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imperialism & war

Bloodied but still unbowed, Baghdad prepares to fight

The adviser described the war as '10 Vietnams' that would be waged long after the invading forces arrived. He also believed that images of the war, especially dead American soldiers and Iraqi casualties, would sway US domestic opinion and an international outcry would force the US to stop fighting.

'We welcome them with the best music and the most beautiful flowers in Iraq,' said Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. 'In the course of the battle, public opinion will realise they have been dragged into a quagmire.'
Bloodied but still unbowed, Baghdad prepares to fight

Patrick Graham in Baghdad
Sunday March 30, 2003
The Observer

When the bombs drop at night in Baghdad, Muthana Mohammed Saleh wakes up and sings into a microphone. His call of 'Allah Akbar' from the minaret of the mosque mingles with low booms around the city.

Muthana is far more reliable than the air raid sirens that sound either too early or much too late. We've timed Muthana, whose father's mosque is around the corner from our hotel, and he has got it down to less than a minute from the first explosion. The bombing strategy appears to have changed in the last few days, giving Muthana a lot of practice.

With the symbolic targets destroyed early on and the liberation of the city not going as planned, the allied planners are working their way down the list. On Friday they knocked out three telecoms exchanges using bunker-busting missiles that made the ground shake in the surrounding area. That night, they hit the Ministry of Information, long expected to be a target but perhaps delayed as the allies waited to see if the city would fall in the first week.

Baghdad is now preparing for a siege. The city is almost unrecognisable from a week ago. The transformation is so complete that it is clear the government has been preparing its own strategy for a lot longer than the Pentagon.

War suits Baghdad. The absurdly monumental architecture of the palaces and government buildings look better in ruins and the black cloud from the burning oil trenches has given the city an impressive, if somewhat melodramatic, sense of impending doom. A dust storm earlier in the week left a fine orange powder everywhere that makes the city glow against the dark sky.

War, too, seems to suit the leadership, who appear on a regular basis in their green army uniforms to give journalists confident, occasionally jaunty, accounts of US and British failures in the south. Like Yasser Arafat, they seem to draw strength from being cornered.

The first ring of defence outside the city is already geared up to fight the kind guerrilla war taking place in the south. During a drive yesterday afternoon a third of the way down the highway to Kerbala and Najaf, we saw camouflaged tanks, sandbagged bunkers defended with heavy machine guns and mobile anti-aircraft trucks near military checkpoints. Within a few days, this area will become a frontline.

The small villages and farmland covered by date palm groves appear ideal for the hit-and-run tactics the government has been planning. A few days earlier, on a drive through the southern outskirts of Baghdad, we saw the Republican Guard with their red berets digging foxholes and neighbourhood militias manning checkpoints and searching vehicles travelling the country roads.

Large trenches of burning oil poured black smoke into the air, obscuring the view of soldiers camped under trees in the median strip between the highways.

Military trucks were parked under overpasses and soldiers scattered across fields to minimise casualties. The results of the bombing were impressive. Twisted squares of aluminium roofing were spread around a large hole where a large warehouse had once stood.

The extent of the damage from strikes outside the city is unclear but judging by the power and number of explosions coming from these areas, it is extensive. Journalists are not given access to military hospitals but there are rumours that attacks on army camps in some areas have been effective, especially a barracks in Taji, resulting in large numbers of dead and wounded.

The civilian deaths have been easier to calculate and the figures provided by the government have so far been accurate, according the Red Cross.

The most severe damage occurred in two marketplace bombings, the worst one early Friday evening that killed over 50 and wounded just as many. At least 15 of the victims were children, and at the local mosque they washed the young, pale bodies punctured by shrapnel late into the night before they were carried in coffins through the streets.

The crater in the market itself was relatively small considering the results. A hole a half-metre deep and a metre wide surrounded by cracked asphalt a few metres from the tin-roofed shops. Shrapnel pierced a nearby red Passat, leaving its windows shattered and doors charred. This bomb was designed to kill, not destroy buildings. Residents said they heard a plane approach before the impact. The exact nature of the bombing is unclear, but not the results. Bystanders talked of severed heads and limbs and a young man offered to show us the brains of a friend who had been standing next to him during the explosion.

While we were looking at the crater, a man took us by the arm and led us through the dirt streets of the poor Shia neighbourhood, Al Shula. Inside a small, bare livingroom with two old wooden benches, a coffin lay covered by a blanket. The man took off the covering, opened the pine box and pulled a striped green blanket off a small body. The 12-year-old boy stared blankly, his arm folded awkwardly under him.

