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Iraqis Brace (a Bit) for Blows

'Duty' to protect homeland mixes with puzzlement over attack some call inevitable.

A drizzle falls across the cramped Baghdad schoolyard, and the Iraqi flag stirs when the wind blows. But instead of packing the classrooms for studies, students and teachers are lined up outside, learning how to use assault rifles.

American airstrikes have pummeled the forces of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein before, though teachers here have rarely had reason to take up arms. But as the threat of a new US attack builds, Iraqis are heeding an official call to mobilize 1 million volunteers for military training.

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Iraqi Army officers put the trainees through their paces, as Western witnesses say they are doing in villages and towns across much of Iraq. Wearing lipstick and sometimes jewelry and dress clothes, the women teachers at this secondary school march, learn to handle guns, and laugh at each other when their hands - trained to write on classroom chalkboards - fumble with Kalashnikov rifles.

They speak - with or without government officials nearby - of their "duty" to preserve the integrity of their country, and openly wonder at American motivations in attacking Iraq again. During the 1991 Gulf War, they recall, a US-led military coalition bombed Iraq for three weeks with 126,000 air sorties, and half a million troops forced Iraq to reverse its occupation of Kuwait.

But seven years later, impaired by tough UN sanctions and facing calls to disarm all of its weapons of mass destruction, Iraqis are asking what is left to bomb.

"We are preparing, but of course this will not defend us against American bombs - we're not crazy," says Aswaq Kadhm, an English teacher, speaking as if continuing a discussion she has had many times. "But you know, training with a gun makes the mind ready. It's like a release."

Washington says that recent Iraqi refusals to completely open up sensitive "presidential" and "sovereign" sites to UN weapons inspectors violate the cease-fire agreement Iraq signed at the end of the Gulf War. US officials argue that Saddam must be "punished" to ensure future compliance.

"Come on, we didn't do a great mistake for this punishment," says Ms. Kadhm. "We want to protect our people, but [the sanctions] are starving them. We want to live in peace."

"Most of the people have no money, so they are starving," says Adiba al-Naib, another English teacher. "Every time I eat, I cry. Where is the humanity of Clinton? If he was really a good ruler, he would stop this."

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Diplomatic initiatives continue, largely because Russia, France, China, and many Arab nations say a military strike will be a counterproductive and dangerous "leap into the unknown," as one diplomat here says. But US officials are downplaying any chance of a diplomatic breakthrough (see story below).

A different mood

Despite the increasingly real threat of attack from American forces now stacking up in the Gulf, however, widespread military training appears to be the only civil-defense measure under way in Iraq. Western and Iraqi observers who were here in November - when a crisis over Iraq's expulsion of American UN weapons inspectors escalated to threats of force - say that the signs of panic evident then are missing today.

"This is very different from November," says a Western source who, like other analysts and diplomats, could not be identified further. "There are no obvious signs of defense, people are calm - it's business as usual."

All signs on the ground point to a very different approach to this crisis. Gas rationing begun in November, for example, was allowed to lapse three weeks ago, and there is no rush in shops to stock up on food, water, or other essentials. Icons of the last crisis - sandbags around shops and houses, and civilians traveling to palaces to serve as human shields - haven't been seen at all.

Western analysts and Iraqis explain that this different approach may be attributed to either supreme confidence that a diplomatic solution will be found - despite the growing intensity of US saber rattling - or a reliance on the Islamic belief that God's will is unalterable and will be done, whether that means a US-led attack or not.

"This Kalashnikov is for the Americans," says Hamdan Rahim Raja, a wrestling teacher at the University of Baghdad's College of Physical Education, while sitting down and toying with an assault rifle during his group's training in a gymnasium.

Asked to clarify, he tones down his comments and - like many Iraqis - draws a line between Americans and their government.

'Something not honest'

"We want peace," says the father of five. "We are confident that the American citizens don't want conflict, because they are also peaceful people. The proof is your presence here - we are talking peacefully.

"We hope there will be no war. But the American buildup in the Gulf means there is something not good, not honest," he adds, holding the rifle by the barrel. "They give excuses like the security of the region, but Iraq at the moment has no capability. What more can they do to us? As patriots, all Iraqis worry about the safety of their country. I hope the Americans will feel our suffering."

Since the Gulf War, many Iraqis have complained that Iraq's unique combination of assets among Arab countries in the Middle East - plentiful oil, water, and arable land - and US designs to control them, they contend, are what drives Washington to "keep Iraq on its knees." Many here still believe it, and stretch the conspiracy theory to include Israeli warnings to the US that Iraq and Iran must always be contained. "We are a rich country, and the American policy cares only for this interest," says Ahmed Badri Hussein, dean of the physical education college, wearing a green, military-looking uniform. "The US wants Iraq to join other Gulf states so it can be exploited as a resource. But we say to America: 'Its evil goal can't be achieved unless all Iraqis are killed.' "

Washington denies that any such plan exists, and points the finger of blame for the current crisis at Baghdad's intransigence regarding weapons inspectors. The UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) set up to disarm Iraq says that, despite progress on disarmament, it believes that Iraq is playing a cat-and-mouse game with any remaining weapons of mass destruction capacity.

But while the debate to use force swirls among diplomatic circles and at the UN, Iraqis on the street say they are resigned.

"We believe that what God has already written, we must follow," says one older man, giving a lift to a foreign passenger in his battered old Volvo. He speaks slowly, as if he knows what that might mean. Unprompted, he notes that Israel also has weapons of mass destruction, but that "nobody says anything," and he is clearly saddened.

"America has power," he concludes, "but not justice."

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