Defiant Iraqis Say U.S. Advance Has Been Broken

April 5, 2004

By JOHN F. BURNS

BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 5 — Senior Iraqi officials remained defiant today in the face of American military might, asserting that Iraqi soldiers and suicide bombers had “crushed” American troops at Baghdad’s international airport and broken the American advance on the capital into isolated pockets that were surrendering to relentless Iraqi attacks.

On a day when American commanders sent advance units probing within miles of central Baghdad, the official Iraqi response was mocking and triumphalist, much as it has been throughout the 17 days of war.

To Westerners here who have kept abreast of the military situation by satellite telephone links to the outside world, the situation appeared to confirm, ever more strongly, that the rigidities of the system built by Saddam Hussein have become a debilitating handicap to Iraq’s ability to confront American power. After years of unquestioning fealty, senior Iraqi officials seemed unwilling to provide any interpretation of military events that might prejudice Mr. Hussein’s claim to be the embodiment of Iraq’s invincibility.

Nothing seemed to demonstrate this more clearly than the events that shook the capital this morning. Not long after dawn, Iraqis venturing into southwestern Baghdad toward the international airport returned to the east side of the Tigris River to report having seen American tanks a few miles from the palaces and ministries in the city center that have been the most visible symbols of Mr. Hussein’s dominance. They began speaking as if the day might end with the government’s collapse and the Stars and Stripes flying over the capital.

That this response was not peculiar to Iraqis favoring Mr. Hussein’s fall was apparent from the sudden frantic stirrings in the streets around the Palestine Hotel, quarters for the foreign journalists sequestered by the government on the Tigris’s eastern bank. Cars driven by loyalists of the governing Baath Party began touring the neighborhood with loudspeakers proclaiming Mr. Hussein’s glories and Iraqis’ resolve to fight Americans to the death.

Simultaneously, a cavalcade of police cars, sirens wailing, set out on a demonstration of their own, as if to remind any waverers that Mr. Hussein remained the decisive force in the neighborhood.

By sunset, the excitement had subsided. It became clear that the probing advances by the American forces had been, mostly, just that — thrusts into the city, as an American military spokesman at the Central Command headquarters in Qatar said, intended to shake Iraqi confidence without yet making a challenge for outright control.

The thrusts, Maj. Gen. Victor Renuart said, according to a Reuters report, were intended to “demonstrate to the Iraqi leadership that they do not have control in the way they continue to say on their television.”

But if this was the American strategy, it was far removed from the Iraqi construction of the day’s realities. Information Minister Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf made his regular daily foray to the Palestine Hotel to put things into perspective, Iraqi style. His main point was that the American capture of the airport on Friday had been reversed by an Iraqi counterattack using regular units and “a very innovative way of war” involving suicide bombers.

General Renuart, in Qatar, said today that the Americans remained in firm control of the airport and that they would continue moving into Baghdad as and when they chose.

But Mr. Sahhaf said, essentially, that the Americans were in the world of make-believe.

“We have defeated them, in fact we have crushed them in the place of Saddam International Airport,” he said. “We have pushed them outside the whole area of the airport.”

To drive home this claim of American desperation, he added this account of the battle: “They have done everything crazy, everything crazy, in order to lessen the pressure we have put on their troops.”

The Iraqi strategy, Mr. Sahhaf said, was to drive the Americans back to pockets of resistance outside Baghdad. One place mentioned was Abu Ghraib, west of the capital, notorious as the site of the grimmest prison in Mr. Hussein’s gulag.

Travelers reaching Baghdad in recent days described American troops with tanks at checkpoints on the expressway that passes Abu Ghraib on the way to Jordan. But Mr. Sahhaf said that the American units there, and at two other locations he named as Hadithi and Qadisiya, were surrounded by Iraqi troops.

“We nailed them down,” he said.

These expressions of bravado appeared to have been reinforced by film shown on television on Friday and again today of a man identified as Mr. Hussein visiting neighborhoods in western Baghdad and being greeted with jubilation by ordinary citizens. Iraqis who saw the broadcast said they had no doubt that the man was indeed Mr. Hussein, not a double.

While questions lingered, including when the video was made, the effect on Mr. Hussein’s most zealous loyalists was beyond doubt. At the Palestine Hotel, the mood among Iraqi officials brightened.

