A City On The Brink

Night after night, since the start of the war, the message boomed into the darkness from the loudspeakers of Baghdad's 14th of Ramadan Mosque. Sometimes the haunting, hypnotic baritone almost drowned out the fearsome din of the air war: "God is great!" the voice repeated. "God is almighty!" In person, the mosque's assistant imam, Murtadha Mustafa al-Zaidi, is a soft-spoken 30-year-old in a long gray robe and dusty flip-flops. "Residents from the neighborhood come to me and thank me," he said on a sunny afternoon last week as U.S. ground forces prepared to enter the capital. "They say my message makes them forget their fear." Birds were chittering in the trees outside. He added: "The Americans are attacking Iraq, thinking they are the world's greatest power. But we remind them that Allah is even greater."

A night later the loudspeaker went silent: Baghdad's electricity had been cut. According to U.S. officials, the Iraqi regime had turned out the lights. Whatever that ploy was supposed to accomplish, it only worsened the public's anxiety without slowing the Coalition's advance. Before the end of the next day, U.S. forces had taken over the city's airport. By Saturday morning a column of American tanks was rolling through part of the capital. The Information Ministry desperately insisted that Iraq's forces were routing the invaders, but it was increasingly obvious that Saddam Hussein's rule was nearing its end. A desperate crush of people fleeing the city created a traffic snarl that stretched for miles.

Many other people in Baghdad still seemed not to know what was happening. Most of them never saw the U.S. tank foray, and Iraqi TV certainly wasn't mentioning it. Some people undoubtedly heard the story by word of mouth, but gossip means nothing in Baghdad. Rumors here are always so rife--and so often wrong--that they have no more credibility than the state-run media.

Decades of war and brutal dictatorship have taught Iraqis to be resourceful and resilient. They live in the moment, almost like martial-arts masters--or like kids, as one veteran Western diplomat said a few weeks ago, just before he joined the exodus of diplomats and U.N. staffers. "It's a little like child psychology," he said over breakfast at the Rasheed Hotel. "They're experiencing something called an 'intensified state of the present'." That way, he said, Iraqis can avoid dwelling on the dangers of the future and the horrors of the past.

The present can hold horrors enough. My translator, Ahmed Yassin of the state-run Iraq News Agency, is thoroughly conscientious about his work. But even before the war began, he had warned me that his kids would need him at home during bombardments. His daughter, Israa, 2, and his son, Abdullah, 3, were terrified of thunder and lightning. Last week I visited them at home. The children have turned adversity into entertainment. At the sound of bombs dropping, Israa begins dancing and asks the grown-ups to join in the "music" by tapping out a cadence on wooden furniture. "When the bombardment gets really intense, we find her fast asleep," said Ahmed's wife, Eman. As she spoke, the little girl fell asleep on the couch. Abdullah refuses to eat anything but chocolate all day, and insists he's hungry at bedtime. "But once they fall asleep, the children can sleep soundly," their mother says. "They're no longer afraid the way they used to be."

There's little doubt that life will return to normal--eventually. When I said goodbye to the assistant imam, a man with a garden hose was washing the sidewalk outside his barbershop across the street. Kaes Al-Sharea, 34, spent three years scraping up $10,000 to set up shop. He finally opened on Jan. 1, even though he knew that war was almost inevitable within weeks. "I used to be a soldier during the Iraq-Iran war," the barber said. "I'm not afraid." The shop was neat and tidy, with a single barber's chair placed on a wide expanse of white tile floor. A wall of mirrors, still unbroken, was crisscrossed with giant Xs of transparent tape. Al-Sharea talked about his plans: "I'm going to have five barber chairs, five assistants and a women's hairdresser as well. I'm sure business will be even better after the war." When did he expect that day to come? He said, laughing: "Even Bush doesn't know."

No matter how long it might take for peace to return, people are already speaking more freely. Late last week NEWSWEEK's photographer Ilkka Uimonen and I stopped for lunch at the popular restaurant Candles. The lights were on; like most dining places in Baghdad, Candles has its own generator. The city's electrical grid has been undependable for years. Before the war, Candles used to serve hundreds of customers a day. Now the place gets no more than 150 or so. The food is fresh and inexpensive, even though the war has disrupted produce deliveries and some of the local markets. I asked one of the waiters what he would do if a group of American soldiers marched in and wanted a meal. "If they come as customers and not as the enemy, well, then let them come and eat," he answered. An older waiter seconded him: "Let them come, as long as they're paying customers."

Banks, schools and most nonessential state offices have been closed for weeks, but the bureaucracy seems likely to outlive Saddam. When a night's bombing destroyed the Information Ministry, the government's Press Center relocated across the river to the Palestine Hotel. Most foreign journalists had moved there several weeks ago after hearing that the Rasheed Hotel might become a Coalition target. Ministry officials quickly set up shop in a warren of back offices, including one for the official we've nicknamed the Gnome, the fee collector with no fingernails. A sign on his door says casher. A few days ago authorities began confiscating our old press badges (pink) and warning us to get new ones (yellow) for our own protection. That meant standing in a long line to pay the Gnome hundreds of dollars a day in back fees. My bill came to nearly $15,000.

On Saturday morning I had breakfast with a Press Center official, usually one of the most hardworking and good-humored of the lot. He looked grim and exhausted. Quietly I asked him how far the front line was from the Palestine Hotel. "It sounds like 10 or 15 miles," he said, "but I don't know anything." He was desperately worried about his family, whom he'd sent to a rural area southeast of Baghdad, near Babylon. "I haven't heard from them for a week. I've tried to go see them twice, but the road is blocked. My heart is breaking."

Front-office staffers from the Rasheed also showed up at the Palestine. They were looking for journalists who had left without settling their tabs. I asked how everything was at the downtown hotel. Many of the ministries and headquarters in the neighborhood had been bombed, but the Rasheed itself was unscathed. "The hotel is fine, no damage at all," said one grinning Iraqi. "I don't think the Americans will bomb us. The Rasheed is the best hotel in all of Iraq--where else can you find such accommodation? I think the Americans want to stay in our hotel and use our pool. We'll be ready for them." I believe him.