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Death in Baghdad

From my room on the ninth floor of the Hotel Rashid in the center of Baghdad I had a view of half the city. Colleagues across the corridor had a view of the other half. On Friday night, March 21, Baghdad came under an intense, spectacular bombardment. Buildings seemed to erupt in smoke and dust and sometimes they caught fire. The night sky was lit up by pink tracer and antiaircraft fire and sometimes the hotel shook when the missiles struck close by. About 350 yards away an antiaircraft unit was firing from the top of a building.

We opened the windows to minimize the risk of glass shattering during the blasts. As I looked out at the crowns of light thrown up when missiles or bombs hit Saddam Hussein’s palaces and ministries, I heard the fizzing sound of a missile. Instinctively I fell to the floor. After the missile slammed into the building behind the hotel, where the antiaircraft unit had been, I jumped up and ran to the room of one of my colleagues on the other side of the corridor. I could hear the sound of shattering glass and falling masonry. A plume of smoke and dust was rising in the air. There were no flames. Then the plume billowed into a thick fog and all I could see were streetlights piercing the gloom. Some of the dust began to swirl through the windows. I could hear men shouting “Allahu Akhbar” close by. About ten minutes later the fog lifted. Most of the building next door appeared to remain intact, apart from a large hole in the side. After the bombardment subsided my colleagues called down for room service, which soon arrived.

What has quickly become apparent in Baghdad is that “shock and awe” does not shock and awe Iraqis. Practically everybody I talk to points out that during the 1980s the Iraqis fought a war with Iran in which as many as one million people died. In 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait and then in 1991 it fought the Gulf War with the US and its allies, losing many thousands of young soldiers, and Baghdad was bombed. It was bombed again in 1998. Ever since the invasion of Kuwait the country has also lived under punishing international sanctions. When missiles blow up Saddam’s palaces and the empty ministries in the center of town, well, they say here, “we are used to it.”

1.

Odd as it may seem, once the bombardments started in the early hours of March 20 the city seemed to breathe a huge sigh of relief. No one knew what the much-vaunted doctrine of “shock and awe” actually meant until it began. After that, people understood that while accidents were possible, ordinary civilians were not being targeted and that the missiles and bombs that were being used on Baghdad were, for the most part, accurate.

In the days before the bombing began people were tense, since they did not know what was coming, or how long the bombardment would last. They also did not know whether the regime would collapse or not, and, if that happened, whether law and order would also crumble. In this case there might be looting by armed gangs. One man told me: “All my friends have been urging me to get a gun, but I don’t want to. If they come and want my car I’ll just say ‘take it.’ I could get a pistol, but they’d have bigger guns than I would, or I could get a machine gun, but then they’d have more ammunition than I would.” He also told me that he knew of several cases where children had been killed playing with guns their fathers had brought home.

Still, in the couple of days before the raids began, shopkeepers in particular were taking no chances. They could be seen hauling their stocks out of their shops, loading them into cars and trucks, and taking them elsewhere for safekeeping. They pulled down their iron shutters. Some, thinking that this was not enough, brought in men with blowtorches to seal their shops shut. Others had their windows bricked up. As the hours ticked away, the city took on an eerie sense of excitement, fear, and expectation. Small groups gathered at street corners to discuss the latest news, and friends and families gathered behind closed doors.

Cars sped through the city’s streets as everyone rushed to finish whatever it was they had to do. By midday on March 19, almost all the shops had shut and armed men, both in uniform and in civilian clothes, were out on the streets. In Saddam’s parliament his deputies declared their undying love for him while, perhaps inadvertently, Baghdad’s pop radio station played the theme song from the movie Titanic. A thick haze hung over the city, left by an overnight sandstorm.

When I needed to change money that night, I found that most of the moneychangers were closed, their shops firmly shuttered and bolted. The Iraqi dinar was in free fall anyway, having lost a third of its value against the dollar. One man was clearing out his papers, his ledgers, and his equipment from his office with his staff. “No more money!” he said. “Are you English? American? German?” When I said British the man walked with me out onto the stoop of his shop, which lies on one of Baghdad’s main shopping streets. “In two days,” he said, and he dramatically lowered his arms, as if to indicate a collapse. He then said simply, with a broad smile on his face: “Democracy!”

