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Death in Baghdad

More than a week after the bombing started and a number of civilians had been killed, I ran into him again. Did he now feel he had to carry out his threat? He just laughed. “Oh, you know,” he said, “that was just talk. I could never do that.” The journalists he worked for had left and he was out of work.

On another day I visited the museum dedicated to the life of Saddam Hussein. In English it is called the Triumph Leader Museum, and the name sums up the aim of the institution. I was visiting at the same time as several classes from Baghdad’s Sparrow’s Meet kindergarten, of whom the youngest were two and a half years old. “Don’t touch!” the teachers said as the bewildered-looking children, carrying tiny rucksacks on their backs, shuffled past the exhibits in single file. Highly disciplined, they all had both hands on the back of the child in front of them.

Cabinet upon cabinet in the museum is filled with gifts to Saddam Hussein, ranging from gold-plated machine guns and fountain pens to pipes and pictures. “I try to explain to them about the life of the president and how he has such a lot of presents because the people love him,” one of the teachers in charge, Muntaha Abid Mohammed, told me. The prize among the exhibits is a giant electronic map of the Middle East with a digital display and tiny lights showing where Iraqi Scud missiles fell on Israel and Saudi Arabia in 1991. I asked Mrs. Mohammed if her charges were nervous about the coming war and she pointed out that she had with her only eleven children from her class. “Normally I have forty, but since last week parents have been keeping their children at home and some are traveling.” By this she meant they had been sent out of Baghdad, perhaps abroad.

In one section of the museum is a series of pictures of Saddam with world leaders, many of whom, like Nicolae Ceausåüescu, Tito, and Leonid Brezhnev, have long since passed from the scene, as indeed have some of their countries. Some have not though. In a picture from 1976 Saddam looks on as a youthful Jacques Chirac accepts a drink offered to him by a young girl. There was no picture or gift from either of the visits made by Donald Rumsfeld in 1983 and 1984. But a book by Ramsey Clark, the former US attorney general, called War Crimes: A Report on United States War Crimes Against Iraq, is displayed.

3.

Ten days are a long time in a bombing campaign. Since it began, some normality has returned to the city. Especially in the morning one sees a good many cars on the streets. Most shops and stalls remain closed, but in a city of five million people, a few thousand must be open. Red, British-style double-decker buses trundle around town, but most offices are closed, as are schools and universities.

Another thing that has changed is that ordinary people are becoming increasingly angry about the bombing, especially as the number of civilians killed and injured rises. Many people I talked to in the days right after the war began doubted that US and British forces were closing in on the city or that they would enter it. “It is impossible that they are so close,” said Mohammed Ali Hossein, the proprietor of the Saqqar, or Hawk Car Tyre and Battery shop, which I was visiting to buy a car battery that I could use to run my computer when the electricity fails. “If they come with infantry we’ll smash them.” His colleague, who would only give his first name, Jawad, said: “They are hiding in the desert, in isolated places and in caves—in fact in caves where even animals don’t like to hide. They are cowards.”

I asked the men why they did not believe that an American assault on the city was imminent. Mr. Hossein said: “They claimed that the 51st Brigade had surrendered to American forces but then we discovered that this was false. As you see, they are still fighting in Basra.” He went on: “I’ve got a gun at home and I’m ready to fight. All the families in my district have weapons and are ready to defend their country. We’ll cut off their heads.” They had reason to be skeptical. The assault which looked imminent then was delayed.

That the British and Americans could capture some Iraqis was to be expected, but what really made an impression in Baghdad was a film shown on television (which the bombing has failed to take off the air), about a farmer who shot down a high-tech Apache helicopter whose two crew members were captured. This sort of feat has been given huge credit by Saddam Hussein and his associates. Commanders and tribes who have fought the British and Americans have all been publicly praised. In other words Saddam has not tried to take all the credit for successes for himself. His frequent statements are all heavily loaded with religious language and a call to jihad.

Most significantly, it has become clear that Iraqi military planners have been a lot shrewder than their American and British counterparts have given them credit for. The Iraqis have no effective air defenses and, of course, no air force. They understood the lesson of the Gulf War, which was that it was pointless to try to take on a large mechanized army with a similar but far less well-equipped force, which would simply be wiped out from the air. So the Iraqis have prepared for a guerrilla war and in fact are fighting one.

The military communiqués read out on television are full of instructions. They include messages like this: “If an enemy column spreads out in a dispersed formation, ready for battle, move away from it and do not confront it as a whole. Target vehicles moving on the road which are far away from large concentrations of troops.” Another instruction is: “Do not wait for an order to come to you from the usual authorities. Every Iraqi is a commander in his own position and after his own manner when he is cut off from communication and infrastructure.”

