The Iraqi people know that a war is inevitable, that many will die and that those who survive will have their lives changed for good. And, most of all, they are afraid that something calamitous, terrible even by the standards of this violent country, will befall Baghdad.
The cautious optimism present even a month ago that the return of the UN inspectors would prevent a conflict has evaporated. The two cities that will bear the brunt of the suffering, it is commonly said, are Tikrit – Saddam Hussein's birthplace and power base, which the Americans have threatened to pulverize– and Baghdad, where the government will make its last stand.
Every morning, the people of Baghdad see the convoys of UN inspectors set off on their searches for weapons of mass destruction. They can also use internet bars in the city to read reports in the Western media about how Washington has already made plans for an Iraq under US occupation.
Karim Hassan Noor, a teacher, was watching a TV at the Shah Bandar café showing UN inspectors foraging through a "suspect site". He shook his head. "All this is now for show," he said. "It doesn't matter if they find nothing. The Americans will find an excuse and attack us when they are ready."
Mr Noor, 42, fears the future. "We know war in this country, but this time it is going to be much, much worse than before," he said. "We have suffered all these years under sanctions and now we are going to get bombed by Bush. But there are other problems internally. There will be elements who will try to take advantage of the situation. Everyone has guns here, and there are lots of scores to settle."
Mr Noor's companion, Majid Hussein, an unemployed engineer, agreed. "There are people over there who will try to come in. That is why we are afraid for ourselves and our families," he said. "Over there" is an area called Saddam City, a vast, sprawling, suburban slum half an hour's drive from the center of Baghdad. It is home to 40 per cent of the capital's population of 10 million, and almost every one is a Shia.
In Baghdad, the people are careful with their words. A man in his twenties said: "We do not want the Americans and the British to attack. But yes, there is unhappiness here and many people have guns. I will not do anything myself, but there will be people who will do some very bad things."
It is a very brave or foolhardy Iraqi who talks publicly about "regime change" and Abbas Najib is neither, but he acknowledges that is what a war may bring. "The Americans will want to put in a puppet, or they will try to rule Iraq themselves. We all know they want our oil. They will try to control it whatever happens. If anything should happen to the President, and we all hope nothing does, Iraqis should decide their own future," he said.
"All we can do is wait," said Mr Noor, lifting his cup of tea to his lips. "This is the worst part, waiting and knowing that what is going to happen will be very bad."
* The US has identified 2,000 members of Iraq's elite, and categorized them into those who would be tried for war crimes and those who could help administer a post-Saddam Iraq, The New York Times reported yesterday.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd