Dr. Muthafar Adhami, a prominent Iraqi academic, was watching TV at home not long ago when his 14-year-old son Farad suddenly stopped surfing the Internet and said, "Daddy, come see this." Adhami had received an unusual e-mail titled "Important Information," transmitted by U.S. psy-ops specialists. It warned Iraqis to "protect their families" by reporting any information about weapons of mass destruction to U.N. inspectors--or face "grave personal consequences." The e-mail also urged Iraqis to sabotage any WMD they know about--or at least to ignore any orders to use them.
Is President George W. Bush's message getting through to the Iraqi people? Adhami told NEWSWEEK--in the presence of a government-assigned "escort"--that the e-mail's message "was so funny it made me laugh. If any other country had sent a similar e-mail to Americans, they wouldn't accept it either." Given that Baghdad has a formidable secret-police apparatus, Adhami also did what any smart Iraqi would do: he reported the rogue e-mail to the authorities. Yet he seemed aware that American and British warplanes had scattered thousands of leaflets across Iraq bearing similar messages, as well as instructions to tune into American military broadcasts transmitted from modified C-130 aircraft and stations outside the country.
For a population nearing the brink of war with the United States, Iraqis seem strangely calm. Baghdad residents often claim to "not care" whether hostilities erupt, to be "unconvinced" by American propaganda or to feel that "after 20 years of war, we're used to living with constant threats." Many, nevertheless, are preparing for conflict. The government is digging wells in the city, and many families have stockpiled five months' worth of staples such as rice, sugar, oil and flour. Hospitals are storing food and water, and trying to procure antibiotics, blood products, even bandages. Late last year personnel at the Ministry of Defense stopped wearing military uniforms. "They don't want to be targets when the war begins," says a Western diplomat in Baghdad.
At one of the oldest cafes in Baghdad last Friday, nearly 100 mostly elderly Iraqi men squeezed together on long blue benches under grimy ceiling fans and faded sepia photographs of turn-of-the-last-century Baghdad. "I love American films and books," volunteered a 68-year-old lawyer, meticulously attired in a tweed jacket, sweater and tie. When the conversation turned to politics--is he worried about a coming war?--his eyes darted furtively around the smoky room to see how many eavesdroppers were listening in. (At least two.) "Iraqis love the American people. We don't believe in hate," he said, as if that answered the question. "Maybe a miracle will come, and war will change to peace."
Some believe a war would end quickly. "To fight a war you need an enemy," says a Western diplomat. "But there will be very little resistance here. Most people will just go home and wait." In a quiet moment when no one else was listening, one Iraqi blurted out that "people are tired of the way things are and they want a change. Only the Americans can change things." Which may help explain some remarkable trends in Baghdad these days: the local stock exchange is booming, new shops have opened on the bustling commercial avenue near the old American Embassy and land prices have skyrocketed. "People anticipate things will get better," explains the diplomat. "After so many years of war and sanctions, people don't think they can get much worse."