A CAPITAL’S PLIGHT: Both the New and Routinely Old Shape Daily Life in Baghdad

April 3, 2003


BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 3 — For one motorcycle patrolman here today, it seemed to matter little that columns of American troops were nearing the capital, or that the drivers still on the roads might have reasons to hasten in a city under heavy bombing, or even that the government whose laws he enforces might not be quite so solid as its ceaseless announcements of battlefield triumphs have implied.

Idling on the embankment beside the Tigris on a perfect spring day, the leather-jacketed patrolman spotted a car careering though a red light, and gave chase.

From an 11th-floor balcony of the Palestine Hotel, it was not possible to hear what the driver of the red Mercedes said when he was pulled over halfway down the block, but his gestures conveyed the essence powerfully enough. “Get real,” the driver seemed to be saying. “Look at the sky. Look across the river. The old is giving way to the new.”

Across the river, in plain view not 1,000 yards away, lay Saddam Hussein’s principal palace complex, and within it the burned-out, blackened ruins of the old seats of power. Above, through much of the day, were the vapor trails of American bombers. Some were visible through field glasses as B-52’s that arrowed in needle-straight from the northwest.

Untroubled by antiaircraft fire, they curved southward toward the front lines where American troops were pushing through the battered lines of the Republican Guard, or banked to the east to home in on targets in the heart of Baghdad.

Since the war began two weeks ago, the people of Baghdad have been exposed to a reality so stark, so astonishing, so overwhelming, that those who have witnessed it have struggled to find words adequate to express what they have seen.

To have been in Berlin or Dresden or Hamburg in the last months of World War II would surely have been more ghastly, for the sheer numbers of casualties caused by the Allies’ bombing.

But American air power, as the 21st century begins, is a terrible swift sword that strikes with a suddenness, a devastation and a precision, in most cases, that moves even agnostics to reach for words associated with the power of gods.

Along with this, life under the bombing has continued to roll forward with an everyday nonchalance that, in its own way, has been as hard to adjust to as the bombing.

On the same street where the driver was pulled over this morning, a man who owns a boutique selling expensive perfumes to the Iraqi elite — a man dependent on the custom of people grown rich and powerful under the nearly 24-year-old rule of Mr. Hussein, and thus a man whose fortunes could be about to tank — was busy washing his open-top Japanese jeep, with red flashes on the side to mark him as a man with zip. Car washed, he took the hose to the plants flanking his boutique’s doorway.

If there was any doubt that Iraqis in the neighborhood had some idea of what was going on just beyond the horizon, it disappeared at another sight on the same street, of policemen at a precinct house gathering on the sidewalk, six or seven at a time, to gaze down the Tigris past the point where the muddy green river turns from its southbound course through the city’s heart to curve southwest.

For days, those gazing across the river have been measuring the devastation wrought by the bombing on the Republican Palace compound that is enfolded by the river’s curve, but today the policemen’s arms were pointing past the palace grounds, down the river, to an invisible point 10 or 20 miles away where the American Third Infantry Division was rapidly moving north.

The officer chasing the motorist, the perfume man washing his car, the policemen standing in the street: All were testaments, in the way they ignored today’s bombing raids, to how little threatened, individually, most people in Baghdad seem to have felt by the air attacks.

The news this morning that American troops were nearing Saddam International Airport, 10 miles from the city center to the southwest, and had taken control of the highway leading west to Jordan at Abu Ghraib, 15 miles from the capital’s heart, caused many families who had sat out the bombing to leave the city, many to the north where there has been no massed American advance, others to the east toward Iran, some even southward toward the American front lines.

The fear driving the exodus, by car, bus and truck, was of street-to-street fighting, revenge killings, a last-minute paroxysm of violence by the enforcers of the terror that has bludgeoned Iraq for three decades. For many Iraqis, this has been the nightmare all along, the least calculable part of the “price” they tell Westerners they have known would come with any American invasion to topple Mr. Hussein.