For two weeks, they had pointed to the nightly television broadcasts of Mr. Hussein meeting senior officials as proof that he was still in command. But perhaps they, like officials in Washington, had begun to doubt whether these scenes were new or recycled from the past.

Now, with the Iraqi leader’s appearance on the streets, they seemed to rediscover the confidence shaken when the war began on March 20 with a cruise missile strike aimed at a meeting in Baghdad of senior officials who, the Pentagon said, might have included Mr. Hussein.

Oddly, the political flourish involved in the Iraqi leader’s televised walkabout was followed today by a reversion to one of the expedients that had led American intelligence analysts — and many Iraqis — to conclude that Mr. Hussein might have been killed or incapacitated by the missile strike. This afternoon, Mr. Sahhaf was back on television reading a message from Mr. Hussein, without any explanation as to why the leader could not have delivered the message himself.

The message made no reference to the American seizure of the airport or the Iraqi counterattack that followed, curious perhaps given that most television viewers — a small minority, because Baghdad has been without electricity for 48 hours — must have known of the fighting on the city’s southern rim.

Mr. Hussein’s statement was economical in his references to the fighting, saying only that the “invaders” were concentrating on Baghdad but weakening elsewhere.

“The criminals will be humiliated,” he said.

Later, scenes of Mr. Hussein presiding over a gathering of top aides were broadcast, but it was unclear when or where the meeting took place.

Twice today, the Information Ministry took reporters on a tour of the city’s western districts where the American thrusts had been reported around dawn. The Iraqis seemed particularly keen to show that the district of Yarmouk, about five miles from the airport, remained under Iraqi control. Reporters who saw the Yarmouk hospital this afternoon reported no sign of American troops, or of any battle in the area.

But there were other signs that something had happened in the area, and that the Iraqis were not eager for it to be known. An American photographer who reached the hospital this morning described large numbers of Iraqi casualties arriving on stretchers. When the busload of reporters arrived hours later, they were told the visit to the hospital was canceled, without explanation.

What the bus tours did show was that defenses in the city center had been strengthened. Today, tanks and artillery were positioned beside tall buildings or in parks. Soldiers could be seen digging bunkers.

Just about everywhere, families were busy loading up cars with possessions, mostly food and clothing. But the question on almost every Iraqi’s lips when meeting Westerners was the one that nobody could answer: How long before the Americans push into the city to stay? How long before this war will be over?

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

Defiant Iraqis Say U.S. Advance Has Been Broken

April 5, 2004

By JOHN F. BURNS

AGHDAD, Iraq, April 5 – Senior Iraqi officials remained defiant today in the face of American military might, asserting that Iraqi soldiers and suicide bombers had “crushed” American troops at Baghdad’s international airport and broken the American advance on the capital into isolated pockets that were surrendering to relentless Iraqi attacks.

On a day when American commanders sent advance units probing within miles of central Baghdad, the official Iraqi response was mocking and triumphalist, much as it has been throughout the 17 days of war.

To Westerners here who have kept abreast of the military situation by satellite telephone links to the outside world, the situation appeared to confirm, ever more strongly, that the rigidities of the system built by Saddam Hussein have become a debilitating handicap to Iraq’s ability to confront American power. After years of unquestioning fealty, senior Iraqi officials seemed unwilling to provide any interpretation of military events that might prejudice Mr. Hussein’s claim to invincibility.

Nothing seemed to demonstrate this more clearly than the events that shook central Baghdad this morning. Not long after dawn, Iraqis venturing into southwestern Baghdad toward the international airport returned to the east side of the Tigris River to report having seen American tanks in neighborhoods just four or five miles from the palaces and ministries in the city center that have been the most visible symbols of Mr. Hussein’s dominance. They began speaking as if the day might end with the government’s collapse and the Stars and Stripes flying over the capital.

That this response was not peculiar to Iraqis favoring Mr. Hussein’s fall was apparent from the sudden stirrings in the streets around the Palestine Hotel, quarters for the foreign journalists sequestered by the government. Cars driven by loyalists of the governing Baath Party began touring the neighborhood with loudspeakers proclaiming Mr. Hussein’s glories and Iraqis’ resolve to fight Americans to the death.

