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Baghdad set for final showdown

Baghdad, April 4 (Reuters): The people of Baghdad realise now that the final battle has reached their doorstep.

The capital’s fate, in the war started by the US two weeks ago to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, is about to be decided, they feel. But they do not know what to do about it.

“This is it. This is the final battle. We have no way out. We are facing a reality now. We’re confronting the mightiest army in the world. What can we do' Where can we go' We’re at a loss,” said Nour Khaled, 48, a mother of two.

Perhaps the worst aspect of life under bombing is fear and uncertainty. Fear of dying or being maimed, fear of losing one’s child and husband or parent. “We will definitely die. Who can escape such a war' My husband and I pray to God that if we’re to die we wish to die together. Our main fear is that our children will die and we will stay alive.”

“Yesterday we saw death in front of our eyes,” a traumatised Khaled added, recounting how a missile crashed near her home on the outskirsts of Baghdad, forcing her to flee barefoot carrying her two children.

Even if the state-run media did not report the advances of US forces to some 20 km from the capital, the fierce blitz that accompanied the thrust conveyed the message. Wave after wave of US planes pounded positions of the elite Republican Guard, Saddam’s best warriors and key defences as US ground combat troops moved towards Baghdad’s Saddam International Airport last night.

“I cannot talk. I cannot even begin to describe to you what happened. It was a night of hell. There was relentless bombardment all night. We thought that they have entered all of Baghdad and occupied the whole city,” said one woman.

“The planes were dropping and unloading their bombs over our heads,” she said, trembling after her drive from the airport district. She had stopped to buy bread at one of the few stores open today.

“It was terrifying. Not just for the kids but for us adults,” the woman said, adding that many of her neighbours in the Radwaniya suburb near the airport were also fleeing to take refuge with friends and relatives closer to the centre.

The people of Baghdad have no illusions or hope that anything can spare them carnage.

After so many inconclusive battles, bombardments and skirmishes over the past 13 years since Saddam began his conflict with the world’s sole superpower, most people believe that this is the final showdown.

Many, aware that their leadership will not surrender, believe Iraqi civilians will become the meat in the sandwich between US forces and Saddam’s troops. Most said they could no longer live with uncertainty and were ready to face their destiny even if it meant death.

Code-named “Shock and Awe” the US military operation has involved raids by hundreds of fighter jets and bombers on Iraq’s airport, air defence facilities, command centres and military positions.

The force of the latest air assault and quick advance towards the capital and airport appeared to have been surprising and devastating to many of the people of Baghdad, a city with an estimated population of five million.

“The bombardment was horrific. It was the worst and the most powerful so far. We felt as if the Americans were going to be outside our homes any time,” said Jamila Husamy, 45, who was among many fleeing the suburbs near the airport into the city.

Cars loaded with blankets and possessions on the roof raced at high speed up the main highway from the airport toward the city centre.

In the centre, however, the streets were all but deserted.

Most shops were shut and people largely stayed indoors, confused by rumours, not carried on state media, that US troops had seized Saddam International Airport.

Blitzed Iraqi civilians say there is no place for them to run and no place to hide. Among the city’s poor people, most live in shack houses that have no shelters or undergroubd basement.

Two weeks of allied bombings have turned life in Baghdad into a nightmare. Every day has become a battle for life and most basic necessities. Overnight and into today, the city plunged into blackout. In parts of Baghdad, including the centre, there was still no power by early afternoon. But water, cut off when the power went down, is flowing again and electricity has returned to some areas such as the Shaab district.

Most residents, experienced with two wars already, said they had the ominous feeling that all-out war was imminent the minute their city plunged into total blackout.

“People get a confirmation that US military landing was taking place when the electricity was cut,” said one woman.

Proud and patriotic as they are, many are pessimistic about confronting the world’s sole superpower. “This is the American army. Who can defeat it' People are not stupid, they know that,” Khaled said.

Most, battered by 20 years of wars, said they want this war to end whatever the outcome. “We’re tired of waiting. We’re tired of suffering. We want salvation. We want this war to end. We’re being tortured daily. I’d rather die quickly than go through this slow death,” said Zainab Hussein, aged 42.

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