BAGHDAD -- Engineer Qusai Jabbar has a word of advice for Americans who think Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is so unpopular that ousting his regime will be a cakewalk: Remember Stalin.
"Russia lived under a bloody tyrant for a long time," Jabbar said. "This tyrant killed millions of his own people and sent millions ... to Siberia. But when the big war came, his people rallied around him and fought like the possessed."
Just as Russians struggled against Nazi Germany's World War II attack regardless of their feelings toward Soviet dictator Stalin, virtually all Iraqis will fiercely resist any U.S.-led invasion, Jabbar predicts.
"You don't need to be in love with Saddam to defend your country to the last," he said. "Americans think they will come here and rule us. They don't know what they are coming into. If they get food from someone, it will be poisoned. If they turn around with their back to us, we will stick a knife in it. Snipers will be looking for them from every rooftop."
In Iraq today, talk among artists and intellectuals revolves around United Nations sanctions, U.N. weapons inspectors and what is widely seen as the prelude to war. Public anger is fueled by the sanctions, which are viewed as unfair and inhumane, and by memories of the bombing that Baghdad endured during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when a U.S.-led effort drove out Iraqi forces that had taken Kuwait. Iraqis do not necessarily see their country as the aggressor in that invasion.
"You don't know the history of the conflict. Kuwait was stealing our oil, cheating on us all the time," complained Amal Khoderi, 65, an amiable and energetic patron of the arts in Baghdad. "We appealed to the world community many times to stop it, but nothing was done."
At the busy open-air Rashid Street book market, where men squat to peruse books in languages including English and Russian, bookseller Hussein Ali, 55, bemoans what sanctions have done to his life.
A retired high school biology teacher with five children, Ali says he draws a pension worth just $4 a month. Buying and selling books brings in about $50 a month, which is nearly enough for his family to live on, he says.
"Sanctions are killing us slowly," Ali said. "The war will kill us fast."
Abdul Khalak, a novelist who sports a Saddam Hussein-type mustache, shared his views at a cafe frequented by writers and students. A color portrait of Hussein hung on the wall, in this case with the beaming strongman holding not his usual gun but a cup of coffee. Some of the customers were smoking traditional narghiles, or water pipes.
Khalak said the U.N. inspectors' work reminds him of "a most boring Indian movie which goes around in circles and never ends."
"You want to stand up and leave the movie theater," he said. "Right now, our problem is that we can't. We have to watch it to the end. And the end is bitterly predictable: The U.S. may attack us any second with no respect for what the inspectors find or do not find."
Broad willingness to rally around the government in the face of any U.S.-led invasion comes partly from a widespread belief that Washington is not being honest about its motives, said Wamidh Nadhmi, a political analyst who teaches at Baghdad University.
"What Americans really care for is oil -- and help to Israel," he said. "They are not concerned with the fate of human rights and freedoms in Iraq."
War seems almost inevitable to many Iraqis.
"One day, when Americans maybe understand us better, they will see that we are not animals eating human flesh," said Khoderi, who occasionally stuck small, even pieces of dry wood into her fireplace to cut the winter chill. "Thousands of years of civilization can't be discarded and downtrodden just like this. But I am afraid that Americans -- I mean those Americans who are prepared to give orders to bomb us out of existence -- don't have an understanding of history and the meaning of it. They don't care."
Khoderi was speaking in a house overlooking the Tigris River in old Baghdad that now serves as an art salon, museum, shop and center for music recitals.
A two-story brick-and-wood structure on a gray and dusty street, it boasts arched ornamental ceilings, a walled-in garden with palm trees and flowers, and hundreds of craft items ranging from drawings to carpets and elaborate calligraphy tapestries. Agatha Christie used to stay in the house when she visited Baghdad, Khoderi said.
During the Gulf War, when the United States bombed a bridge just a hundred yards from her home, the attack also destroyed half the house, which she inherited from her father. After that, she was determined to rebuild.
"It was really the ruins of the bridge, not my crippled house, which sent this signal to my very heart," she explained.
"This house is my life, and my life is this house," she said. "They once tried to bomb my life out of existence. Now, they are ready to try again. You know, only people with no sense of history and its role in our civilization can drop bombs on such cities as Baghdad. It is as if they are not humans but some kind of aliens who come from another planet and know nothing about our civilization, our history and culture."
Khoderi predicted that any invasion force will face fierce battles in the city.
"We will resist," she said. "We may see Baghdad burned to ashes, but we will resist. It is not the first time in history that Baghdad is burned. The Tigris River may become red with blood again, as it was in the past, but we will not surrender."
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times