Mohammed Abdul Karim Hamid Al Kinari was out buying tea at the market around the corner when the missile hit. As stood in the living room, his mother Tisar reached into the coffin, grabbing hold of Mohammed and began calling him back from the dead. 'My baby, you are my only son,' she said as relatives pull her off the corpse. 'My baby, my son, my son.' When they closed the coffin, Tisar beat the coffin with her fists and wailed, pulling her hair.

Down the street, Hassien lay in bed with bandages around his feet. He and his brothers had rented a bicycle from a friend for a few minutes joy-riding around the market when the bomb exploded. 'My friend Marwan was killed,' Hassien said, naked except for his pink shirt. 'I was on a bicycle - it's a Kino - we paid 100 dinar for a few minutes.'

Hussein Khalife Ali's three brothers watched the missile explode from across the market but none of them were hurt. These are some of Baghdad's poorest. As Hassien lay on the floor, one of his brother slept beside him. In the small family room, his father and uncle insisted visitors drink a glass of tea. The walls of of their home were cracked and fallen stucco had left large patterns.

Late into the night the families of Shula visited friends and relatives and carried their dead from the mosque to their homes. In almost every block, the sounds of sobbing came from houses as crowds waited outside.

The Iraqi government quickly took journalists to the scene on Friday evening, an unscheduled visit in a daily series of bus tours of non-military targets.

Judging from the self-satisfied demeanour of the Information Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, at a press conference yesterday, the Iraqis feel they have won the first round in the media war. 'You are now our Ministry of Information,' he told journalists next to the bombed Ministry of Information.

It was a disturbing thought but the media here is a key part of government strategy. As he spoke, planes thundered overhead and bombed the city, almost on cue.

The government now believes it has turned tables on the Americans, a pariah nation disregarding international law. The Minister told journalists that the Iraqis were now helping a group of lawyers sue the 'criminal Americans and mercenary British' in the international court. He was not worried about Tony Blair, because he did not think the British Prime Minister would still be in power by the time it was brought to court.

In an interview with The Observer almost a month ago, an adviser to Saddam Hussein laid out a battle plan that seems to be unfolding with surprising accuracy. It appears the Iraqis had thought through this war more thoroughly than their adversary.

The adviser described the war as '10 Vietnams' that would be waged long after the invading forces arrived. He also believed that images of the war, especially dead American soldiers and Iraqi casualties, would sway US domestic opinion and an international outcry would force the US to stop fighting. While President George W. Bush says the outcome is inevitable, earlier predictions about Iraq's capabilities have proved inaccurate.

The regime planned to make Baghdad and the Sunni heartland around it the final battle ground that would tie up foreign troops for months, perhaps years. The adviser dismissed the possibility that the Iraqi leadership could be hunted down.

As usual, it will be the civilians who are unable to hide. It appears now that the allies will either lay siege to the city, evoking connotations of the Serbs surrounding Sarajevo, or try to enter by force. The latter will require the kind of fight through neighbourhoods unsuited to the allies' technical superiority and sensitivity to images of civilian casualties.

The Iraqi army and security services have been preparing for weeks, vacating obvious targets and moving troops into apartment blocks, schools, and even social clubs. Most street corners have their sandbagged emplacements and plainclothed security keep close watch on everybody.

If the siege begins, it is hard to imagine the kind of popular uprising that took place in southern cities in 1991. The soldiers will fight because they have no other place to go and the civilians will hide in their homes.

'We welcome them with the best music and the most beautiful flowers in Iraq,' said Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. 'In the course of the battle, public opinion will realise they have been dragged into a quagmire.'

It is unclear that the 'Shock and Awe' strategy has done anything but increase the resolve of people here. And the recent bombing of more or less civilian targets such as the telephone exchange has not made them any more enamoured of the invading armies.

The bombing itself has become so common that few pay attention unless they are in the immediate vicinity. But those who are nearby find it hard to forget the experience. For the first hour of last Friday's bombing we were stranded near some of the targets.

The soldiers caught with us, huddled together in a small washroom in a shopping mall, chanted the Koran as anti-aircraft batteries blasted away uselessly and the missile strikes filled the room with dust. It was a terrifying experience to feel the blasts roll over us and shake the foundations of the buildings, like finding yourself in some underworld for an hour, certain you will never emerge. But we did, shaken, and then were invited to dinner of roast chicken at a local guard post.

It is astonishing how calm and well ordered Baghdad remains even as the bombs fall. Life is not in any way normal but it does continue. There was heavy traffic heading south out of the city yesterday and shops selling fruit, vegetables and meat were busy.

A few days ago we stopped in a tea shop and chatted to some young men. The bombing made the windows shake but no one paid much attention. They were more interested in the television showing fighting around Nasiriyah.

When Saddam came on, it quieted down. The president exhorted his people to fight long and hard. 'Americans are going into the desert near your city and you must fight them,' he said. So far, they appear to be paying more attention to their president than Mr Bush.

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