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Baghdad bustles as war bears down

As residents scurry to stockpile, foreigners prepare to evacuate and Saddam Hussein realigns his military.

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 17, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Fearing a U.S.-led invasion might be only days away, residents of the Iraqi capital lined up for gasoline, snapped up canned food and bottled water and mobbed pharmacies to buy antibiotics and tranquilizers on Sunday.

While Iraqi workers sandbagged fighting positions outside government buildings, U.N. weapons inspectors flew most of their helicopters out of Iraq and Germany advised its citizens to leave the country immediately and said it would shut down its embassy in Baghdad.

In Baghdad's Karada district, Mohammed Hassan loaded a dented white Datsun pickup with red plastic bags containing $50,000 of merchandise from his men's clothing store. He said he was taking the goods to his house for safekeeping.

"I'm afraid of bombs," Hassan, 28, said.

Saddam Hussein made his own preparations, sidestepping the military chain of command to place one of his sons and three other trusted aides in charge of the defense of the nation. The decree issued late Saturday placed Iraq on a war footing.

Iraqi Vice President Naji Sabri said Iraq has long been preparing "as if war is happening in an hour."

U.N. weapons inspectors flew five of their eight helicopters to Syria and then on to Cyprus after an insurance company suspended its coverage. Germany issued a new travel warning, urging its citizens to leave Iraq "immediately." Once they left, it said, the embassy would be closed.

Other European diplomats, including those from Switzerland and Greece, are due to leave today, part of an expected exodus from the country's estimated 60 missions, diplomatic sources said Sunday. The Mexican government offered Sunday to help its citizens leave the Middle East -- including paying for transportation costs.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said on ABC's This Week that he would advise weapons inspectors, humanitarian aid workers and journalists in Baghdad "to take a hard look at the situation they are in, and it would be probably better for them to start leaving or making plans to leave."

Hussein's order elevated his most loyal aides to command the country's four military regions. The move will make it more difficult for generals to defect and take their units with them since command rests in political hands.

The decree issued by the Revolutionary Command Council, Iraq's highest executive body, placed Hussein's son Qusai in charge of the regime's heartland -- Baghdad and the president's hometown of Tikrit. Qusai has for years been in charge of the elite Republican Guard Corps and his father's personal security.

Hussein's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid was put in charge of the key southern sector facing U.S. and British troops massed in Kuwait. Al-Majid, known by his opponents as Chemical Ali, led the 1988 campaign against rebellious Kurds in northern Iraq in which thousands of Kurds died, many in chemical attacks.

Hussein's deputy, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, was placed in command of the northern region. An area that includes the Shiite Muslim holy sites of Karbala and Najaf was placed under Mazban Khader Hadi, a member of the ruling Council.

Hussein retained sole authority to order the use of surface-to-surface missiles and aviation resources, the decree said.

-- Information from the Associated Press, Cox News Service and Washington Post was used in this report.

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