The implication in these whispered conversations has been that there has been a price, in limited casualties, that many, perhaps even most, Iraqis would be prepared to pay for their freedom, but that equally there was a price that would be too high.

With the battle for Baghdad about to be joined, that price will now be set, and with it, an outsider can imagine, the estimate many Iraqis will ultimately make of the war. But many people in Baghdad seem to have made their judgment about the air campaign already.

After the first few days, life in the city’s streets gradually began reviving as confidence grew that there was not going to be widespread carnage, with American bombs and missiles striking wildly at civilians. Today, as for many days past, city-center gathering spots like Liberation Square, site of the lamppost hangings of nine Iraqi Jews condemned for spying in 1969, were busy with fruit and vegetable sellers, and hawkers doing brisk trade in the water canisters and buckets, duct tape and canned food, sacks of flour and candles, that have been the biggest sellers in recent weeks.

That American bombs and missiles have gone astray is beyond challenge. Pentagon officials acknowledged before the war that even with the advances in satellite-guided targeting systems since the Persian Gulf war in 1991, no technology was foolproof, and mistakes would be made. How many there have been in this war will be clearer when the fighting ends, but the impression gained from living the war in the center of Baghdad has been that many of the strikes that have been visible — either from the grandstand view afforded by the Palestine Hotel’s balconies, or from the guided bus tours of bomb sites around the city organized by Iraqi Information Ministry officials — have been astonishingly accurate.

On visits to neighborhoods around the city, reporters have seen homes, workshops and sidewalks where airstrikes have killed dozens of civilians and wounded many more. In some cases, the huge size of the craters, the proximity to military installations and witnesses’ accounts have lent credibility to the Iraqi claims that the strikes were responsible.

In others, including the marketplace bombing that Iraq said killed 62 people in the Shula district of western Baghdad on Friday, there have been more questions than answers. Often, as in Shula, officials have delayed taking reporters to the site for hours, and have met with evasions the inquiries about the unusually small crater at the marketplace, and the fact that most victims appeared to have died from shrapnel wounds and not from the kind of blast associated with high-energy bombs and missiles.

Iraqi officials asserted today that their toll for civilian casualties from all forms of American arms was 677 killed and 5,062 wounded, of whom about one third have been in Baghdad.

The information minister, Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf, said at a news conference at noon that the civilian toll from the bombing in the capital in the previous 24 hours alone was 27 dead and 193 wounded. But he gave no incident-by-incident breakdown, and, as has often been the case, Western reporters and photographers dependent on Iraqi permission to visit bombing sites were given no opportunity to judge for themselves.

For many journalists who have witnessed it, the most powerful image of the bombing, apart from visits to sites where significant numbers of Iraqis died, has been of target after target that has been struck with the precision of a sniper’s bullet.

Over a few days in the last week, at least six inner-city telephone exchanges were destroyed, apparently to disrupt the Iraqi leadership’s ability to conduct the war from the safety of underground bunkers and other hideouts. In almost every case, the missiles or bombs used appeared to have struck bulls-eyes in the roofs, plunging downward into the buildings’ hearts before exploding with a force that left nothing but dangling wires, shattered concrete and twisted steel. At two exchanges, hours later, a lone beeper continued to wail in the wreckage, like a bell tolling for the departed.

But the striking thing, in these cases, was that even Iraqi officials made no claims of deaths. The neighborhoods where the exchanges and other probable targets are situated were mostly abandoned days ahead of the strikes, as were the targets.

The Information Ministry, struck three times by cruise missiles in as many days, emptied out after the Pentagon gave what turned out to be 48 hours’ notice that it would be attacked. Iraqi officials said only one man had been wounded.

One destroyed telephone exchange, in the Salhiya district near the Baghdad railway station, was obliterated, with no visible damage apart from debris falling in the garden to the adjacent compound, 100 feet away, that houses the Saddam Center for Cardiac Surgery.

Putting together the American war in Iraq as told by Americans, and Iraq’s war with America as told by Iraqis, has been one of the more bizarre aspects of the conflict as experienced from Baghdad.

