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Iraqis cope with war, or prepare for it

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 29, 2003

In Baghdad, another explosion killed civilians, and the Iraqis blamed it on coalition forces, which said they are studying reports. In the north, Kurds improvised gas masks, and opposition leaders urged Iraqis to prepare for a revolt against Saddam Hussein.

Baghdad: Civilians killed

Iraqi officials said Friday night that at least 35 people, possibly as many as 55, many of them women and small children, were killed when a missile or bomb struck a crowded marketplace in an impoverished district of Shiite Muslims in the northwest suburbs of Baghdad. Dozens of others were injured, many of them critically.

Survivors said that they had seen the vapor trail of a high-flying aircraft heading toward the south immediately before the blast about 5:30 p.m. Reporters taken to the scene, in the Shula district, 15 miles from central Baghdad, were told by others that seconds before the impact they heard the roar of an engine like that of cruise missiles that have struck Baghdad.

Amid scenes of carnage at the marketplace, and among grieving relatives clinging to open caskets at a nearby mosque, people were unanimous in blaming the attack on the United States or Britain, partners in the war against President Saddam Hussein.

But as with a similar incident Wednesday, when two explosions in another working-class Baghdad district killed at least 17 people and injured 45, it was impossible to tell whether the attack was the result of errant bombing by a coalition plane or missile, or another cause. After the Wednesday incident, U.S. military spokesmen said they had had no planes in the area at the time and suggested the Iraqis could have caused the explosions themselves, with an errant surface-to-air missile or even by planting bombs.

Baghdad: Shiites quiet

Thousands of shoppers were out on the streets of Saddam City on Friday; traffic on the streets was bumper to bumper. Life seemed normal in this down-at-the-heels part of Baghdad, home to 1.5-million Shiite Muslims.

For now, at least, there's no sign of a Shiite revolt against Saddam Hussein.

Like everywhere else in Baghdad, armed militiamen from Hussein's ruling Baath Party and security forces patrolled the streets and manned sandbagged positions.

Several miles away, in the Al-Kazimiah district, worshipers went to the shrine of Mousa Kazem, a revered Shiite saint, as plainclothes security men milled around the white marble plaza.

They brought newborns to be blessed and prayed for everything from money to peace of mind to heavenly rewards for deceased loved ones.

Though Shiites make up 60 percent of Iraq's estimated population, they have traditionally been ruled by the country's minority Sunni Muslim sect, of which Hussein is a member. The rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites dates back to the seventh century, when the two sects fell out over the heir to Islam's prophet, Muhammad.

Iraq's exiled Shiite leaders say they will want a share of power proportionate to their numbers in a post-Hussein Iraq.

Up to half of Baghdad's 5-million inhabitants are Shiites, and Saddam City, on the eastern flank of the Iraqi capital, is thought to be the place most likely to provide the spark of a Shiite revolt. But there has been no sign of it.

"A believer is never stung from the same pit twice," says Shiite taxi driver Abu Haider, 35, citing a popular proverb. "We will sit and watch to see how it all pans out," said the father of two.

Iraq's Shiites revolted after Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, hoping U.S. troops still inside Iraq and in neighboring Kuwait and Saudi Arabia would come to their aid. They didn't, and the uprising was ruthlessly crushed within days by Hussein's army.

Irbil: Homemade masks

The best hope that thousands of Iraqi Kurds have against a lethal gas attack is a homemade hood of vinyl, cotton and charcoal, tied tight around their necks with a shoelace.

No government or aid agency has answered the Kurds' call for gas masks, even used ones or basic supplies to refurbish them. The few imported masks in the local bazaar were sold out a month ago.

So a team of Kurdish scientists came up with a cheap alternative that they say will save lives if Saddam Hussein's forces gas them as they did in the late 1980s.

Materials for the masks are easily found around the home, or in the nearest market, and when assembled properly, make a gas mask that "is chemically and scientifically proven effective," said Wishyar Ali Ismael, head of the Chemical Experts Union.

It's probably only 80 percent as effective as gas masks manufactured abroad, he added. But without filtered hoods, most Kurds would have no better defense against chemical or biological weapons than a damp cloth and a prayer.

In 1987 and 1988, Iraq launched more than a dozen chemical weapons attacks on Kurdish villages, local scientists say. The most notorious attack killed 5,000 Kurds in Halabja on March 16, 1988.

The scientists came up with the concept by taking apart Iraqi army gas masks imported from the former Yugoslavia. The tight-fitting rubber masks, with glass eyepieces, have activated charcoal filters in metal canisters that hang from the front.

The Kurdish version is a loose hood of vinyl upholstery, with a see-through plastic window, and a sealed packet of home-baked charcoal sewn to the front. It costs less than $7 to make, Ismael said.

The key ingredient is 51/4 ounces of charcoal, the same amount the scientists found in the Yugoslav gas masks. The charcoal is ordinary burned wood, crushed into bits about the size of coffee grounds, and heated in a kitchen oven for about an hour.

Once the charcoal has cooled in the open air, it is folded in soft cotton cloth, which is sewn onto the front of the vinyl hood, with breathing holes poked through the material. The cotton blocks the killer smoke, while the activated charcoal absorbs any vapor that gets through, Ismael said.

A shoelace pulled tightly around the neck is supposed to keep gas from seeping in. It's not perfect, Ismael admits, but it's better than nothing.

Sulahaddin: Call to arms

U.S.-endorsed Iraqi opposition leaders called Friday for Iraqis to "prepare for an uprising" against President Saddam Hussein's government, but a visiting U.S. envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, declined to support the appeal.

The degree of involvement of Iraqi citizens and underground groups in trying to overthrow the Baghdad government has been a source of division between the Bush administration and the opposition based in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. Leaders of the various groups, which call themselves the Iraqi National Opposition, have complained that Washington sidelined them, and by extension that the resource of a popular revolt against Hussein has been wasted.

The effect of Friday's appeal was uncertain. Of the four members of the opposition leadership council, two Kurdish parties say they have clandestine cells operating in Iraqi cities, especially Kirkuk, hub of the oil-rich northern region. Another member, the Iran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, claims to oversee underground units in the Shiite Muslim south. A fourth group, the Iraqi National Congress headed by Ahmed Chalabi, a longtime exile, has little known organization or support inside Iraq.

The organizations made the appeal after a meeting in Sulahaddin, a mountaintop town that is headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. The KDP is one of the two Kurdish forces that have administered an autonomous zone free of central government control. The other Kurdish organization, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, administers a region to the east of the autonomous zone.

In a statement, the groups implied that the Bush administration's invasion strategy is insufficient to topple Hussein.

"While it appreciates the international support to end the dictatorship," the opposition urged other measures. First on the list was a request that "the Iraqi people prepare for an uprising and the liberation of the cities and villages."

"We must be aware of the need for an organized popular uprising," the statement continued. "This will be achieved through close cooperation with the masses in the cities and armed forces loyal to the people, who are all committed to the dignity of Iraq and its glorious heritage."

The Bush administration has long opposed an internal popular revolt. As recently as this week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld urged Iraqis to stay at home while the Americans and British fight. At the same time, Rumsfeld said Thursday that the capture of Baghdad could be aided by rebellion among its Shiite population.

Reporters at a news conference asked Khalilzad if he supported the opposition call. "We have not said, 'Iraqis, rise up,"' he said.

-- Information from the New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press and Los Angeles Times was used in this report.

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