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On the eve of war, a black comedy in Iraq

A sense of panic grows in Baghdad's streets, but hardship-weary Iraqis still manage to laugh.

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City workers clean gutters and paint curbsides, gardeners prune for spring, and hawkers sell caged birds to passing motorists.

But beneath the semblance of normal life, a sense of panic is growing at the prospect of a war that seems only days away.

With the nation now on war footing, Iraqi television is advertising bomb shelters; gas stations are overwhelmed; and people are buying generators, food, and water.

At one hospital, eight women in a single day chose to give birth by Caesarian section, rather than risk giving birth as bombs are falling.

"Tomorrow [Tuesday] is the last day," says Mohamed Nabil, owner of the Sniper's Eye lubricant shop. "That's because of the situation, the American threats."

Fears that a war may be launched against Iraq at any time led to the departure of German and most remaining European diplomats in a convoy from Baghdad yesterday.

Computers and equipment were being carted out of some Iraqi government ministries.

Entire families were crammed with blankets and pillows into rickety old cars, in an effort to move to safer areas. Those who are staying were taping up windows to protect against flying glass.

Nihilistic satire

These days before war would hardly seem the time for comedy.

But further down Saadoun Street from the lube shop, the production at the Victory Theater has Iraqis literally falling off their seats laughing - sometimes uproariously, sometimes ruefully.

The black comedy "No Need to Tell Me, I've Seen it for Myself" is an escape for a nation on edge. Part nihilistic satire, part political statement, and part theater of the absurd, the play lampoons the everyday travails of ordinary Iraqis, who have suffered through years of hardship and shortage - the result of two wars, Saddam Hussein's authoritarian rule, and Western sanctions.

A character pours his heart out over a love interest, only to hear: "No, if you don't have a food ration, no one will marry you."

At another point, when a cranky landlady comes screeching for her rent, one player turns to the audience with a cringe, and jokes about one of the weapons of mass destruction that UN inspectors have been searching for: "Oh no, here comes anthrax!"

Long lines at the theater

"People escape their problems here," says Nazar Awni, owner of the theater, where between 600 and 1,200 Iraqis a night pay 80 cents to see the production, which was written three years ago but has particular resonance now.

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