In Baghdad, life almost as usual Inured to conflict, most Iraqis shrug off attacks on capital

December 18, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- As the United States bombed Iraq for the second time in a day, Entavar Jamil slept late, had her hair done at the beauty parlor and celebrated her wedding at a family party.

She stood in the lobby of the Al Mansour Hotel, a vision in bangles and beads and white satin, while the groom, Ali Ghazal, checked in.

The couple didn't seem to care about the U.S. airstrikes that lit up the Baghdad skies for a second night.

"Our bravery comes from our leader,"' said the 21-year-old bride, referring to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"We aren't afraid of this strike and we challenge America," added the bridegroom, a 29-year-old taxi driver. "We feel happy, and we hope all the Iraqi youth marry and challenge the United States."

At dusk yesterday, the first air raid warning screamed across Baghdad. Its piercing, mournful wail reverberated through this gritty, creaking city at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

But it sent no one scurrying. Many Iraqis simply ignored it. And in the eerie quiet that followed, only the whir and whoosh of traffic could be heard.

Buses and cars plied Baghdad's main streets, their taillights trailing off like the tracers that would later mark the sky red.

Neon signs atop restaurants, juice bars and money-changing shops glowed invitingly. Even along Al Karada Street, where the first volley of missiles tore a great gash in the road early yesterday, shopkeepers opened for business as though it was any Thursday night.

But, of course, it wasn't. The United States, fed up with Hussein's repeated disregard for United Nations weapons inspections, had launched airstrikes under the cover of darkness earlier in the day. The first blows reached the Baghdad area about 1: 30 a.m. Baghdadis expected more of the same last night. And they got it.

Another blast from the air raid siren broke the evening calm. Relative quiet followed, with only the rush of traffic and a lone cock crowing. About 10 p.m., the night exploded in thunderous booms. The red and gold flashes of Iraqi anti-aircraft fire lighted the sky like a strange fireworks display. The incoming missile fire grew louder, waned and then climaxed in a burst of fire and a roar when it struck a tall building not far from the Information Ministry.

Guests at the Al Rashid Hotel, a Baghdad landmark, were urged to enter the basement bomb shelter.

Restaurant disturbance

The windows at the Al Meelad Restaurant downtown shuddered and an employee ran to open the front door -- a precaution to keep the glass from being shattered by bomb concussions. Restaurant patrons paused as would anyone, but the chicken and beef kabobs kept coming.

"We wish it would just finish soon," said Ali Al Dahab, a grill cook from a nearby restaurant.

Many Iraqis seem resigned, or indifferent, to the strikes. Haidar Majid, his wife, Tarid, and baby daughter, Hanine, went out for an evening stroll last night. If they flinched at the thunderous missile strikes, they didn't say.

Fear? No one admits to being afraid, though some fear for their children. Others ask incredulously, "What is there to fear?"

"As long as we believe in God, God will support us," said Ghazal, the bridegroom celebrating his wedding last night.

When the first strikes hit early yesterday, the men in Ghazal's family were celebrating his marriage at a party at his father's house.

"The celebration continued until 3 o'clock," Ghazal said proudly.

Upstairs at the Al Mansour Hotel, a barefoot Gypsy in a clingy black dress shimmied and shook for the guests in the banquet room festooned in gold and white. A circle of men danced nearby as a video crew filmed the evening celebration.

Farah Jafer and Saad Atieh never considered a postponement.

"On the contrary, we insisted on getting married," said the 20-year-old bride, her white gloved hands holding a green leather-bound volume of the Koran.

Iraqis used to conflict

For many Iraqis, the tug of war that Hussein plays with the international community has led to this predictable end. The cyclical nature of the conflict has inured them to air raids, the roar of bombers and missile fire.

In 1991, the Persian Gulf war against Iraq lasted 45 days. Two years later, Iraq was pounded twice in six months, the latter in June 1993 in response to an Iraqi assassination plot against former President George Bush.

Two years ago, the missiles rained down again, after Iraqi forces pushed their way into the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq.

Last night, as bulldozers clawed through the rubble on Al Karada Street, crowds turned out to watch. Spotlights illuminated the gaping hole as city crews worked to repair the two-lane road. The airstrike tore up the street, ruptured a water pipe -- turning the street into muddy swill -- and collapsed the third floor of an old, vacant house across the street.

"Why do they attack this residential area?" Farid Mohammed asked a visitor. "They say they are only hitting military places."

Abdul Karim, a 40-year-old post office employee, stood among the crowd, watching the two bulldozers churn the slabs of concrete and mud. His 5-year-old son was at his knee. He expected another round of airstrikes. But the prospect of Iraq taking another hit didn't faze him. Compared to the grueling eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, this was, well, "normal."

"What's this?"

When the missile landed early yesterday, Karim said his 6-year-old daughter, Asra, woke up crying. "What's this?' she asked.

Karim told his daughter that the city was under attack and bombs were falling.

"Is this the bombing of the United States?" she asked.

"Yes," he answered. "Americans hate us. They have hatred for us."

Karim keeps his windows open at night so they won't shatter. He gathers the family to sleep in the same room now. Other than that, he has not changed his everyday life.

"We endured 45 days of bombing in 1991," he said.

Pub Date: 12/18/98

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