BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Why does this city look so normal?
In the Iraqi capital -- where palaces, Baath Party headquarters, government ministries and military buildings are the likely targets of tens of thousands of tons of bombs being moved into the region -- children swing carelessly in pleasant parks, women fill cafes to sip sweet tea and men line up to see the movie ''Kull the Conqueror.''
Iraqi officials say life in Baghdad is normal because Iraqis are a fearless people. U.S. officials say Iraqi civilians are not targets and have no reason to be afraid.
Psychologists, aid workers and residents give a different reason: After 20 years of fighting, Baghdadis have simply become used to war.
''We are suffering from chronic stress,'' said psychologist Hisham Hamid, director of Baghdad's main mental hospital. ''The effect is very slow, and very hard to measure.''
The streets of this vibrant city are populated by old women in black chadors and teenagers in tight-fitting jeans. Immigrants from Sudan stroll through parks in flowing robes. Bedouins whose ancestors came before the birth of Islam sport checkered headscarves.
All of them appear to be going about their daily lives -- not ignoring the threat of war, but taking it in stride.
''We have lived with problems since 1980, so now it's part of normal life,'' 36-year-old Ali Hussein said at his upscale clothing shop. His biggest worry about the war: that his business will decline.
Even Saddam Hussein, the prime target of any U.S.-led attack, appears anything but tense.
''He is in a quite serene mood, given the circumstances,'' said Ramsey Clark, the former U.S. attorney-general who met with Saddam on Sunday. ''He takes the course of events as the will of a greater power.''
Of course, people are taking precautions. Sales of water and canned goods have tripled in recent weeks at the Everyday Supermarket, owner Nebil Jassim said.
Until recently, the largest bottles of water he sold held two liters. Now he stocks 10-gallon jugs.
Maha Hamzi, a 37-year-old housewife with dyed blonde hair and a gregarious laugh, said she has stored dried bread, stocked up on powdered milk and pooled her money with neighbors for a well.
''The water is clean -- only a few worms and snakes,'' she joked as her sister and children snorted with laughter.
Over slices of rich chocolate cake and bottles of Diet Pepsi at a neon-lit pastry shop, Hamzi said she wasn't worried.
''We live a normal life, shopping and eating and everything,'' she said. ''Our army will win the war. There's nothing to be afraid of.''
At school, Hamzi's four children are told to follow teachers' instructions in case of bombing, and practice ducking under their desks. They also get instruction at home.
''We teach them not to be afraid when they hear the sirens,'' Hamzi said. ''If they're in school, we tell them to stay there. We'll come to get them as soon as it's safe.''
Hamzi's older children follow the crisis from many sources -- but mainly from surfing the Internet. The baby of the family, 7-year-old Hala, is curious as well.
''She says, 'Mom, are you afraid?' I say no, and she's surprised,'' Hamzi said.
Psychologists say the confidence is widespread. Hamid said Baghdad has seen no increase in depression or suicides, and neither his hospital nor his private practice has seen a single patient for war-related anxiety. His hospital beds are only 43 percent full.
Iraqis don't normally seek psychological help for anything but severe mental illness. But Hamid and other psychologists say a low-level, grinding stress that has kept people on edge since Iraq's cycle of wars began in 1980 has never bubbled over.
''We have been changed much. We have grown older than our real ages,'' Hamid said. ''We have become wiser than before -- but not happier.''
Butheina al-Helo, director of Baghdad University's psychology department, said surveys conducted by her students support that theory. She said people are using coping strategies -- ''avoidance or escape'' -- that may not make them happy, but at least keep them sane.
''People are trying to get busy with other things,'' she said.
Baghdadis, she said, are working longer hours -- not only because of a deepening economic crisis, but because they cannot face the stress of being home with their loved ones.
Some people have become more religious, seeking solace in God. Others are putting off plans for an increasingly uncertain future.
''Some people worry, 'If I get married, my children will be in the same situation as I am.' It has led me to postpone such projects,'' said Omar Khudur Hassan, a 23-year-old law student.
Sitting on a campus park bench, 19-year-old student Adra Hussein said her strategy is to hit the books.
''We are more active in our studies, to avoid thinking about it,'' she said.
Hamid said those strategies are probably better than the alternatives -- panic, violence or terror.
''I think if your coping strategy is strong enough, it's healthy,'' he said. ''It means you can adapt to all stress properly.''
Niko Price is correspondent at large for The Associated Press.
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