Baghdad gears up for street-to-street battle

Friday, March 7, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Baghdad residents are snapping up pistols and hunting rifles; trenches and sandbagged gun positions are multiplying. Militiamen loyal to Saddam Hussein say they're ready for a fight to the death.

Baghdad is gearing up for what could be a street-to-street fight against American troops, if President Bush gives the order to invade. Saddam appears nightly on television to reassure Iraqis the Americans would be no match in a ground battle.

Iraqis echo his words. But some say privately they are preparing to fight off another enemy: gunmen who may try to settle old scores or simply take advantage of a power vacuum to rob and loot.

"A lot of it is going to depend on motivation and the level of loyalty to Saddam, and that's difficult to gauge," Ian Kemp of Jane's Defense Weekly said Thursday in a telephone interview from London.

The United States and Britain have nearly 300,000 troops in the Persian Gulf region -- and expect to have 100,000 more within weeks -- for a threatened invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam from power and ensure Iraq isn't hiding weapons of mass destruction.

In a week, this city of 5 million people on the banks of the Tigris River has taken on the appearance of a defense line, where preparations for battle are visible at almost every corner.

Residents say the number of sandbagged positions has almost tripled in two weeks. There are at least twice as many armed policemen in full combat gear as there were a week ago.

Gun sales good

Guns are very common in Iraq. Even so, gun shop owners say business has risen by 25 percent over the past month, with cheap pistols priced under $100 in highest demand. The shops are not allowed to sell assault rifles, but store owners say hunting rifles are selling fast.

"This is a business like any other business, and the present situation makes everyone want to think he's equipped to defend himself and his family," gun shop owner Mahmoud Mahdi said Thursday.

Mohiey Khalaf, 72, has been in the business of repairing and maintaining firearms for over 40 years. On Thursday, he was busy fixing a black revolver at his workshop in a small pedestrian alley.

On Wednesday, in an ominous sign of what may be in store if American troops attempt to capture the city, 60 men clad in white paraded through Baghdad, pledging to give their lives in suicide attacks on U.S. troops.

Members of Saddam's ruling Baath Party say they've set up neighborhood brigades with a structure of command that ensures uninterrupted communication if fighting breaks out.

"How can they possibly try and enter Baghdad?" said Ali Mohammed, a 30-year-old local Baath leader in the working class district of Al-Habibiyah. "They dare not come in because they will meet a certain defeat."

Emerging from a gun repair shop, he tucked his pistol into his belt.

Mohammed, like millions of Baath Party members and militiamen loyal to Saddam, also has a Kalashnikov, the weapon of preference for most Iraqis. Occasional violence between rival tribes and Iraqis' love of hunting mean hardly an Iraqi household is without at least one firearm.

Saddam has for weeks been feeding the notion that Iraqis fighting on home terrain would have an edge over the better-armed Americans. Meeting with infantry commanders Wednesday, he catalogued the features of a U.S. aircraft carrier he did not identify: a nuclear power station, a water desalination plant, nine stories and 20,000 meals a day.

"But does it have tires to reach Baghdad? Certainly not. The one thing that will finally decide the battle is a soldier on his feet," he said.

Many in Baghdad agreed.

"My family taught me how to use a gun at age 5," said Nazer Qahtan Khalil, co-owner of one of Baghdad's estimated 45 gun shops. "Would you allow someone to enter your home uninvited? God willing, Baghdad will be the grave of the Americans."

In addition to the danger posed by street battles in Baghdad, experts and some Iraqis warn any power vacuum, however brief, would tempt looters or people who want to settle scores among the city's many clans and tribes.

Residents of the capital are reluctant to speak openly about the prospect of violence between Iraqis, preferring instead to stick to the official line that every citizen would rise to the defense of his country against foreign invaders.

But Hussein, a 31-year-old Baghdad taxi driver who wouldn't give his last name, said while Iraqis would indeed fight for their country, some of the city's residents fear Iraqis could attack their local enemies if lawlessness breaks out.

"Without government officials mediating as they always do, there could be a lot of fighting," he said.

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