Battered Capital’s Spirits Rise

Iraqi soldiers search the brush along the Tigris River for British pilots, sometimes firing wildly into the grass.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

For nine hours Sunday, central Baghdad was seized by a phantom. Rumors circulated that a British plane had been shot down and that its two pilots had ejected and were hiding in the reeds along the Tigris River. Security men and hundreds of spectators, many hoping to bag a promised government reward for the capture of a pilot, swarmed the waterfront.

Kalashnikovs were fired into the water. Tall grass along the river was set afire to drive out the pilots. Traffic stopped on nearby bridges. Roars went up when anyone spotted something. The hunt continued until midnight, though the U.S. Central Command in Qatar denied that any coalition planes were missing.

The Iraqi capital has been shaken by bombs and bad news for days.

The bombs didn’t stop Sunday, but state television had a few things to brag about, including the capture of American soldiers, Iraqi resistance in the south and a bloody grenade attack on U.S. troops by one of America’s own in Kuwait.

Iraq’s vice president, defense minister and information minister appeared in public to praise their armed forces and suggest that the United States and Britain were lying about their military successes. On the streets of Baghdad, though residents were aware that advancing American forces were closing in across the desert, the mood was upbeat.

“I knew it before, but today I know it for sure: They will never reach Baghdad,” policeman Muayad Shumari said as he patrolled the streets downtown.

The events Sunday seemed to give many Iraqis confidence that they could hold their own against the firepower of the United States.

State-controlled television, which has shown few images of Iraqis surrendering to the U.S., on Sunday repeatedly broadcast video of Americans taken captive after a sharp battle at Nasiriyah, a key crossing on the Euphrates River 200 miles south of Baghdad, and grisly photographs of U.S. troops slain there. Iraq said that 25 coalition soldiers had died.

Iraqi television also reported that in Umm al Qasr, the port city supposedly subdued several days ago, Iraqi resistance had suddenly come back to life. The accidental downing of a British jet by a U.S. Patriot missile, the grenade attack on U.S. troops by an American serviceman in Kuwait and the continuing large antiwar demonstrations abroad were all taken as good omens here.

‘They Made a Mistake’

On the streets, loyalists of President Saddam Hussein echoed the upbeat mood. They spoke as if a humiliating defeat of the U.S. military was just around the corner, even though U.S. bombs and missiles continued to fall here and U.S. troops drew as close as Najaf, about 100 miles south.

“They made a mistake coming here to fight a people who have faith and who are not afraid to die,” said Ahmed Aziz Ahmed, a 38-year-old grocer-turned-militiaman for Hussein’s Arab Baath Socialist Party. He said he could hardly wait for his chance to confront the invaders.

“They think that they can kill Saddam Hussein and rule us,” he said. “But we are all Saddam Husseins.”

Those and similar comments by top officials here illustrate the vast gulf between Iraqi and American perceptions of this war. Whereas Americans have been treated to endless pictures of Iraqi soldiers surrendering to U.S. and British troops and a seemingly unassailable phalanx of tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers pouring into Iraq from Kuwait, Iraqis have seen few such images on state-run TV.

Instead, along with the regular diet of patriotic music and reminders of the U.S. “defeat” in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraqis on Sunday saw, over and over, the images of U.S. troops killed in the fighting outside Nasiriyah and the woebegone, dull faces of five captured U.S. soldiers.

Speaking to a large assembly of journalists Sunday night, Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad Jabburi Tai gave a view of the war that was quite different from the U.S.-British military briefings.

Iraq continued to hold on to all its main cities in the south, and its troops had kept the U.S. and British forces confined to the port of Umm al Qasr and the Al Faw peninsula, the minister said. Attempts to take Basra and Nasiriyah had failed, he added, and numerous coalition tanks and armored vehicles had been destroyed. And he could not even provide a tally of POWs seized by Iraq, he said, because they were still being counted.

Foreign Forces Advance

Jabburi Tai acknowledged that U.S. and British forces had moved as far north as Najaf, but he said that was only because they had avoided battles with Iraqi troops by racing through empty desert.

“In the end, wherever will they go?” he asked. “They will have to come to the cities if they want to achieve their objectives.”

And when they do, he said, they will be surprised by the Iraqis’ “endurance and will to fight and resolve to protect the country.”

A European diplomat sympathetic to the Iraqis, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that they seem to be digging in for the long haul and that U.S. military planners may at last be realizing the country’s tenacity and commitment to fighting.

“The Americans expected no serious resistance from the Iraqi army. They expected a Shiite rebellion in the south. They expected to be met with flowers in Basra as liberators. None of these expectations have materialized,” the diplomat said. “It looks as if the Americans are beginning to realize that this war will last longer than planned.”

For many Iraqis, a U.S.-led military victory is not a foregone conclusion here, unlike in the West.

While acknowledging U.S. and British superiority in weaponry and air power, Iraqis continue to believe that their country will win because, in their view, they have justice and their Islamic faith on their side. They argue that they are defending their own soil and that the foreign troops coming here are not as committed to a struggle and will not understand Iraq or its people and their will to avoid U.S. domination.

“It is easy for us to fight because we know what we are fighting for. What are they fighting for -- Bush?” said Shumari, 28, the policeman. He was dressed in blue police garb and a camouflage helmet as he guarded an intersection in downtown Baghdad.

President Bush “wanted to win this war in three days, and his troops are still hiding out there in the desert and can’t even capture a small town,” he added.

A Quagmire for the U.S.

Information Minister Mohammed Said Sahaf set the tone for the day at a morning news conference where, boasting of the defense of Umm al Qasr, he predicted of the Americans: “They are involved in a quagmire from which they never will get out alive. The brave Iraqi fighters in [Umm al Qasr] are teaching the invaders a hard lesson.”

It was probably no coincidence that the late-night Sunday movie on Babel, a television channel owned by Hussein’s son Uday, was a black-and-white film from the 1960s that showed Iraqis successfully rising up against what were depicted as the cruel British occupiers and rapists who attempted to rule Iraq in the 1920s.

The frenzied hunt for British pilots reportedly downed in Baghdad also had elements of entertainment for this tense city of 5 million. It began at 3 p.m. local time, when hundreds gathered on the banks of the Tigris, where witnesses had said they saw parachutes descending. Some were driven by a desire to find the pilots; others, perhaps, were inspired by the $16,500 reward that Hussein had offered last week for the capture of any member of the coalition forces.

Spectators cheered on the police and soldiers engaged in the hunt. Security officers fired wildly into the riverbank grass, some bullets splashing harmlessly into the water.

Long after dark, police motorboats continued to turn circles in the river, watching the shore for any sign of movement.