasiriya. "I tell them, 'Our Army isn't allowed to do that.' They're very frustrated."

Just about every Iraqi living in or near the U.S. sphere of influence has expressed anti-Saddam sentiment. "To a person they're complaining about that s.o.b.," said one American officer. But many Iraqis realize the safe haven provided by the American presence will be short-lived. What will happen when the Americans head home? "We will be attacked by the Republican Guard," stated a doctor at the Suq al-Shuyukh hospital who identified himself only as Ali. "The town will be destroyed completely, I am sure of that," a bystander chimed in. What will they do? "Some will run, and some will fight," said Ali. "I will fight because I am part of this revolution." One rebel group even toyed briefly with the idea of taking American hostages to try to compel the troops to stay, said a resistance leader named Abu Ali.

Meanwhile, basic conditions continued to deteriorate and the members of the U.N. mission spoke of "imminent catastrophe." "I was in North and South Vietnam during the war and in Cambodia after Pol Pot," mission member Paul Altesman of UNICEF told NEWSWEEK in New York. "I'm not easily panicked. But what is different in Iraq is that this society had become totally dependent on modern amenities. In Indochina, if you knocked out the electricity, they didn't use it anyway." By contrast, he said, Iraqis are "urban people with no rural resources." The disappearance of urban life has "produced a real sense of anxiety and helplessness." The question was: will that anxiety hasten the overthrow of Saddam Hussein - or leave the Iraqi people more intimidated than ever?