Iraqi official in denial as U.S. draws near

Minister claims troops `are trapped everywhere'

War In Iraq

April 04, 2003|By John Daniszewski | John Daniszewski,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Everybody in the room at the Palestine Hotel knew that U.S. forces had arrived on the outskirts of Baghdad. In fact, they were about to seize Saddam International Airport.

Information Minister Mohammed Said Sahaf, in his crisp, olive green uniform and black beret, was having none of it.

"They are not even 100 miles" away, he proclaimed at his news briefing yesterday. "They are not near Baghdad. Don't believe them."

He portrayed the Americans as being on the run across Iraq, mired in "traps" laid by loyal troops and paramilitary fighters. "They are trapped in Umm Qasr. They are trapped near Basra. They are trapped near Nasiriyah. They are trapped near Najaf," Sahaf said. "They are trapped everywhere."

To which a British correspondent asked coolly: "Are they also trapped near the airport, sir?"

By early today, it must have become impossible for Sahaf and fellow members of the leadership to maintain their disbelief about the rapid U.S. thrust pointed at President Saddam Hussein's capital.

U.S. warplanes screamed overhead, and from the direction of the airport itself just over 10 miles from downtown came wave after wave of thunderous explosions amid reports that U.S. troops were standing on the tarmac after having won their first battle in Baghdad.

With the Baghdad press corps hemmed in by official edict barring reporters from leaving the premises without their government-issued "guides," rumors raced through the super-heated confines of the Palestine about what the U.S. forces were up to.

There were fragmentary accounts of civilian casualties near the airport, reports that a presidential palace had been entered and that the notorious Abu Ghareeb prison on the western approach to Baghdad had been seized by U.S. commandos.

The news that the invaders were close had persuaded most of the people of Baghdad that it would be prudent to stay indoors yesterday, and many more shops were shuttered and barricaded than in recent days.

But on Rashid Street, the old men still gathered for their tea and water pipes in the historic Hassem Ajmi cafe. A timeless place of dusty benches and cracked pictures on the walls, it was noticeably unaffected by the tides of war rolling elsewhere.

"Of course we are relaxed," businessman Thaher Jouadi said. "Up to now we live with pride and will not abandon our honor. And when the time comes we will fight."

Told that the U.S. troops were only a few miles away, he was unperturbed. "It makes no difference to us."

Compared to the lethargy of the cafe and the ghostlike streets of the center, and with government ministries themselves long abandoned, the Palestine by default seemed to have become for a few days the de facto capital of Baghdad, the only real center of activity in the city.

Although infested with cockroaches, its downtown commercial district location overlooking the east bank of the Tigris had won it the unofficial designation of hotel least likely to be bombed - and journalists descended on it in droves just before the war began. They abandoned the more luxurious hotel, the Rashid, which seemed a more likely bombing target, with its mosaic of a satanic-looking George H.W. Bush on the floor of its entryway. It also was rumored to have more listening devices per square foot than any hostelry in the world.

By default, then, the Palestine became the Information Ministry's new headquarters when the ministry itself was emptied in anticipation of a U.S. bombing attack, and then, indeed, was bombed to rubble Saturday.

Yesterday, the Palestine was the only center of life in central Baghdad as the entire city turned preternaturally calm under a sudden cloak of darkness.

Lights had been snuffed out abruptly, shortly after 8 p.m. yesterday, when Baghdad's electricity flickered and died for the first time since the war began 15 days earlier. The blackout had followed a series of distant explosions, but Iraqis who remembered the first Persian Gulf war 12 years ago said the outage was more likely a government decision to try to make the city invisible from the air.

Gone suddenly were the street lights that had reflected prettily each night, defining the lazy bend of the Tigris River. The river now looked like a wide steely black belt, and the rest of this city of 5 million might have well been a desert. Nothing shone except two or three pairs of isolated headlights, the only cars visible for miles on the empty streets.

The outage disrupted - and augmented - the normal hubbub of the hotel. It sent journalists scrambling to recall where they had stored the candles, kerosene lamps, jerry cans of gasoline and generators that they had carefully laid in before the conflict but had not needed until now.

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