'The Early Stages'

"Will the war begin tonight?" asked Mohamed, an Iraqi friend, "tonight for sure?" For weeks he'd asked me the same question and for weeks I'd answered: probably not yet. But on Wednesday, I had to say, truthfully: 'yes, maybe tonight or perhaps tomorrow, the bombing might begin.'

"I can't wait until tomorrow," he blurted out, "Iraqis have waited too long. Saddam Hussein will be finished and people will all come out in the street to celebrate. Just you wait and see." He laughed and almost started dancing a jig himself, then and there.

We'd figured all along that war would trigger panic, desperation and, yes, jubilation among Iraqis. After weeks of denial and feigned indifference, raw and complex emotions had began pouring out in recent days. After decades of censoring their every word, some citizens now dared to speak out (albeit still privately in most cases) against the regime of Saddam Hussein. "He killed everything that was beautiful in Iraq," said Mohamed (a pseudonym), "The Americans need to capture him and kill him on television to convince Iraqis that he is really gone. Then they will celebrate."

Not everyone shares such optimism, of course. Most Iraqis I know have been frightened out of their wits by the prospect of being invaded by the world's sole superpower. "I'm so scared, so scared. I must run away from this dangerous place," whispered a hand-wringing floor attendant that I bumped into about 5:30 one morning at the Al-Rashid hotel, a favorite haunt of government VIPs. "Please help, please." The young man was clearly angling for sympathy and a bit of baksheesh.

But he had reason to worry, too: the Al-Rashid's multilevel basement is riddled with VIP bunkers and tunnels, making it a legitimate military target. (The underground complex also adds new meaning to the hotel's slogan: "Al-Rashid--It's More Than a Hotel.") The hotel hairdresser, Abboud, whom some guests call simply The Hunchback, has already decamped to less dangerous environs in the city of Samarra. Tonight, his assistant, Suwaad, pleaded, "don't forget us" and gave me an unexpected hug before she closed up the hair salon and headed home, too.

The city of Baghdad has virtually emptied. Vehicles laden with luggage, home appliances and rolled-up carpets have been hightailing it down the highway toward Jordan for weeks. Some drivers were so reckless--and jittery--that I witnessed a number of fender-benders. For days, Baghdad residents have been waiting in long queues for petrol, sometimes until 2 or 3 a.m. But on Wednesday night, the city feels deserted, its normally bustling shops shuttered and its boulevards dominated by sandbagged machine-gun emplacements and Kalashnikov-toting men in uniform.

At the Ministry of Information, frenetic employees have been emptying the ministry--also considered a probable military target--of computers, desks and file cabinets. Battered pickup trucks laden with office equipment and documents sped off to who-knows-where, presumably to save their cargo from bombing and looting. The last-minute panic has had surreal moments. Just a few days ago, stonemasons still had been noisily constructing the facade of new offices for the ministry's Press Center, cutting sandstone slabs in a cloud of dust as hundreds of journalists milled about.

Trapped in the midst of all these mixed signals, I feel like I'm watching the journalistic equivalent of rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.