Simultaneously, a cavalcade of police cars, sirens wailing, set out on a demonstration of their own, as if to remind any waverers that Mr. Hussein remained the decisive force in the neighborhood.

By sunset, the mood of anticipation – or alarm, depending on the Iraqis involved – had subsided. It became clear that the probing advances by the American forces had been, mostly, just that – thrusts into the city, as an American military spokesman at the Central Command headquarters in Qatar said, intended to shake Iraqi confidence without yet making a challenge for outright control.

The thrusts, Maj. Gen. Victor Renuart said, according to a Reuters report, were intended to “demonstrate to the Iraqi leadership that they do not have control in the way they continue to say on their television.”

But if this was the American strategy, it was far removed from the Iraqi construction of the day’s realities. Information Minister Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf made his regular daily foray to the Palestine Hotel to put things into perspective, Iraqi style. His main point was that the American capture of the airport on Friday had been reversed by an Iraqi counterattack using regular units and “a very innovative way of war” involving suicide bombers.

General Renuart, in Qatar, said today that the Americans remained in firm control of the airport, and that they would continue moving into Baghdad as and when they chose.

But Mr. Sahhaf said, essentially, that the Americans were in the world of make-believe.

“We have defeated them, in fact we have crushed them in the place of Saddam International Airport,” he said today. “We have pushed them outside the whole area of the airport.”

To drive home this claim of American desperation, he added this account of the battle: “They have done everything crazy, everything crazy, in order to lessen the pressure we have put on their troops.”

The Iraqi strategy, Mr. Sahhaf said, was to drive the Americans back to pockets of resistance outside Baghdad. One place mentioned was Abu Ghraib, west of the capital, notorious as the site of the grimmest prison in Mr. Hussein’s gulag.

Travelers reaching Baghdad in recent days described American troops with tanks at checkpoints on the expressway that passes Abu Ghraib on the way to Jordan. But Mr. Sahhaf said that the American units there, and at two other locations he named as Hadithi and Qadisiya, were surrounded by Iraqi troops.

“We nailed them down,” he said.

These expressions of bravado appeared to have been reinforced by several broadcasts on Iraqi state television. Today Mr. Hussein was shown on videotape meeting with his sons, Uday and Qusay, and top aides and military commanders, according to Reuters. Iraqi television said the videotape had been made today, but there was no way to confirm that.

On Friday and again today, film of a man identified as Mr. Hussein visiting neighborhoods in western Baghdad and being greeted with jubilation by Iraqis was televised. Iraqis who saw the broadcast said they had no doubt that the man was indeed Mr. Hussein and not a double.

While questions lingered, including when the video was made, the effect on Mr. Hussein’s most zealous loyalists was beyond doubt. At the Palestine Hotel, the mood among Iraqi officials brightened.

For two weeks, they had pointed to the nightly television broadcasts of Mr. Hussein meeting senior officials as proof that he was still in command. But perhaps they, like officials in Washington, had begun to doubt whether these scenes were new or recycled from the past.

Now, with the Iraqi leader’s appearance on the streets, they seemed to rediscover the confidence shaken when the war began on March 20 with a cruise missile strike aimed at a meeting in Baghdad of senior officials who, the Pentagon said, might have included Mr. Hussein.

Oddly, the political flourish involved in the Iraqi leader’s televised walkabout was followed today by a reversion to one of the expedients that had led American intelligence analysts – and many Iraqis – to conclude that Mr. Hussein might have been killed or incapacitated by the missile strike. This afternoon, Mr. Sahhaf was back on television reading a message from Mr. Hussein, without any explanation as to why the leader could not have delivered the message himself.

The message made no reference to the American seizure of the airport or the Iraqi counterattack that followed, curious perhaps given that most television viewers – a small minority, because Baghdad has been without electricity for 48 hours – must have known of the fighting on the city’s southern rim.

Mr. Hussein’s statement was economical in his references to the fighting, saying only that the “invaders” were concentrating on Baghdad but weakening elsewhere.

“To hurt the enemy more, raise the level of your attacks,” he told Iraqi fighters. “The criminals will be humiliated.”

