Iraqi officials abandon Information Ministry

U.S. airstrikes take out building that housed Iraq's propaganda effort

War In Iraq

March 30, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - U.S. Tomahawk missiles struck directly through the roof of Iraq's 11-story Information Ministry yesterday, forcing officials to abandon the building and move an important part of Iraq's war effort, its propaganda machine, across the Tigris River to the Palestine Hotel.

Along with the stiff resistance Iraqi fighters have mounted against U.S. troops advancing toward Baghdad, the government of President Saddam Hussein has sought to marshal world opinion to its side with accounts of its struggle against the world's greatest military power. This has made the Information Ministry, in effect, part of Iraq's front line, its principal task to raise international protests against the United States and Britain to the point where, the Iraqis hope, the allies will be forced to abandon the effort to capture Baghdad and overthrow Hussein.

About 1:15 a.m. yesterday, U.S. war commanders brought the war to Iraq's propaganda effort. Missiles that struck the ministry reduced satellite dishes and other communications antennas on the roof to scrap metal, still visible from the ground but punctured like kitchen strainers with holes made by thousands of blast fragments.

At daybreak, jumpy Iraqi security men with Kalashnikov rifles prevented Western reporters from going inside the ministry, but shattered windows on every floor suggested that the missiles had penetrated deep into the building's core.

By midafternoon, ministry officials announced that they were moving operations, at least those involving the control of Western reporters in Baghdad, about a mile and a half away to the Palestine Hotel, where most of the remaining foreign reporters are staying.

The decision had been resisted for days despite explicit Pentagon warnings that the ministry would be attacked, and amounted to a bitter retreat for senior government officials who only a week ago expelled CNN - the last of the American television networks still broadcasting here. Iraqi officials repeatedly refused the network's requests that its team here be allowed to abandon the ministry and operate from the hotel.

Viewed from on the ground in Baghdad, the U.S. strategy has seemed to involve hitting key government targets hard and often enough to try to break the Iraqi leader's iron grip on every aspect of government activity here.

Hussein holds on

Since he began his rise to power more than 40 years ago as one of a group that tried - unsuccessfully - to kill Iraq's first military ruler in central Baghdad, Hussein has shown himself to be a master of the clandestine arts, always keeping a step ahead of those seeking to kill or weaken him.

With the war into its second week, he has seemingly lost none of his ability to compel loyalty and fear despite what appears to have been a narrow escape from an attempt to kill him in the opening shot of the war.

It is unknown where the Iraqi ruler is - in Baghdad or in some hideaway in the desert, perhaps in his hometown of Tikrit; in some deep bunker complex, or driving about Baghdad in a battered Volkswagen, alone but for a driver, as he is reputed to have done during the U.S. air attacks that accompanied the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

Phone lines down

But the pattern of U.S. air attacks in the past 72 hours suggests that the Pentagon believes it can make life a lot more difficult for the Iraqi leader, and perhaps stop him from communicating with his political subordinates and military commanders.

Last week, the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar confirmed that B-2 stealth bombers had dropped 4,700-pound "bunker buster" bombs on three of Baghdad's main telephone exchanges.

One, on Friday, reportedly hit the high-rise tower beside the Tigris that handles all international calls, but appeared to plunge deep into the building's basement without exploding or at least without doing any major damage. Yesterday, international land-line calls continued to operate.

But much of the rest of the city was without domestic telephone service after U.S. bombs obliterated two switching centers, one on either side of the Tigris.

Those strikes also put an end to a system of radio telephones linked to the land-line system that has been widely used by senior Iraqi officials. Yesterday, some were seen walking about with their telephone handsets, shaking their heads.

According to the U.S. Central Command, other American strikes have been aimed at more secret communications centers, presumably those used by the Iraqi military and intelligence services.

Hotel targeted

One of these centers, said to run beneath Al Rasheed Hotel, appeared to have been attacked with a bomb or missile that hit just north of the hotel grounds on Thursday, destroying several smaller buildings without damaging the hotel itself.

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