Between attacks, the quiet is eerie

In Baghdad, residents sweat out bombings and tense aftermaths

War In Iraq

March 21, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - A second wave of air attacks last night against the strategic heart of the capital had all the eeriness and sudden, devastating power of modern high-technology warfare.

The precision-guided bombs and missiles made at least two direct hits on a large, domed edifice beside the Tigris River. The building, possibly the planning ministry, exploded in a fireball and a series of secondary explosions that lit the nighttime sky.

After the initial early-morning bombardment, which hit targets mostly well away from the center of the city, quiet prevailed over Baghdad all day.

The city's streets were virtually deserted apart from clusters of security men posted outside government buildings and the compounds of President Saddam Hussein and his associates, many of them with the unenthusiastic, lethargic, resigned look of men who knew that guarding buildings likely to be hit by American air strikes placed them at mortal risk.

The stillness lasted well into the night.

Then, suddenly, across a panorama of a sprawling city as brightly lighted as any in America, there was the near-deafening wail of air-raid sirens, proof that Iraqi radar continued to work despite years of intermittent air attacks. As in the pre-dawn raid, the radar appeared to have detected the American attack while it was still some distance off. After the sirens were silenced, there was at least 10 minutes of anti-aircraft and tracer fire in the night sky, a mesmerizing but apparently random fireworks display of white and yellow and red all across Baghdad.

Still, there was no sound of high-flying jets, no roar of missile engines or whisper of falling bombs. A waning moon appeared, and then hid again, behind high cirrus clouds, and a breeze cooled the springtime air. The few cars and trucks that remained on Baghdad's multi-lane expressways and inner-city streets and bridges made for the only movement, rushing flat-out for sanctuary beyond the dartboard that any city becomes under air attack.

In the city's hotels, guests waited anxiously in the lobbies or sought refuge deep within the buildings.

Just as tensions began to ease, a huge blast erupted on the southern bank of the Tigris, the great waterway that flows through Baghdad's heart on the way to the Persian Gulf. Under Hussein, wide areas of Baghdad along the river have been bulldozed for palaces, monuments and imperial-style government buildings appropriate, so Hussein evidently believes, for the capital of a leader whose hagiography likens him to Nebuchadnezzar and other giants of Mesopotamia's past.

These are the areas Pentagon planners have been poring over for months, and their first choice last night was a compound stretching back from the river from an entrance situated beside the Al-Jumhuriya bridge, one of five main bridges across the Tigris in Baghdad.

Two strikes, missiles or bombs, it was impossible to tell, hit directly at one of the largest structures, with another strike perhaps 1,000 yards to the southeast. More strikes followed across the near horizon, some seeming to fall on or near palace complexes, before, after three-quarters of an hour, the night returned to silence.

The main target, said by some Iraqis to be the planning ministry, erupted in first one, then another fireball, followed by more explosions, and a vast, drifting cloud of black smoke that almost obscured the southern side of the Tigris from the view of reporters and photographers atop the 20-story roof of the Palestine Hotel, a mile away on the river's northern bank.

The smoke was so dense that it totally enveloped a huge, brooding building built like an ancient tomb, with vast slab sides leaning inwards, that is said to be the office and home of Tariq Aziz, the No. 4 man in Hussein's hierarchy.

Iraqi officials responded to last night's attacks, as they did to the initial, 90-minute air raid earlier in the day, with what appeared to be a mixture of relief and almost smug self-assurance.

To outsiders familiar with the Armageddon bearing down on the Iraqi leadership, their attitude has seemed redolent of an authoritarian cabal in denial, incapable of grasping reality, either about their external enemies or the mood of less powerful Iraqis, because of years of listening only to echoes of themselves.

But Iraqi ministers who met with reporters yesterday protested, in effect, that it is America that is in denial, not Hussein and his ruling elite.

The information minister, Mohammed Said al-Sahhaf, speaking after the apparent attempt to assassinate Hussein, spoke of "the confidence coming from the Iraqi people, and first of all for the leadership of President Saddam Hussein."

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