As ground shakes, Baghdad awaits showdown

Iraqi defense minister expects encirclement, vows long, bitter battle

War In Iraq

March 28, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraq's defense minister said yesterday that U.S. forces could encircle "great parts of Baghdad" in as little as five to 10 days, but that the ensuing battle could last two months or longer, with paramilitary groups loyal to President Saddam Hussein joining regular troops to mount a street-by-street defense of the city of 5 million people.

"For us, Baghdad will become the cemetery where the enemy will be buried," Gen. Sultan Hashim Ahmed said at a news conference. "We will teach the United States and the British and their allies a lesson they will never forget."

The warning came as U.S. aircraft resumed their attacks on Baghdad with some of the heaviest strikes of the 8-day-old war. Sorties throughout the day were followed, around midnight, with explosions of such power that the entire city shook. Car alarms went off 10 miles away, and mosques, on Hussein's orders, began their nightly ritual of amplified calls to God.

"Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!" - "God is Great" - the muezzins cried plaintively deep into the night, in the words of the most sacred Muslim prayer.

After the trembling of the ground and reverberations through the concrete frame of the Palestine Hotel, about a mile from the blasts across the Tigris River, the city fell silent for five, sometimes 10 or 15 minutes.

Then there were more roars from cruise missile engines as they streaked low across the city for 30 or 40 seconds, followed by more massive blasts, more bursts of flame and huge clouds of dust and smoke drifting downriver on the night wind.

The impacts appeared to be concentrated on the west bank of the river in the city center, site of many of the buildings considered central to Hussein's power.

Officials at the Pentagon said the targets included command-and-control centers and telecommunications hubs, many of which survived the intensive bombing last Friday night.

Then, the targets of the bombs and missiles were mostly totemic, including two of Hussein's favorite palaces, the massive blocklike building housing his presidential office and the quarters for his Republican Guard.

Any certainty about which buildings were struck in last night's raids awaited dawn in Baghdad, when Western reporters moving about the city under government guide would have their first opportunity to look for newly blasted structures in the guarded compounds where many of Hussein's most secret agencies work.

On Wednesday night, the Pentagon demonstrated the kind of target now high on its list when another powerful bomb, or bombs, scored a direct hit on a telecommunications building, depriving Hussein's government, much of it centered on the west side of the Tigris, of landline telephone service.

The site lay immediately adjacent to the tallest building in Iraq, the 700-foot-high Saddam Tower, which appeared to suffer only shattered windows at its base. The tower, with a bulb-like structure at midlevel that houses a popular restaurant, became a symbol of Hussein's defiance when it was destroyed by a U.S. missile in the Persian Gulf war of 1991, then rebuilt in the mid-1990s with a statue of Hussein at its base.

Only days before the new war began, a Sudanese lift operator in the tower inquired nervously of visiting Westerners whether the needlelike structure was likely to be destroyed again. But this time, Pentagon targeters spared the tower even as they scored a direct hit on the blocklike building of about 10 stories that sits about 125 feet away, housing one of the city's key telephone exchanges.

At daybreak, telephones across much of the western side of the city had gone dead, and the shattered telecommunications structure was a hollowed-out shell, with great steel panels and other interior fittings blown outward by the blast from about the sixth floor to the ground.

One building that reported having lost its phones was the Al-Rasheed, the most favored of the city's five-star hotels in normal times, but largely abandoned in the past week after warnings from the Pentagon that it might be targeted to destroy a telecommunications node that, the defense officials said, was buried deep beneath the hotel.

For the people of Baghdad, the intensified bombing added to mounting anxieties about what may lie ahead.

For Hussein's government, the vise is tightening, on the ground and from the air. But the closer the might of the U.S. ground troops approaches to Baghdad, and the more intense the bombing of the city, the more Hussein and top officials profess to be ready - eager, even - for a climactic showdown with America.

On its face, any matchup between two nations with such vastly different military and economic resources might seem, at least to all but the most zealous of Hussein's associates, like a chronicle foretold.

But the defense minister's remarks last night, and similar pronouncements in recent days by a raft of other top officials, convey a sense that Hussein and his inner circle believe that the United States has made a catastrophic mistake in underestimating Iraq's ability to strike back.

The message from Hashim, the defense minister, was that Iraq has been content from the start to wait for U.S. troops to march north - harassing U.S. columns and ambushing, capturing and killing U.S. soldiers as opportunities arise - until the moment when they arrive at the gates of Baghdad.

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