| Information minister Mohammed Saeed al Sahaf speaks to the press in front of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad on Monday. (Reuters)
Baghdad, April 10: The manager of the Palestine Hotel put on his best suit and a broad smile and crossed his parking lot to meet the Americans.
“Happy to see you,” he said to an approaching group of soldiers. Cradling their M16s and casting wary glances around them, the Marines had just emerged from their armoured vehicles in front of the hotel in the middle of Baghdad. They looked taken aback by the strange welcoming committee.
With his helmet pulled down low over his brow, Col B.P. McCoy of the US Marine Corps seemed surprised to be shaking the hand extended to him. “Follow me, please," grovelled the manager of the hotel, which since the start of the war served as Iraq’s ministry of information.
The Marines followed their commanding officer through a scrum of cameramen. Their vehicles were parked on the square, with its domed mosque and the statue of Saddam Hussein raising his arm to the heavens, which has served as the background for television reports broadcast around the world these past two weeks.
Loaded up with water bottles and magazine clips, the Marines burst through the tape-covered glass doors of the Palestine. “Go, go,” barked an officer. “Spread out around the lobby.”
Col McCoy, who has just led his Marines across half of Iraq in less than three weeks, making his way up the Tigris from Basra to Baghdad, followed the manager up the stairs to his office, from which the portraits of Saddam have miraculously disappeared.
He removed his helmet, and took a long draught from a bottle of mineral water offered to him by the manager. His night vision goggles hung on his chest, and a grenade was attached to his flak jacket. Col McCoy and his men had just occupied the last official centre of Saddam’s regime still active in Baghdad. Even after the rest of the administration had ceased to function, the Palestine still housed the Iraqi propaganda machine and the information minister, Mohammed Said al-Sahaf.
“We have come to make sure everybody is safe,” said the captain, in an American accent so strong it attracted everyone’s attention. The correspondents from the Arab networks were not delighted by this change of spokesman. A journalist from Egypt’s Nile TV asked: “Are you going to stop the looting' Is there going to be a curfew'”
“I don’t know, ma’am,” said the colonel politely. “For now, we are still in a combat zone.” A star Italian television presenter, who until a few days ago had been friendly with the former head of the Iraqi press centre, piped up in the same angry tone. “World opinion considers you invaders. What do you say to that'” “I haven’t seen the television for a long while,” said Col McCoy. “We had to fight hard to get here. But we have seen people cheering our entry into Baghdad.”
The hotel manager kept smiling for the new arrivals.
Only the night before, he had been taking orders from the Iraqi minister, Sahaf, who announced during his last press conference at the Palestine on Tuesday afternoon the imminent defeat of the Americans.
Yesterday morning, the Iraqi press office in the hotel’s former souvenir shop was empty. The large tables from which the official guides would oversee the journalists were empty. The last translators seemed unsettled by the absence of orders, like all the hotel staff.
The minister’s cashier, whose job was to take $225 a day from the journalists, had disappeared with a large sports bag over his shoulder. After more than 30 years under the yoke of an especially debased mafia-minded totalitarianism, dressed up as nationalism, the Iraqis were struggling to accept its demise.
No one even dreamed of taking down the large photograph of Saddam taped to the Palestine’s glass windows. Instead of the apocalypse predicted in months of Iraqi television propaganda, former officials stared in astonishment at the huge Marines, in round spectacles, standing in the hotel lobby, with their pink cheeks, American twangs and outsized assault rifles.
In front of the hotel sat their Abrams tanks, one on Abou Nawas street, in front of a statue of the Thief of Baghdad on his magic carpet. Beneath the eucalyptus trees, Marines took out their rations, put spread on their crackers and awaited orders.
The great battle of “Saddamgrad” predicted by the regime had not occurred. Saddam’s security services, the Republican Guard and the Fedayeen had not fought to the last man, defending Baghdad house by house.
More used to repressing their own people than infantry combat, they had fled. Their sandbag bunkers were abandoned yesterday in central Baghdad. You could see scraps of uniforms here and there. The last people to resist were young Islamic volunteers, not the regime’s elite.