BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Faced with a fight for survival against a U.S.-led onslaught, Saddam Hussein is rallying Iraqis to fight for the land of their ancestors – seeking to portray the war as one pitting the faithful against evil.

Shabina Khatri
AP PHOTO
Iraqis gather around a television inside a barber shop in the Karrada district of Baghdad yesterday to watch Iraqi President Saddam Hussein address the nation.

A televised address by Saddam shown on state-run television yesterday underlined his strategy to rally Iraqis through Islam. He mentioned “God” 28 times, “jihad,” or holy war in this context, seven times, and the word “faithful” four times.

“It is a near victory that God promises the patient faithful with. Those who are believers will be victorious,” Saddam said. “In these decisive days, the enemy tried not using missiles and fighter jets as they did before. This time, they sent their infantry troops. This time, they have come to invade and occupy your land.”

Military communiques issued daily in Iraq speak of troops as “God’s soldiers,” cite verses from the Quran about a small minority being able to defeat a larger force, and end with Islam’s rallying cry of “Allahu akbar!” or “God is great!”

There’s evidence his calls to patriotism and religion are resonating among a people that Washington had expected to welcome coalition forces as liberators rather than fight them as enemies.

U.S. and British forces are meeting unexpectedly stiff resistance in fighting in southern Iraq and, as coalition troops press toward Baghdad, militiamen loyal to Saddam are continuing to harass them with deadly ambushes and ruses.

In the southern city of Basra, the scene of some of the fiercest fighting, a hoped-for welcome from civilians had not materialized, British spokesman Col. Chris Vernon said.

Coalition forces sent radio broadcasts and leaflets to Basra to urge residents to oppose Saddam’s militia from inside the city, Vernon said. Commanders have held off storming the city, hoping its Iraqi defenders would surrender, but they have held firm.

Elsewhere yesterday, residents of the border town of Safwan stoned a passing U.S. military convoy.

Saddam and his propaganda machine have spared no effort in stoking anti-American sentiments among Iraqis in recent months and projecting an image of Iraq as the last and only Arab bastion of independence and anti-colonialism. They also have played on the widely accepted perception of the United States favoring Israel over the Arabs and the U.S.-led war on terror as a neo-Crusade against Islam.

Anti-American feelings also have their roots in the 1991 Gulf War, when a U.S.-led coalition routed Iraq’s army, and from nearly 13 years of crippling U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Iraqis say the sanctions have been kept in place because of Washington and blame them for what they say is the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, mostly children.

Iraqi officials also have been appealing to patriotism. They focus on the country’s history as the birthplace of civilization and one that knew law and science when, according to Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, the ancestors of President Bush lived in caves.

For years, policy makers and analysts from around the world have propagated the notion that Saddam’s authoritarian regime and its poor human rights record would leave him isolated in the face of an outside threat.

They also spoke of a nation divided along ethnic, religious and regional lines and the fragility of a government whose popular base is limited to Saddam’s own Sunni Islamic clan in Tikrit north of Baghdad. Iraq’s Sunni minority has traditionally been the ruling elite of an Iraq where Shiite Muslims are the majority, a fact that has led many to point to an imbalance that would eventually lead to instability.

These divisions may still spill over into an open challenge to Saddam, as happened when the Kurds and Muslim Shiites revolted in 1991, as the war continues and the anticipated ruinous battle for Baghdad begins.

Evidence suggests this may not happen, at least not soon.

Iraq’s Shiites, whose leaders abroad speak of Saddam’s oppression, have remained quiet despite the war.

“All the fighting so far has been taking place in the south, not in Tikrit,” Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told a news conference, rebutting claims that Saddam’s strategy was to defend his hometown and Baghdad, the seat of power.

“We are all Iraqis, there is no difference between Muslim and Christian, Shiite and Sunni,” said Aziz, a Christian and a stalwart of Saddam’s regime for two decades. “The Iraqi people are united under the leadership of President Saddam Hussein.”

It is difficult to gauge how ordinary Iraqis feel about the U.S.-led attack to oust Saddam, their president of 23 years, given the regime’s record of no tolerance for dissent. Knowing the Iraqi hostility toward the United States, however, it’s plausible to believe them when they speak of fighting the Americans as invaders should they come to Baghdad.

Saddam hardly figures in when they speak of that fight. Instead, they speak of their honor and history as a proud nation with a long history.

In contrast, members of Saddam’s ruling Baath Party speak of their loyalty to the Iraqi president and how he is leading them in this “epic” battle against invaders.

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