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Threat of war fails to faze Baghdad

Baghdad doesn't look like a city in immediate peril from American bombs and missiles.

The Iraqi capital seems eerily disconnected from the tension in the outside world over Iraq's showdown with the United Nations over weapons inspections.From outside, war looks imminent with television screens full of images of Stealth fighters arriving in Kuwait, U.S. Marines deploying in the gulf and world leaders warning of military strikes if Iraq does not back down.

But from Moscow to the Middle East, there were protests against a U.S. strike.

One Jordanian was killed in clashes in Amman between police and hundreds of worshippers demonstrating after Friday prayers, witnesses said. Some 2,000 Iranian hard-liners marched in central Tehran Friday, and several hundred Palestinians belonging to Yasser Arafat's Fatah Youth Organization marched in the Gaza Strip on Friday chanting "Saddam, destroy Tel Aviv."

Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafy said he preferred the "destruction" of the Iraqi people by a threatened U.S.-led strike rather than having U.N. arms inspectors search Iraqi presidential sites.

In Baghdad, the mood is fatalistic. Life for Iraq's 22 million people is a battle of survival they have waged for seven years under stringent U.N. trade sanctions.

Incessant crises and occasional airstrikes have inured Iraqis to threats of further devastation from the air.

As U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan prepared to engage President Saddam Hussein in last-ditch peace talks, ordinary Iraqis got on with their lives.

On Thursday night, street lights and neon restaurant signs shone out as traffic plied the streets as usual.

At the Mansour Melia hotel, two elaborately made-up brides in white gowns paraded self-consciously through the reception hall with their grooms to loud Arabic music and drums. Children, family and friends danced in celebration.

"We have been under seven years of sanctions. We defied the sanctions. We are able to live and build a family even if there will be an attack," said one of the bridegrooms.

In a nearby restaurant, people ate and chatted as if unaware of the world debate over whether diplomacy or force was the best way to deal with their country and its leader.

Schoolchildren quit their classrooms on Thursday afternoon for their weekend holiday. Furniture, food, clothes and book shops stayed open late into the night.

Food prices have remained stable and there are few signs of people hoarding supplies in anticipation of shortages.

Iraq has welcomed the U.N. mission, saying it would work "very positively" with Annan, but reiterated that its sovereignty and dignity should be respected.

Many Iraqis, with no say in shaping the policies that lead to war or peace, are pinning high hopes on Annan's visit, though some dismiss him as an American puppet and say his mission is doomed to failure.

"I hope Annan brings solutions with him. We want peace, we don't want war. If he brings peace, fine, if not, we will stand up to America to defend our nation," said Shehab Ahmed, 65.

After painful memories of the 1991 gulf war blitz on Baghdad and other American strikes since, most people said the threat of more punishment held few terrors for them.

Ammar Diwan, a shopkeeper, said, "No strike can be stronger than that of 1991. We will survive."