In capital, Iraqis vow `death in the desert'

Hussein's aides step up rhetoric amid bombings

War In Iraq


BAGHDAD, Iraq - With U.S. units pushing closer to Baghdad and Saddam Hussein's presidential compound once again under relentless bombardment, the Iraqi leadership yesterday put on a show of redoubled defiance and promised U.S. troops "death in the desert."

When Iraqi government ministers emerged yesterday to spread their message of doom for the coalition war effort, there was something different about them - something even more strident, more polemical, more pugnacious, and more edgy than usual.

"The Americans are telling a lot of lies; lying is the golden rule of the American administration," said Naji Sabri, Iraq's foreign minister. "We shall turn the desert into a big graveyard for American and British troops," he said.

At times during the news conferences at the Palestine Hotel, the building shook from the sharp detonation of a bomb striking. The Iraqi officials, unperturbed, or at least determined to be seen as being unperturbed, pretended not to notice.

To Iraqi loyalists, this no doubt seemed like defiance of the invader at its best. To others, there was the thought that the insistent indifference to the bombs might be a metaphor for something else - perhaps an unwillingness to look at matters in any way that could presage an outcome other than victory for Hussein and those around him, like these officials, whose prospects, and perhaps lives, depend on Hussein's somehow confounding the allied onslaught.

One difference was that Sabri and the information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, made virtually no reference to Hussein, although they stood beside a large, flatteringly youthful-looking portrait of him that dominated the cramped media room at the hotel. Another was that their remarks took place against the intrusive, off-stage percussions of the American bombing and the sporadic Iraqi anti-aircraft fire that, so far, appears not to have downed a single American warplane over Baghdad.

Nor did the Iraqi officials mention U.S. units that yesterday pushed as far north as Hindiyah, a town barely 50 miles from Baghdad.

Instead, al-Sahhaf, the information minister, spoke of a new Iraqi offensive over the previous 36 hours that had, he said, brought disaster to American advance parties.

Al-Sahhaf said the Iraqi fighters who were "spearheading" Iraqi defensive efforts, the Saddam Fedayeen, had struck back at advancing U.S. forces, setting fire to their tanks, armored personnel carriers and ammunition. He gave a tally that he said was for the previous 24 hours, from all combat zones, of 43 coalition soldiers killed in action, 13 tanks destroyed, along with eight armored personnel carriers, six other armored vehicles, four Apache helicopters and two unmanned Predator drones.

"The snake is in a quagmire now," al-Sahhaf said. "Their lines of communication are stretched to more than 500 kilometers."

Al-Sahhaf said Iraqi fighters had pushed the Americans back into the desert. "The snake is now back in the desert sands, swerving around certain desert towns. The Saddam Fedayeen and certain smaller units of our armed forces are conducting the fight against the lackeys of the mercenaries night and day. We have decided we will not let them sleep, and we are chasing them all over the place," he said.

It was impossible to verify any of these claims from the vantage point of Baghdad.

But the one front of the war that is visible here, the bombing of Baghdad, seemed not to be going at all well from the Iraqi point of view. In fact, the capital, strategic heart of Hussein's apparatus of power, seemed open to whatever punishment American air commanders chose to inflict.

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