KARBALA, Iraq --
It was a sunny spring-like day in central Iraq, the second day of the Feast of the Sacrifice, and as they have for centuries on this holiday, devout Shiite Muslims repaired to the Shrine of Imam Hussein here with their families to pray and ask for blessings and good health.
On Wednesday, however, the talk was not only about religion and the prospects for a more prosperous year. Instead, the people here were also thinking about a war that they hope will not be, but which they are bracing for nevertheless.
And, to hear them speak, many of them seem simply bewildered that their country is about to be attacked by a much more powerful nation half a world away.
Kassim Hoony, a 53-year-old schoolteacher, articulated his confusion to a visiting American journalist he encountered in the courtyard of the spectacular shrine to the grandson of the prophet Muhammad.
"Why should they fly across all those oceans and seas to bomb our country? We don't hate America and England," he said. "In fact, we like Americans and the English. We don't know Osama bin Laden, and we have nothing to do with him."
A diminutive man with graying hair, he thrust himself forward and pleaded with great urgency: "You must say to the people there that I am a teacher in Iraq for 30 years. Say to Bush and to the USA people that we are like you. We are friends for you. Tell them that they must stop the war."
In the war of wills between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the Bush administration, the people of Iraq have so far been passive participants, waiting to learn their fate.
If and when the shooting starts, their lives may well be in danger from the falling bombs and advancing tanks, and their attitude toward the U.S.-led forces could be critical.
Will they stand aside or even welcome the foreigners who seek to disarm and replace the Hussein government? Or will they tend to view the "coalition of the willing" now being assembled by the United States and Britain as an invading army to be resisted by all possible means, as Iraq has fought against other invaders through the ages?
Some of it may be bluster, and some of it may be designed to please the official listeners who monitor almost every conversation between Western journalists and Iraqi citizens, but the common refrain in Karbala -- a site resonant in the history of doomed causes -- was that Iraqis will feel duty-bound to try to resist.
Saeed Ala, the deputy superintendent of the shrine that he says has been under his family's care for six centuries, said that people simply don't believe that a U.S.-led military operation would be justified, because Iraq has not attacked anyone, and people don't believe that the goal of disarming the country is a good reason for going to war.
"Not only Iraq, but all Muslims, believe that this war is done without any right," he said.
"Iraq is not occupying America or any part of America. It is not even a neighbor of America -- it is far away. Every person has come to know that this aggression is to take the oil and to protect Israel, because of the Iraqi support for the Palestinians," he asserted as he sat over tea in an ornate reception room under a multifaceted mirrored ceiling.
The shrine at Karbala is one of the most important sites for Shiite Muslims, a branch of Islam that reveres Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, and Imam Hussein, who was massacred at Karbala with his followers in AD 680 in a battle over who would lead the faithful.
In a typical week, Ala said, hundreds of thousands of people come to the shrine. On important holidays, he said, several million flock here.
Lately, he said, he has noticed even more people becoming more religious because of the prospect of war with the United States. "It is natural," he said. "The U.S. power is very great, so the people have to rely on the one power that is greater -- God."
The courtyard outside the shrine was a crush of humanity Wednesday: old men leaning on canes wearing kaffiyehs; mothers in black chadors feeding chicken-and-rice picnics to their children; six pallbearers rushing in with a wrapped-up corpse on a wooden platform, hoping to bring extra blessings to the deceased by paying a visit here before burial.
The mosque itself is fantastic. Its minarets appear to be sheathed in gold. A crystal chandelier hangs over the doorway. The entrance is delicately scalloped and made of glazed blue brick and an elaborate design of twisting vines and flowers interwoven with Koranic calligraphy.
Most people interviewed professed no enmity for the United States and said they hope that the war won't take place. They asked anxiously why the U.S. government seems to them to be so determined to carry out the conflict.
"We are in the right," said Ali Mohammed Ali, 55, a medical assistant from the poor section of Baghdad known as Saddam City, 50 miles to the north of Karbala. Americans "are threatening us and interfering in our business."
Karim Ubayd, 35, a driver who traveled here from the town of Diwaniyah with his wife and children, said he comes during the feast, or eid, every year with his family. "We pray and kiss the shrine," he said. "We ask God to give us good health. But this year we also are praying for peace and that there will be no war."
He seemed mystified when told that Bin Laden had just issued a call for suicide bombings and other attacks against America in support of Iraq.
"I don't agree with that," he said. "We have nothing to do with him. We have no relationship to him.... We are a peaceful people, and we do not want war with any nations."
If war comes, he said, he and his wife will stay in their home with their two boys and two girls, try to stay calm "and hope that nothing will happen to us."
But Taher Habib, a 24-year-old mechanical engineer, said he would be inclined to follow Bin Laden's call for violence against the foreign troops.
"The entry of Americans is wrong," Habib said.
"If Americans come here, we must" carry out suicide bombings, he said. "The Iraqi people will be fighting."
Hoony, the schoolteacher, agreed that despite the friendship Iraqis feel toward the American and English people, Iraqis would not long tolerate a foreign occupation of their country.
"If they stay, they will be killed," he said of the foreign troops. "If not now, then in the future." He recalled the British soldiers who came to Iraq during World War I and lost many thousands of men in a disastrous military campaign.
"The English came here," Hoony said. "Now you can see their graves in every part of Iraq."
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times