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