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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 19 March, 2003, 23:14 GMT
Baghdad braces for war

By Paul Wood
BBC correspondent in Baghdad

Rashid Street, usually one of the busiest commercial districts in Baghdad
Baghdad's commercial district is completely deserted
The streets of Baghdad are completely empty - almost eerily so.

Shops are shuttered, as indeed most of them have been for most of the day. People have simply taken their stock out, put it in a safe place and are no longer open for business.

Most people - in a city of about five million - are now in fortified rooms in their flats or in air raid shelters beneath big buildings, with their stockpiles of food and their families around them, simply waiting.

Driving about, you see traffic police wearing helmets and ammunition belts, one or two pick-up trucks with machine guns on the back belonging to special interior ministry troops - but no large movement of the regular army.

Some people, I have been told, have been getting out the capital - to go to stay with relatives in the country.

But few have got out of Iraq altogether - because the Syrian and Jordanian borders are closed, and most Iraqis could not afford the $100 bus ticket or the $1,000 it now costs for a seat in a taxi.

There is no panic yet, but people are frightened.

In a street market earlier on Wednesday, one Baghdad housewife said she had sold her wedding ring to buy emergency food supplies for her family.

People jostled outside a metal grille, throwing handfuls of Iraqi dinars through a tiny crack to buy the last few plastic bags for storing water.

Welcoming people

Despite 12 years of sanctions and the now imminent bombardment by British and US warplanes, the Iraqi people remain the most warm, friendly and open of any Arab people I have met anywhere in the Middle East.

Earlier, I crossed the road in front of a huge portrait of Saddam Hussein gazing down at me.

Iraqi Baath party volunteers stand guard at a sandbag position on Sadoun Street in downtown Baghdad
Sandbags have appeared on Baghdad's street corners
As I stepped around the sandbags on the pavement, an Iraqi police officer beckoned me towards him.

"Who are you? What are you doing? Papers," he said firmly.

I thought I was in trouble - then I saw him grinning broadly and realised these words were some of the few English expressions he knew.

He grasped my hand firmly and asked: "Do you like Tottenham Hotspur?"

There in the street we had several minutes of broken conversation about English football clubs, which are followed fanatically in Baghdad, before he sent me on my way with a cheery wave.

'Final battle'

In the hotel bookshop, I picked up the collected works of President Saddam Hussein for $20.

One of the books is entitled "One trench or two, which is best?"

The Iraqi leader has long experience of many wars.

He has promised that this will be the final battle - but by that he means the final battle for President Bush, not himself.

Whatever happens, ordinary Iraqis know one thing for certain - they will spend the next days and nights in the air raid shelters.

But for now they wait for their fate to be decided by young Iraqi, British and American soldiers - faceless men they are powerless to influence.

The BBC's Rageh Omaar
"The only traffic on the roads are people trying to get home"

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