To hear the Iraqi ministers tell it, American and British forces have suffered defeat after humiliating defeat.

Today, Mr. Sahhaf, the information minister, bounced into the daily briefings, a short, stocky, burnished man in green uniform and black beret, ever ready to rock back with laughter at the felicity of his Soviet-style phrase-making about the “criminals” and “villains” and “mercenaries” and “lackeys” who have invaded Iraq.

Unfailingly courteous, he could almost be called a jolly fellow, save for the pistol he wears at his hip, a reminder that the government he serves has rarely stinted to resort to more persuasive forms of argumentation when discourse has run its course.

By early this afternoon, American reports from the battlefront suggested that Iraqi defenses around Baghdad, as well as at Basra, Nasiriya, Najaf and Kut, were taking a pounding. But Mr. Sahhaf was as bullish as ever. At Kut, he said, the Americans had been “bitterly defeated.” At Hilla, too.

“We’re giving them a real lesson today,” he burbled. ” `Heavy’ doesn’t accurately describe the level of casualties we have inflicted.”

As for reports that American troops were nearing the airport at Baghdad, he chuckled. “The Americans aren’t even 100 miles from Baghdad,” he said.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

CIVILIANS: Iraq Shows Casualties in Hospital

April 2, 2003


HILLA, Iraq, April 2 — The boy was bewildered, perhaps 10 or 11, separated from his parents, lying on a hospital gurney. All about was chaos, mothers weeping for their dead and wounded children, doctors and nurses shouting to be heard, coffins shouldered along the corridors to taxis that stacked two and three on their roofs at a time, serving as makeshift hearses.

It was never clear, in the confusion, if the boy was told why he had been asked to follow the nurse out of the ward, down the passageway, past the lamentations and the cursings, to the operating theater. He seemed frightened, and if he heard the question, he never gave his name, or any details of how he got his wound.

Once on the operating table, quickly anesthetized, he knew nothing. His wounded arm was unbandaged and amputated rapidly by the surgeon just below the elbow.

So it was today at the general hospital in Hilla, an hour’s drive south of Baghdad, on the road to the site of the ancient town of Babylon, now a soulless re-creation of ancient glory, built as a backdrop to one of Saddam Hussein’s ubiquitous palaces. Hilla itself is a nondescript place, a town between here and there, mostly a rambling huddle.

But today Hilla was a front-line city, only a few miles north of American troops advancing up the strategic highway to Baghdad — and a showcase of what Mr. Hussein’s government wants the world to believe about the American way of war.

Officials marshaling the buses from the Palestine Hotel in the capital made it plain that, for them, the case was open and shut, an example of American weapons being used indiscriminately to kill civilians.

The story of the hospital, as survivors and physicians told it, was of incidents on Sunday or Monday or Tuesday — accounts were confused — in which civilians had come under attack from an American tank that fired on a bus and a car and from an American aircraft that dropped cluster bombs on an impoverished outlying district of Hilla. Dr. Saad al-Fallouji, the hospital’s chief surgeon, said that on Tuesday alone, the hospital received 33 victims dead on arrival and 180 others who were wounded by American fire. “Most of them — no, all of them — were civilians,” he said. “All of them were from Nadir village, women and children and men of all ages, mostly they had very serious injuries to their abdomens, to their intestines, to their chests and their heads. Many of the bodies were completely torn apart.”

Western reporters asked him how he felt about the carnage. “I feel very angry about this,” he replied. “Don’t you feel angry too?”

Reporters had no difficulty confirming that there had been scores of casualties — the dead evident in the procession of coffins, and in the torn bodies that crowded the shelves of the large refrigerator in the hospital’s front garden, the wounded filling every ward, many eager to recount how they had come under American fire. Information Ministry officials translated the accounts.

Hussein Ali Hussein, 26, a door-to-door gas salesman, lay on a bed, the stump of one leg covered in a bloody bandage, a mass of flies settling on the gauze. He said that he had been in a car that was hit by an American tank shell as he drove south toward Kifl, near Najaf.