Twice today, the Information Ministry took reporters on a tour of the city’s western districts where the American thrusts had been reported around dawn. The Iraqis seemed particularly keen to show that the district of Yarmouk, about five miles from the airport, remained under Iraqi control. Reporters who saw the Yarmouk hospital this afternoon reported no sign of American troops, or of any battle in the area.

But there were other signs that something had happened in the area, and that the Iraqis were not eager for it to be known. An American photographer who reached the hospital this morning described large numbers of Iraqi casualties arriving on stretchers. When the busload of reporters arrived hours later, they were told the visit to the hospital was canceled, without explanation.

What the bus tours did show was that defenses in the city center had been strengthened. Today, tanks and artillery guns were positioned beside tall buildings, or in parks. Soldiers could be seen digging bunkers.

Just about everywhere, families were busy loading up cars with possessions, mostly food and clothing. But the question on almost every Iraqi’s lips when meeting Westerners was the one that nobody could answer: How long before the Americans push into the city to stay? How long before this war, with its declared objective of toppling Mr. Hussein, will be over?

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

Iraqi TV Presents a Relaxed Hussein

April 4, 2003

By JOHN F. BURNS

AGHDAD, Iraq, April 4 — With American troops moving cautiously toward placing the city under siege, Iraqi television tonight showed a 12-minute film of a relaxed and cheerful man it said was Saddam Hussein strolling with apparent nonchalance around Baghdad and stopping to exchange greetings with ordinary Iraqis.

The film, shown several times during the evening, appeared to be Iraq’s riposte to conjecture among officials in Washington that the 65-year-old ruler might have been killed or incapacitated in the opening American missile strikes of the war, 16 days ago. The man shown looked like a champion returning to neighborhoods where he has been most loved.

The Pentagon had said that the war’s opening salvos on March 20 were aimed at a meeting of top Iraqi leaders in a military compound in southern Baghdad that intelligence had indicated might have included Mr. Hussein and possibly his two sons, Uday and Qusay.

Today, at what appeared to be a critical juncture of the war, with American troops occupying the airport just to the west of the city, Iraq produced what amounted to a coup de théâtre, one that put Mr. Hussein back on the public stage in a way that sought to puncture the notion that he and his associates were on the ropes.

Whatever the impression the film made in Washington, most people here believed it was Saddam Hussein, alive, well and garrulous. It was him, down to his loping walk, his thick, almost lisping Arabic with the accent of his native district of Tikrit, and the thick mustache now graying.

The message conveyed, people here said, was as powerful as any the Iraqi leader has contrived in a long time — at least for those Iraqis who saw it, a dwindling number in Baghdad, where the power went out across the city just as a new wave of heavy American air attacks began on Thursday night.

With Baghdad plunged into darkness, and American artillery audible in the city, the increased tension in the capital stood in marked contrast to the casual air affected by the Iraqi leader in the film, if it was indeed him.

A few hours before the broadcast, state television also showed images of Mr. Hussein with a new speech from what appeared to be the same low-ceilinged bunker he used before, sitting at the same lectern and beside the same Iraqi flag as he did on March 24. This time, he urged Iraqis to fight against the growing encirclement of Baghdad.

“Strike them with the power of faith wherever they approach you, and resist them, O courageous citizens of Baghdad,” Mr. Hussein said. “With the grace of God, you will be the victors, and they will be the vanquished. Our martyrs will go to paradise, and their dead will go to hell.”

Leafing through a text roughly handwritten on a fold-over notepad, he made no mention of the capture of the airport.

But his remarks appeared to have been drafted in the light of the sudden change in the military map that had occurred in the past 48 hours, with the American Third Infantry Division and the Marines’ First Division driving rapidly north from the southwest and southeast into the outer reaches of the city.

“The enemy has evaded the defenses of our armed forces around Baghdad and other cities and has progressed, as we expected, to some landings here and there,” the Iraqi leader said. Belittling this, he said, “In most cases, these landings have been made on the highways and involve a small number of troops that you can confront and destroy with the arms that you have.”

Few films, if any, seem certain to receive closer scrutiny than the one showing Mr. Hussein in the streets of Baghdad. But the provisional answers to the questions it posed that were given tonight by Iraqis friendly enough to Western reporters to speak candidly about Mr. Hussein — and to whisper that they yearned for an Iraq without him — offered little comfort to American war planners.