When the conflict began I had the impression that Iraq’s top officials, and even Saddam himself when he appeared on television, looked distinctly nervous. A few days later they appeared calm, confident, and even smug. On March 27 General Sultan Hashem Ahmed, Iraq’s minister of defense, explained that British and American troops would face bloody street-to-street fighting if they tried to enter Baghdad, which, he said, would be “impenetrable so long as the sons of the city are alive.” Asked if that meant street-to-street fighting, he replied, “Of course!” He said: “With God’s help we will inflict on the enemy the casualties they deserve.”

While an aide pointed to a map, General Ahmed explained what he expected the enemy to do next; he believed that the Battle of Baghdad would begin within perhaps five to ten days, as the city became encircled.

On the outskirts of town, tanks have been seen moving into positions; and the men who have dug trenches and foxholes there are believed to have been drawn from the Republican Guard, which is said to number approximately 100,000 men, and from the carefully selected Special Republican Guard, which is said to have over 15,000 men. The troops outside the city won’t scare the Americans and British. What will more likely alarm them is what waits inside the city. General Ahmed is preparing for urban guerrilla warfare, a nightmare for the American and British forces.

Over the last couple of weeks small groups of men throughout the city have been preparing several thousand foxholes, trenches, and sandbagged positions. They are in strategic locations, in front of many large and small buildings and at traffic circles from which street fighters can direct their fire in several directions down Baghdad’s many long, straight boulevards. It is true that the exposed, modern boulevards don’t seem to offer much protection from American firepower; but many of them are already manned with small groups of armed men who can take shelter in nearby buildings if necessary. Some are soldiers, some are militiamen from the ruling Baath Party, and some are from other militias, such as the Fedayeen of Saddam and the Jerusalem Army, in which millions of men and women, not all young, have been given rudimentary military training.

Several civilians I spoke to said they would join the fight too. I met Karim Kazal Hussein, a forty-five-year-old driver who lives beside the main highway to Basra. He said that he and most of his neighbors had guns at home and would use them to try to stop any British and American advance. “We are just waiting,” he said. “If they come I will kill them. What else can I do? They should just get out of Iraq. They came here to kill me, my brother, my friends. They have come from abroad to kill me.”

The beauty of this strategy, from the Iraqi point of view, is that it disperses armed men in thousands of small teams. As the general pointed out, barring a direct hit on one of these positions, “even if a bomb falls ten meters away it won’t do any damage.” Faced with these small groups of men, the British and Americans are likely to find themselves in exactly the position they did not want to be in. If a US tank is fired on by one of these groups, which has, say, decided to abandon its position and fire from the better vantage point of an apartment several stories up, what is that tank going to do? Fire back and risk killing many civilians in the other apartments? “It will be a disaster for them if they come,” said Imad el Kasei, who runs a stationery shop on Rashid Street. Some have talked of a “Mesopotamian Stalingrad,” or “Saddamgrad,” in the making. Or perhaps it will be more like the Soviet occupation of Budapest in 1956. “Even children will fight against tanks,” said Mr. el Kasei. “We want to live in peace and be free and not subservient to Americans.”

Of course none of this may happen. Uprisings against the regime may begin and that could change the entire direction of the war. Saddam may be killed in a missile attack or any number of other unpredictable events could happen. However, with the failure of Iraqis to rise up, the failure by the end of March of the British and Americans to capture a single large Iraqi town, and the fact that, if one believes what people are saying, feelings of defiance are running high, General Ahmed and other leading officials are clearly feeling much emboldened. Indeed I thought that he appeared to anticipate with some satisfaction the coming Battle of Baghdad. “Our policy is to fight to the end,” he said. “We believe that with God’s help we will be victorious.”

4.

One reason that Saddam and his ministers are feeling emboldened is that with every day that passes the number of civilian casualties, however they are caused, has been rising. They know that these losses serve to stiffen resolve here and serve as well to embitter even further already angry Muslim and Arab nations, not to mention increasing anti-American feeling in the rest of the world.

On the night of Friday, March 28, I heard that there had been an explosion a few hours before in the al-Nasr market in the al-Shula quarter in the northwest of the city. By the time I got there it was already dark, and bodies were already coming back from the hospital or from the mosque. Mourners followed the coffins, chanting: “La ilaha ila Allah Muhammad Rasul Allah“—“There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.” Men were in tears, women wailing, and a crowd was just standing by the small blast crater in shock, completely stunned.