Perhaps this is the first time in the last three decades that he had dared to utter such a word to a foreigner, a stranger, and in front of other Iraqis whom he did not know. “From today,” he said, “no more fear!” He was not alone. Suddenly I found other Iraqis opening up. They were discussing how long the bombing would last and whether anyone was willing to die to defend Saddam Hussein. I met one man who said he expected Rashid Street, where many Baghdadis go to shop, to be renamed Bush Street after the war. At a café another pretended to show me the kitchen. There he took out a note he had scribbled, slipped it into my hand, and continued discussing the kitchen. The note read: “Bush the father liberated Kuwait. Bush the son will liberate Iraq. Bush the grandson’s duty will be the liberation of the world.”

A former military officer told me that “the fear stopped two days ago.” He said: “If the Americans are clever I hope they can finish the job in seven days, but it may be more. I just hope no one is stupid enough to try and fight. We just want this over and done with.” A few days later, when it became clear that the regime of Saddam Hussein was not about to collapse, I found fewer and fewer Iraqis prepared to talk like this. The fear had returned. By contrast, ever since, I have found more and more people talking of their fear of the bombs and their anger.

2.

Since the war took such a long time coming, most people in Baghdad had plenty of time to prepare for it. Between half and two thirds of them rely on government food rations to survive, but in the last few weeks the authorities issued several months’ worth of food in advance. Still, the food shops that remained open on the eve of the bombing were doing good business. People were also buying candles and batteries. The price of bottled water tripled.

Many of those with the means to do so have either left Baghdad or sent their families away. Some have gone to stay with relations in the provinces. The Jordanian border has been closed to all but a lucky few, and in the days before the bombing started the Syrians also turned back Iraqis but have left the frontier open for foreign Arabs and Muslims coming to fight for Iraq. The roads to Amman and Damascus are also dangerous now. Several civilians are reported to have been killed by air strikes.

Waiting for a war to begin, you still have to do something. On the Friday before the bombing started I went to Baghdad’s secondhand-book market. The traders complained that business had been bad for two or three months. With little money to spare, middle-class Iraqis come here to browse and sell their books for cash. “A house without a library is like a desert,” a book merchant called out. Among the books for sale I found Arabic engineering manuals and a 1959 English-language text on laws relating to education in Yugoslavia.

At the market, Sayeef, a shoeshine boy, was looking for work. There are eight in his family and he has had to stop going to school to help support them; his father was crippled in a car accident. Sayeef looked healthy enough for a ten-year-old, but then he said he was fifteen. Malnutrition has become common in Iraq since 1991. I asked if his brothers and sisters were frightened of the war that was coming and he replied: “Yes, very scared, but I try to calm them down. I try to convince them that nothing bad will happen.”

The next day there was a parade in support of Saddam Hussein. Tens of thousands marched through the city in a tightly organized show of support for the leader. Paunchy and middle-aged, mustachioed, armed, and sweating, Baath Party members led the crowds in chants of loyalty to Saddam. Sturdy matrons with pistols carried bazookas on their shoulders down the main boulevard. Some of the women stamped vigorously on a burning effigy of George Bush.

Thousands of schoolchildren and students marched by, all of them with their books, as though they had suddenly been told about a change in the day’s schedule. They were followed by a group led by long-haired, sword-wielding Sufi dervishes. They were said by an official to be “religious” and were chanting, “We will give our blood and soul for Saddam.” How many will actually give their blood and soul for Saddam is, even now that the war has begun, one of the questions that everyone wants to know the answer to. “You know,” said one grave young man, “many people here really do love Saddam.”

On the sidelines of the march I met Yusuf. He was a driver and had been working with some journalists. He asked me where I was from and this time, with no hesitation, I said France. He spoke good English and had spent some time at school in the United States. He said: “George Bush is a bad man and will kill civilians, so I will do the same. Believe me if any Iraqi civilians are killed by Americans, or British or Spanish, I will try and kill. First will be their soldiers, but, if I can’t find any, then their civilians will do, now or in the future, even in ten years.”

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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