The man was Mr. Hussein, they insisted. That was the Iraqi leader’s slight paunch visible when the man in the film turned sideways to the camera as he accepted the cheers of the crowd. That was his gesture — chopping the air with his right hand, palm clenched, thumb upward, just as Mr. Hussein is shown doing in a battalion of statues around Baghdad.

As for the dating of the film, it seemed unarguable that it was shot after the start of the war.

The black smoke that has plumed skyward over Baghdad since March 22, when trenches filled with a heavy oil were first lit in an attempt to blind American pilots and the guidance systems of bombs and missiles, was clearly visible on the horizon.

The black car carrying Mr. Hussein, apparently a luxury Mercedes or one of its Japanese equivalents, was shown driving past streets of shuttered shops, some with their windows taped, a step almost no Iraqis took until the war began.

Other glimpses of street life resembled what Western reporters have seen during the war: men fanning open air spits at restaurants still offering kebabs, and traffic much diminished but still busy enough, with double-decker buses and battered white-and-orange taxis and crowded minivans.

At least one place where he stopped was easy to identify: across the street from an auction house in the Mansour district where many Iraqis have gone to sell their furniture and household appliances in recent years to stave off penury as the economy collapsed under the weight of Mr. Hussein’s wars and international sanctions.

This placed the Iraqi leader — if it was him — at least halfway to the airport from the largest of his vast compounds in Baghdad, the now almost-obliterated Republican Palace grounds. The weather, too, was a clue — overcast, just as it was in Baghdad today, and a sharp break from Thursday, when clear blue skies aided American attacks that were among the heaviest of the war.

All in all, Iraqis friendly to Americans concluded, this was almost certainly Mr. Hussein, and the day he was filmed most probably today.

For years, Mr. Hussein has limited his public appearances to rare moments atop the reviewing stand at Army Day parades and other portentous events. When he has been seen moving among ordinary Iraqis, it has been on old film, endlessly recycled on television, showing him being enveloped by adoring, chanting crowds. The more these films have been shown, the more many ordinary Iraqis have seen them as the obverse of the essential truth, that Mr. Hussein is an isolated, secretive, cruel leader. Against this sense of the Iraqi president, today’s film was astonishing.

A handful of security men could be seen around Mr. Hussein, but nothing like the layers of steely eyed men described by the few foreigners who have met him in his palaces.

Principally, his security seemed to be left to two bulky men in sports shirts carrying Kalashnikov rifles, and their concern appeared to be to keep a way clear for Mr. Hussein as he moved forward to greet people, not to watch for potential assassins.

At one point, a small, curly haired boy of about 2 was thrust into his arms. Like any politician on the hustings, Mr. Hussein held the boy up, beaming.

Beside Mr. Hussein, throughout, were two senior-looking officials in the green uniforms that are the common dress among military men and officials of the ruling Baath Party. Aside from them, there was no obvious sign of the Baath Party officials who normally lurk among the crowds to orchestrate adulation for the leader.

Film shot from what appeared to be the front passenger seat of the Iraqi leader’s car gave glimpses of the heart-stopping moments other drivers must have had as his car drove by, assuming the drivers knew who he was.

At one point, as the car crossed a bridge over an expressway and pulled to the right to make an off-ramp, it pulled past a battered taxi that could have been a totem for the humiliations that have befallen ordinary people in Mr. Hussein’s Iraq.

But it was triumph rather than humiliation that the government sought to project today.

The information minister, Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, positively chirped as he laid out the Iraqi version of events at the Palestine Hotel, quarters for all foreign reporters covering the war.

He said American advances in a broad crescent across Baghdad’s southern approaches were all part of an Iraqi plan to lure the Americans into a catastrophic defeat at the gates of Baghdad.

The minister said Iraqi forces had battled the Americans at every point of their advance, inflicting “heavy injuries and killings” and destroying large numbers of tanks and other vehicles.

The airport, he said, will be “the Americans’ graveyard now.”

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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

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

CIVILIANS: Iraq Shows Casualties in Hospital

April 2, 2003

By TYLER HICKS with JOHN F. BURNS

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