Reality of War Pierces the Darkness

Times Staff Writer

During a pause in the U.S. air war, Interior Minister Mahmud Dhiyab Ahmad appeared at a midday news conference Friday armed with a chrome-plated Kalashnikov rifle.

The tall, robust bureaucrat wore a khaki-colored vest packed with four full ammunition clips and a fearsome-looking knife. A pistol was holstered on his hip.

"You may ask why I am dressed like this and why I have a gun. I took an oath to God that I will put my gun down only on the day of our victory," Ahmad said. "My 12-year-old son has a machine gun too."

Night brought not victory but more bombs.

At 8:05 p.m., the air raid sirens sounded their doleful wail. Five minutes later, Baghdad thundered with fire and smoke as U.S. cruise missiles and B-52 bombers hit target after target -- symbols of President Saddam Hussein's power.

In the Old Palace complex, the explosions consumed the seat of the Council of Ministers, camps for the Republican Guard military force and the pyramid-shaped headquarters of the feared Iraqi intelligence service, left glowing from the inside like a saw-toothed jack-o'-lantern.

The Special Security Organization, run by Hussein's son Qusai, is the nerve center of the regime's vast police and security apparatus. The agency pervades life in Iraq with its legions of listeners and informants.

The building burned for hours from within, but its sloped concrete sides, resembling the architecture of the Aztecs, remained intact.

Orange, red and yellow tracer rounds filled the sky, marking the aim of antiaircraft fire, and the ground shook and buildings trembled as if the city were in the throes of an earthquake.

Tomahawk cruise missiles sent flying from the Persian Gulf rained down in quick succession on the palace compound that sits just opposite the commercial heart of the city, stretching 1.7 miles along the west bank of the Tigris River.

Like a choreographed fireworks display, one building after another exploded in bright flames, then was quickly smothered in clouds of dust and debris.

The initial blasts went on for 10 minutes, succeeded by a series of hammer blows. Then, about 9:30 p.m., the B-52s arrived. Low-flying U.S. fighter jets screeched over the capital. Then, the rat-tat-tat of antiaircraft artillery, firing from all directions.

A Different View

As destruction reigned over the west bank of the Tigris, a view of the rest of the city on the east bank, where most civilians live, was eerily normal, except for racing ambulances.

Although the east bank was free from the bombs, windows shattered and car alarms squealed from the shock waves of explosions, rushing by like sharp gusts of wind. At one point, the only creature visible outside the Palestine Hotel was a stray dog running in terror in the middle of Abu Niwas Street.

Inside the Palestine Hotel, some people raced for shelter or crouched in corridors trembling. Others could not resist the spectacle and cautiously approached their windows and balconies. Some Iraqis, their curiosity outweighing good sense, stepped outside into a rain of antiaircraft fragments.

The raids continued until about 10:30 p.m., with sporadic explosions rumbling in the distance.

Fires burned on the southern, eastern and western flanks of the city, although it was impossible to see the exact targets through thick stacks of white and black smoke and dust.

It appeared that the Al Rashid military base south of Baghdad -- struck during the first day of raids Thursday -- was hit again.

The munitions were bigger than those dropped on the Iraqi capital during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and seemed to more accurately target centers of Hussein's power.

So far, the infrastructure on which the city and ordinary Iraqis depend has been left intact. Bridges across the Tigris, rebuilt after previous airstrikes, were still standing. The electric power grid, telephone system and television transmission tower were untouched and service continued.

Iraqi officials offered no immediate word on casualties, but plainclothes security agents seemed extremely nervous about allowing the images of the burning presidential and military buildings to reach the outside world. They shooed news photographers off balconies and confiscated film and cameras.

Rewards Offered

During the height of the bombing, Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad Jabburi Tai appeared on Iraqi state television and announced that U.S. paratroopers had landed at two locations in western Iraq -- Ar Rutbah and Achetri -- near the border with Jordan. He said local residents were resisting the invaders.

Earlier in the day, Iraqi state radio announced that Hussein had decreed an award of 100 million Iraqi dinars (about $33,000) to anyone who shoots down a U.S. or British airplane, and 50,000 dinars (about $16,000) to anyone who shoots down a helicopter or captures an enemy soldier.

Officials sought to highlight civilian casualties. The government said one woman was killed and 14 civilians hurt Thursday during the first night of bombing.

It listed its military casualties as four killed and six wounded, and said that 72 bombs and missiles had landed.

At the Al Kindi Hospital in eastern Baghdad, one of two main trauma centers, Dr. Dhiak Jaddu said 12 people had been admitted as of Friday morning. He urged journalists not to count just the number of people hit by shrapnel or antiaircraft fire but to think of those suffering stress and heart attacks caused by the sheer terror.

Among the wounded was Ahmed Sabbar Kadim, an 18-year-old high school student from Zafarania, near Al Rashid. On Friday, a nurse gave him a pain-killing injection as he lay grimacing and speaking in a monotone, describing how he was knocked unconscious by the force of a bomb blast Thursday night when he was returning home from a neighbor's house. He remembered seeing only a bright flash, he said.

Reports Denied

At the news conference with Ahmad, Information Minister Mohammed Said Sahaf, also in military uniform, lashed out at the "barbaric bombing of civilian targets in Baghdad."

Showing gory photographs of wounded civilians, he said, "These are the people targeted by the criminal George Bush and his gang and the mercenaries in Kuwait and the gulf."

He went on to call the United States a "superpower of villains ... the superpower of Al Capone."

Both Sahaf and Ahmad ridiculed reports that the U.S. and British forces were making rapid incursions into Iraq, saying that they may have entered only "a few kilometers." They denied that the port city of Umm al Qasr had fallen, and said that the televised images of Iraqi soldiers surrendering with white flags was a fake concocted by the United States.

Ordinary Iraqis have admitted to being afraid. "People are scared," one man on the street said. "There is a big difference between American power and Iraqi power."

But Sahaf insisted that Iraqi morale will not be affected by the ebb and flow of airstrikes and other U.S. "tricks."

And Ahmad added: "You will see in the next few days that our victory is certain, certain, certain."

Just hours after the ministers strode from the room, the bombing began.

*

Special correspondent Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday March 23, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction Iraqi reward -- A story in Saturday's Section A on events in Baghdad gave an incorrect monetary figure for a reward offered by the Iraqi government for shooting down coalition helicopters or capturing coalition troops. The offer was 50 million Iraqi dinars (about $16,500), not 50,000 dinars, to anyone who shoots down a helicopter or captures an enemy soldier.
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