| Republican Guards flee from advancing US Marines in the compound of Saddam Hussein’s main presidential palace in Baghdad on Monday. (AFP)
Baghdad, April 7: Some clambered on flowerpots. Others pushed impatiently against a door barricading the entrance. They thrust tattered business cards into the air, yellowed scraps of paper and pieces of newspaper, all with phone numbers beyond Iraq.
Crowds besieged the small, sandbagged compound of the International Committee of the Red Cross yesterday in the neighbourhood of Alwiya. In a city with no working phone lines, they had heard rumours true, as it turned out — that residents could make a call for free to anywhere in the world. They had three minutes to sum up to their friends and relatives their lives at war. “Every family has someone worrying about them,” said Laith Hazem, a 41-year-old electrical engineer waiting to call his brother, Luai, in Stockholm. “They worry about their lives, they worry about the danger they face.” Hazem waited on the sun-drenched sidewalk for hours to make the call. Rockets, anti-aircraft guns and artillery thundered within a mile of the compound, far closer than during any day since the US-led invasion began.
With practiced understatement, he shrugged.
“War is very dangerous,” he said. The ravages of war methodically advanced on many residents’ homes yesterday. Ambulances careered through the streets with sirens blaring. Some hospitals treated hundreds of wounded, civilians and soldiers in the line of fire on Baghdad’s outskirts. Through the day, the deafening sounds of battle built to a crescendo.
After days of an unrelenting exodus, the government declared that no one could leave Baghdad between 6 pm and 6 am, and the streets were deserted by nightfall. Phone lines that went dead because of US airstrikes last week remained down, and the government has warned of severe penalties if Iraqis are found with satellite phones it believes can be used for spying. A blackout has left swaths of the city without water, sanitation and electricity.
In a search for safety, some residents hauled blankets, mattresses and suitcases from the city’s southern outskirts to neighbourhoods closer to downtown. Many are without cars. A few braved the fighting to walk the streets, suffused with soldiers, militiamen and civilians carrying rocket-propelled grenades, rifles and heavy machine guns. Others waited in their homes, shrouded in darkness, hoping to hear word about relatives just miles away.
“Everybody has run away,” said an elderly doctor, in the upscale district of Mansour. “Everybody has run away from Baghdad.”
He sat at home alone yesterday, offering a guest a warm soft drink. He had sent his wife abroad. His son lives in the US, one of his daughters in Britain. His other two daughters live in Baghdad, but are too frightened to leave their homes to visit him. In the solitude of his house, talking to a journalist without the presence of a government escort, he reflected on Iraq, those who rule it and those who may rule it soon.
“We’ve had enough. Really, we’ve had enough,” he said.
The screech of planes caused a moment of suspense — a deep breath as he waited to hear where the bombs had landed. The cadence of artillery fire sounded with monotonous regularity. At times, it was interrupted by the crackle of gunfire.
He looked out of the window, which was covered by tape in the shape of an “x” to prevent it from shattering. “All the time, boom, boom, boom,” he said.
His grievances poured out, as if the moment and the isolation had made bold talk permissible. He despised the government, he said, and didn’t understand why President Saddam Hussein would not step down, “for the sake of his people and the sake of his country.”
As a Shia, the country’s repressed majority, he listed the crimes of the state: its brutal rule, the exile of tens of thousands to Iran, eight years of war with Iran and then an invasion of Kuwait in 1990. And now, Saddam was bracing for a battle over Baghdad that many, in private moments, say is suicidal. “We don’t know when it’s going to end, this war,” the doctor said. “I wish tomorrow.”
Still, his resentment of Saddam’s government was matched by his scepticism about US promises of liberation and democracy. He predicted that Baghdad would wait and see the outcome, but that the window of opportunity would be precariously brief.
“You don’t want to be governed by foreign people,” he said. “British, French, Americans, they’re all the same to us.”
“If they say: ‘Okay, this is your country, we can give you all that you need, and then we’ll leave,’ that would be great. But when you hear that American generals are coming to govern Iraq and that it will last one year, two years, three years, six months, this view, when you explain it to simple people, the majority, that will be very difficult. They can’t digest it,” he said.
“They’ll say: ‘Who’s better, Saddam or the Americans'’ At least Saddam’s from the country, and they’re from the outside.”
In a softer voice, he suggested Saddam might even find a way to survive. He asked for news, trying to sort out the contradictions he heard on Iraqi radio and the Arabic-language broadcasts of Radio Monte Carlo and the BBC. On some days, he said, he has had little to do but listen alone to the radio and wait. “Time is slow,” he said, “very, very slow.”
He was not alone in his confusion. Those residents who still listened to Iraqi radio were inundated with official denials of US advances. Information minister Mohammed Saeed Sahaf declared again that the war was progressing as Iraq had planned and that a war of attrition was already under way. In his news conference, he denied claims by US military officials that as many as 3,000 Iraqis were killed in an incursion on Saturday into Baghdad.
Hours after the attack, no bodies were visible in the streets. While Red Cross workers said 100 wounded a day were entering Baghdad’s hospitals they had no overall figures on casualties.