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'Day of reckoning': Darker days descending on Baghdad

BAGHDAD, Iraq — It was a grim day on Tuesday in Baghdad, perhaps the grimmest yet since the war began, and with the darkening prospect of worse to come.

Not long past noon, the Iraqi capital was nearly dark, its streets nearly deserted for miles on end. Since Saturday, the city has been shrouded with huge, roiling clouds of black smoke from oil trenches Saddam Hussein's forces have set afire around the outer districts to foil guidance systems on American aircraft and bombs. Then, overnight, a storm blew in from the desert, said to be the worst in years, blasting everything with howling winds that bent the datepalms along the Tigris river almost flat, along with a thick screen of yellowish-brown sand.

Away to the southwest, as close as 50 miles in some places, advance units of the American Army's 3rd Infantry Division were probing through the choking dust. Further back, the 101st Airborne Division was moving north on a separate track. With shortwave radios and the word-of-mouth networks that keep Iraqis informed of realities their rulers would deny them, there was hardly a man or woman in Baghdad, or even a child over 7 or 8, for that matter, who did not know that the Americans were almost at the city's gates.

And that knowledge, in many ways, was the hardest thing of all.

For 30 years, Saddam has worked to make himself unchallengeable in Iraq. The war with Iran, the occupation of Kuwait, U.N. economic sanctions, the squaring off against America, the relentless purges of all potential challengers and critics, the astonishing hagiography of the monuments, the statues, the biographies, the adoring songs — all have been, as many Iraqis see it, an outgrowth of the drive of an impoverished, fatherless, barefoot boy from a village on the Tigris to become, as official Iraqi publications describe him, Saddam the Great.

But in the days since American forces crossed the border from Kuwait, and especially now that they are in the early stages of mounting a siege of Baghdad, Saddam has been confronted with the worst nightmare any absolute ruler can confront, a physical force greater than his own.

Even Iraqi loyalists, at least at the level of common men and women, say privately that, this time, the long years may be up. But they, and other Iraqis who do not support Saddam, have found themselves in something like an accord in recent days over the nightmare than could lie ahead.

In one family on Tuesday, among professional, middle-class people who have long yearned for a freer Iraq unburdened by sanctions and repression, there was one, obsessive concern. It was similar to the one that mesmerized this and similar families after President Bush gave Saddam and his two sons an ultimatum last week to quit Iraq within 48 hours, or face war.

Then, it was how long Iraqis had to wait for the first American airstrikes and the ground assault from Kuwait. On Tuesday, with the invaders more than 300 miles further north, that is closer to Baghdad, the question was the same. How long would America take to close its account with Saddam?

The family members, fearful of being described in any way that could make them identifiable, said that they were scared to death by the success that Iraqi irregular troops, among them the most fanatical of his zealots, have had in delaying and harassing the American troops on their drive up the Euphrates river valley.

If similar groups make a fight for Baghdad, as most Iraqis believe they will, the family said, the new freedoms they had hoped to celebrate could come at far too high a price in shattered Iraqi lives.

Only a week ago, two of the three grown men in the family were keen for America to act against Saddam. The third, still a university student, hoped for a free Iraq, but leaned toward rejecting the Faustian deal, as he saw it, that Iraqis would be making in taking their liberty from America, with its record elsewhere in the Middle East, especially its tilting toward Israel in the conflict with the Palestinians.

But on Tuesday, the three were done with their quarreling, in the face of anxieties over the civil war that could break out in Baghdad if the American siege is protracted.

Hearing from the Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corp.'s shortwave broadcasts of American generals' cautious plans for moving into Baghdad, the family members said they worried about the possibility of violent retribution against people like themselves, people with Western educations and relatives in America, if the progress towards the American capture of Baghdad is slow.

But much more than that, they said, they feared what might befall Iraqis like themselves if, faced with continued stiff resistance by Saddam's troops, Bush did what his father did at the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and decide that a settlement was preferable to a long and bloody campaign to topple Saddam.

"That is our nightmare," one of the men said, "and we ask, 'What will Bush do to help us then?' "