Coffins could be seen loaded on pick-up trucks. Some of them contained bodies already washed and prepared, and tightly bound in their shrouds. One had a bag made of shroud material that was placed beside its head. It contained body parts that had been severed or spilled at the moment of death. The coffins of those just back from the hospital went to the mosque, where the bodies waited in line to be washed and prepared for burial. That night I saw five bodies while I was at the mosque. In the next room, the body of Fatima Abid, a girl of ten, was being washed. On the walls of the mosque, banners were hung celebrating the lives and deaths of the Shiite martyrs Ali and Hussein.

The next morning I saw the coffin of a twelve-year-old boy at the mosque, in a little side room, on a slab, and the body of a stout man in his fifties called Karim Hussein. He had a shop in the market and was now being washed. Water was being poured over his face. Two of his relatives were weeping at his side. The night before, at the local hospital, men had come to collect the shattered remains of their relatives, which lay bloody and stiffening on the shelves of a mortuary refrigerator, with its noisy, whirring fans. By morning doctors were reporting that sixty-two people had died and forty-nine were injured in the explosion at the market.

A kilometer or so from the market, huge billowing plumes of thick black smoke filled the horizon as the Iraqis continued to burn oil in trenches in order to disorient the British and Amer- ican guided missiles. Shamsiya Abid, who is fifty-three, had lost three of her five sons in the explosion. Two were in the little yard of their house next to the market, and one was inside. The brothers were called Ali, who was twenty-one, Hussein, who was eighteen, and Mohammed, twelve years old. The yard had been washed down, but blood remained under crates of Pepsi-Cola, which the brothers used to sell when they were not studying. In one room of the house Shamsiya Abid’s husband received male mourners. Shamsiya herself sat on the floor with the women in another room. She rocked and swayed and beat her breast and head with both fists. “I brought them up, I sent them to school, I cared for them,” she screamed. “Where shall I go? I fed them with the milk of my breasts!”

Eyewitnesses of the market explosion say they saw both a warplane and a missile. Whether the missile was fired from the plane or was a misfire from an antiaircraft battery is hard to say. But does it matter? Not for Shamsiya Abid and not for the people of al-Shula. Here, in Baghdad, the increasing number of civilian deaths is changing the atmosphere. The bravado I’d earlier heard expressed by people who said “we’re used to it” is turning not to shock and awe, but to anger and fear.

One man told me, “I’m worried how it will all end. Just before the bombing began I was quite optimistic. But now, the means they are using—bombing, hitting the telephone exchange for example—that won’t deliver the country, will it? Before we thought they would occupy the country in a few days, there would be few victims, Saddam would be removed, and they would free us. But now we are a little disappointed and we fear things will go from bad to worse. For the moment we have food but if it goes on, what will people do? They have no money.”

The day after the deaths at the al- Nasr market, a large tent was erected in which mourners could sit for three days. Thamir Jaleel, aged twenty-two, who sells leather goods there, told me: “Once the American troops come we will take our revenge.” Thirteen of his friends had died on that Friday evening. That part of town is solidly Shiite. The US had counted on the Shiites rising up against Saddam because of the thousands he killed following the 1991 revolt which Bush senior had encouraged only to allow Saddam to move in and crush it.

As the dead from the al-Nasr market were being buried, Ali Hammadi al-Namani, an Iraqi soldier, blew himself up along with four American soldiers outside the Shiite shrine town of Najaf. The next day the newspapers reported that Saddam Hussein had posthumously promoted al-Namani to a higher rank and bestowed the country’s highest military decorations on him. Taha Yas-sin Ramadan, the Iraqi vice-president, praised his action, saying: “This is a beginning and you will hear more good news during the coming days.”

Often the city is quiet for hours on end. Then there are the sounds of distant explosions or sometimes one close to the city center. The sky is a cold gray, the color of the clouds mixed with the smoke of dozens of oil fires. On television performers sing in praise of Saddam, who is seen firing his gun, chomping on a cigar, or riding a white horse.

Postscript

It is just after 10:00 PM on April 3. The electricity has failed. I am writing this by candlelight. During the day the BBC has been reporting that US troops are on the outskirts of Baghdad. Ministers here have denied this and most people here simply haven’t believed it. For the past few days all that most Baghdadis have wanted to do was to get back to normal. With the city plunged into darkness for the first time since the bombing began, and reports arriving that US forces have begun their assault on the airport, I have the feeling that the first chapter of this war has finally ended.

—April 3, 2003

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