“We believed the Americans, when they said they were not going to attack civilians,” he said. “Why would the Americans do this to me?” As nurses arrived to wheel him away for surgery, he added: “But we Iraqis will never accept that this country is ruled by anybody but Iraqis, so we will fight to the last drop of our blood.”

Another patient, Bassan Hoki, 38, said he was in the bus attack. Surgeons had amputated his right arm above the elbow, and seeping bandages covered deep wounds on both his legs. Mr. Hoki, with a neatly trimmed, gray-flecked beard, gesticulated with his remaining arm as he described seeing the tank from the window of the bus.

“There was no warning, they simply opened fire,” he said.

He said that his mother, who was seated beside him, was killed instantly in the blast. “I looked around me, it seemed like everyone was dead,” he said, “people’s heads were snapped off their bodies. The bus was torn to pieces.”

He said, “I have just one thing to say to George Bush. He is a criminal and a liar to talk of bringing us freedom. He attacks civilians for no reason. This is a crime, a crime, a crime.”

It was difficult to mesh accounts from the hospital with the scenes where the attacks were said to have occurred. In Nadir, a sprawl of one- and two-story brick or mud homes astride the line of the American advance, reporters were shown the bus on which, doctors said, 18 people had been killed and 16 wounded by American tank fire. The bus stood in a clearing and reporters were led on a tour of sinuous alleyways to see the damage from what was described as the cluster bombing of an entire neighborhood.

From what officials at Nadir said and from what seemed probable to the eye, the attacks appeared to have been one. The bus, like the houses, appeared to have been hit not by a tank shell but by thousands of shards of shrapnel that had punctured it and shattered the windows but left the body mostly intact. Small, grayish-black pieces of unexploded ordnance, possibly a form of cluster bomb, lay scattered in profusion.

Nadir, by noon today, was deserted, save for families here and there loading up possessions into cars and glimpses of men in military uniforms, some with the red triangular shoulder flashes of the Republican Guard. Several reporters and photographers said later that they had seen a man in camouflage uniform disappearing into one of the houses, carrying a sniper rifle.

Whatever had occurred at Nadir, the incident was part of a wider pattern of increasing tension among Iraqi officials and American troops. Anxieties in the capital had risen overnight, with more intensive bombing of Mr. Hussein’s palaces and other strategic targets.

All night long, and through the day, the bombs and missiles struck, booming across the city, with more shuddering of the earth and bursting fireballs of red and orange, as well as billowing clouds of smoke and dust.

From the upper rooms of the Palestine Hotel, especially those facing directly across the Tigris River, it seemed that the Pentagon, in returning to some targets, had in mind not just to destroy, not just to deny the Iraqi ruler the use of this palace or that intelligence headquarters, but to obliterate, perhaps to humiliate, by leaving nothing but smoking rubble.

The air defense headquarters on the east bank of the Tigris, close to the Palestine, were hit by at least two cruise missiles last week and were struck again on Monday night, this time by bombs dropped by aircraft low enough to hear overhead. The missile strikes appeared to have been enough to disable the headquarters, and with it much of the air defense system, since air raid sirens failed within days of the first attacks on Baghdad on March 20, and the anti-aircraft fire fell off sharply, too. But they had left the headquarters punctured, not destroyed, until bombing completed the job.

By Tuesday, all that was left was a mound of grayish-black rubble, and, perversely, a towering bronze statue of Mr. Hussein. arm raised in salute, which appeared hardly scratched.

The case for concluding that the military had had in mind the humiliation of Mr. Hussein and his sons has been made even more strongly by the repeated bombing of the Republican Palace compound, the jewel in the Iraqi ruler’s crown. About an hour or two before first light today, at least five more huge blasts hit one of several large, colonnaded buildings clustered near the main palace, a neo-imperialist edifice that some Iraqis say has been one of the headquarters for Qusay, the favored younger son of Mr. Hussein.

Perhaps, these Iraqis have said, the target lies underground, in the maze of tunnels and bunkers built during the war with Iran in the 1980’s.

