April 3, 2003
By JOHN F. BURNS
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