| Baghdad’s al Kazemiya neighbourhood on Thursday after the US launched its first attacks on the Iraqi capital. (AFP)
Baghdad, March 20: At 5:34 am the explosion thundered over a city still sleeping. It caught Baghdad’s defenders by surprise: A minute passed before air raid sirens began to wail, and more time still before a burst of anti-aircraft fire answered the attack. For the next hour, as dawn revealed a grey morning, long pauses were interrupted by tracer bullets racing through the sky and more anti-aircraft rounds.
Baghdad was a ghost town, with the only signs of life from stray dogs wandering downtown streets and the occasional truck, taxi and car speeding along the banks of the Tigris river. But it was fully illuminated — even the oldest of President Saddam Hussein’s presidential palaces. The soft murmur of the call to prayer drifted across the city that had been bracing for an attack for days.
The US attack was aimed at targets on the southern and eastern outskirts of the city. No destruction was visible from the heart of the capital. The capital’s transformation into a ghost town had begun the day before. Yesterday, the eve of the attack, heavily armed militiamen of Saddam’s ruling Baath Party fanned out across Baghdad, strolling the streets, manning sandbagged positions and keeping nervous watch over a capital that increasingly resembled a ghost town.
Some Iraqis made last-minute purchases of vegetables and fuel, but most stayed at home or plotted their escape to the relative safety of the countryside. Rumours swirled of high-level defections, even as Iraqi officials maintained that US forces faced “certain death”.
“In this conflict, no matter what technology the American armed forces have, the will of the Iraqi people and the determination of the armed forces will prevail, God willing,” deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said at a news conference arranged hastily to dispel rumours that he had fled to Irbil, in the Kurdish-controlled north.
Aziz promised that he and all other Iraqi officials would remain in Baghdad during a war. Death, he said, would come by martyrdom if necessary, and he again dismissed the prospect of exile for President Saddam Hussein and his two sons as demanded by President Bush.
“How could a courageous leader like President Saddam Hussein, a historic leader, leave his country in such circumstances'” Aziz asked. “And how could the courageous Iraqi people and the courageous Iraqi armed forces allow the US Army to invade Iraq'”
Saddam made no appearances on state-run television nor addresses on the radio. But the institutions of the Iraqi government, dominated by the authority of his Baath Party, pledged to resist US invasion. “We are dedicated to martyrdom in defence of Iraq under your leadership,” said Iraq’s parliament, an organ without authority but often convened to deliver official statements. Its speaker, Saadoun Hammadi, called Saddam’s exile “absolutely unthinkable”. “He will be in front of everyone,” Hammadi said. “He will fight and guide our country to victory.”
Despite the anxiety in the street, Iraq’s leadership maintained a largely uniform appearance of confidence and swagger, even as some Iraqis predicted in private that authority might crumble in days. While lower-ranking officials acknowledged that Iraq faced overwhelming odds, the information minister, Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf, promised a long, bloody war launched by an overconfident US government.
“They are deceiving their soldiers and their officers, that aggression against Iraq and invading Iraq will be like a picnic,” Sahhaf said. “This is a very stupid idea they’re telling their soldiers.” In Iraq’s highly controlled society where little if any dissent is tolerated, reading the mood of the government was next to impossible. But Sahhaf and Aziz’s comments provided a window at least on what the government wanted to portray.
Sahhaf boasted that Iraq stood shoulder to shoulder with world opinion. He said Iraq was so confident of victory that the government was trying to decide whether to bury the corpses of US soldiers in mass pits or individual graves. His comments, echoed in another state-sanctioned statement, seemed designed to reassure officials themselves as much as to rally Iraqis for a fight.
Aziz was more sombre and reflective. In his brief news conference, he suggested that it was a matter of Iraqi pride to resist a US invasion.