But perhaps, here too, the objective was to obliterate. This morning an entire palace within the compound had disappeared, leaving only the building’s signature feature — giant, 30-foot-high busts of Mr. Hussein clad in the headdress of the 12th-century warrior Saladin. Three of the busts stood on their pediments while a fourth, its back to the Tigris, leaned drunkenly forward.

Early today reporters on the bus to Hilla said they saw the park set aside for Baghdad’s annual international trade fair with about a dozen large buildings completely flattened with smoke still rising.

Iraqi officials said later that the strike had hit a maternity clinic on the fairground, killing nine women.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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War on Iraq Begins

By David E. Sanger and John F. Burns | New York Times | March 19, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 19 — President Bush ordered the beginning of a war on Iraq tonight, and his spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said at about 9:45 p.m. Eastern time that American forces had begun to disarm Iraq and would depose Saddam Hussein.

The announcement came just 10 minutes after receiving word from Baghdad, where the American attack began, just before first light at 5:35 a.m. local time on Thursday. The first signs were an air raid siren followed by antiaircraft fire and loud explosions over the city that appeared to be bombs. The antiaircraft fire appeared to be ineffective, striking at low altitude over the city.

At least one impact was visible about a half mile from the Rashid Hotel in central Baghdad, throwing a great cloud of dust into the air.

The initial round of explosions took place over about 10 minutes and was followed by a lull. The first traffic of the day racing down the highway appeared to be drivers fleeing the attack.

“The opening stages of the disarmament of the Iraqi regime have begun,” Mr. Fleischer said in a brief news conference on television tonight.

The deadline for President Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq expired tonight as American troops massed on Iraq’s southern border, awaiting the order for the invasion plan that Mr. Bush and his war council completed only this afternoon.

Mr. Bush formally informed Congress, and then world leaders, that he was ready to depose Mr. Hussein by force. In a seven-page message to Congress, he argued that force was now the only way to “adequately protect the national security of the United States” and that topping the Iraqi government was “a vital part” of a broader war against terrorism. The message was required under a statute passed last fall explicitly authorizing war against Iraq after the president determined that a diplomatic solution was impossible.

As he completed the legal formalities, Mr. Bush was clearly embarked on one of the country’s most ambitious military ventures since Vietnam, and on a war his administration began planning over a year ago. “There are a lot of us,” said one of his more hawkish senior advisers, “who have been waiting for this day of liberation for years.”

Mr. Bush had given Mr. Hussein and members of his family until shortly after 8 p.m. Eastern time today to leave the country in order to forestall an American-led attack. But there was no discernible sign that the Iraqi leader was even thinking of leaving, despite an offer of asylum from Bahrain.

As the deadline passed tonight, Mr. Bush was eating dinner in the living room of the White House residence with his wife, Laura. He received a call from Andrew H. Card, the White House chief of staff, and asked Mr. Card if there was any evidence that Mr. Hussein had left Iraq. There was none, Mr. Card told him, according to Mr. Fleischer.

“The disarmament of the Iraqi regime,” Mr. Fleischer told reporters tonight, “will begin at a time of the president’s choosing.”

Even as punishing sandstorms swirled around the Army troops massed in Kuwait, the engineering battalions that will be in the vanguard of the invasion force — breaching berms and clearing minefields — were already on the move. Special Operations forces were reportedly already deployed inside Iraq, shaping the battlefield for the larger invasion force to come.

American and British warplanes flew bombing missions tonight against a dozen Iraqi artillery and surface-to-surface missile positions in southern Iraq, wiping out placements that could threaten advancing troops.

Roughly 17 Iraqi border troops surrendered along the border, and were taken into custody by Kuwaiti forces. A few administration officials seized on the defections as an early indicator of the mass defections they hope to see when the fighting begins.

But others in the administration warned against overconfidence, cautioning that toppling Mr. Hussein and the protective apparatus that has kept him in power for more than three decades is a far riskier enterprise than was ousting his forces from Kuwait 12 years ago in the Persian Gulf war.

