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…


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