Mr. Fleisher cautioned that “Americans ought to be prepared for loss of life.” He noted that while the White House sought “as precise, short a conflict as possible,” the unknowns — from how American, British and Australian troops would be received to the elements of weather, accident and so-called friendly fire — were numerous.

The notification to Congressional leaders, sent to Capitol Hill late on Tuesday night, provided the most detailed legal justification yet for military action.

Mr. Bush stayed largely out of sight today, save for a brief meeting this morning with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the secretary of homeland security, Tom Ridge, to review New York City’s needs to prepare for any new terrorist attacks. The White House later said it would go to Congress for a special appropriation bill to pay for the war and homeland security.

Washington was eerily quiet, but there were isolated voices of dissent. “Today, I weep for my country,” Senator Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat and the war’s biggest critic in the Senate said. “No more is the image of America one of strong, yet benevolent, peacekeeper. Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned.”

The breach with Europe continued to widen. As Mr. Bush tried to convince Congress that the attack on Iraq would advance the war on terror, France’s foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, said the war would spawn more terrorism. The German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, said, “Germany emphatically rejects the impending war.”

But while Germany allowed American troops to fly over its territory, Turkey was still arguing about opening its airspace. Turkey further said it would not allow United States forces to use its air bases to refuel — a remarkable slap from a NATO ally. Mr. Fleischer made clear that the $30 billion in proposed aid and loans to Turkey — dangled when it seemed as if the country would allow American and British forces to use its territory to invade Iraq from the north — is “no longer on the table.”

Mr. Fleischer disputed the view of Europeans and others who argue that the pending invasion is a violation of the United Nations Charter.

He cited three Security Council resolutions that he said provided all of the authorization Mr. Bush needed. But he also likened the current preparations to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, arguing that just as President Kennedy imposed a quarantine around Cuba — “an act of war,” Mr. Fleischer said — to force it to remove nuclear missiles, Mr. Bush is acting to protect the United States from a threat that it would never see coming.

Several scholars have disputed that view, noting that in the case of the missile crisis, the Soviet missiles could have easily reached the United States, and the weapons clearly put Americans at peril.

Mr. Bush argued on Monday night that waiting for the Iraq threat to develop was tantamount to “suicide.” The president’s definition seemed to fit what scholars say is the classic war of prevention.

“We choose to meet that threat now, where it arises, before it can appear suddenly in our skies and cities,” the president said then.

The document submitted to Congress laid out yet another argument — Iraq’s current links to terrorists, an area in which the administration’s evidence has been scanty, and its potential for greater links in the future.

“Both because Iraq harbors terrorists and because Iraq could share weapons of mass destruction with terrorists who seek them for use against the United States, the use of force to bring Iraq into compliance with its obligations under U.N.S.C. resolutions would be a significant contribution to the war on terrorists of global reach,” the report to Congress said.

“A change in the current Iraqi regime would eliminate an important source of support for international terrorist activities,” it said. “It would likely also assist efforts to disrupt terrorist networks and capture terrorists around the globe. United States government personnel operating in Iraq may discover information through Iraqi government documents and interviews with detained Iraqi officials that would identify individuals currently in the United States and abroad who are linked to terrorist organizations.”

That rationale would seem, on its face, to support military action against many nations, from Pakistan to Indonesia. But Mr. Fleischer insisted that the conditions surrounding Iraq’s defiance were “unique.”

As the 48-hour ultimatum to Mr. Hussein to leave Iraq expired, Pentagon officials were deliberately vague on when American forces might strike. While it seemed unlikely that they could gain much tactical surprise at this late date, some officials said keeping Iraqi soldiers on edge would increase their anxiety, fuel their thoughts of defection and perhaps fill them with dread.

Their potential use of chemical weapons remains one of the biggest worries.

Hans Blix, one of the the chief United Nations inspector, said that “if they have any still, and that’s a big if, I would doubt that they would use it, because a lot of countries and people in the world are negative to the idea of waging war,” adding, “And if the Iraqis were to use any chemical weapons then, I think, the public opinion around the world will immediately turn against the Iraqis.”

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