Signs of crumbling resistance in capital

Official proclamations are replaced by murmurs on the street in Baghdad

War In Iraq

April 09, 2003|By John Daniszewski | John Daniszewski,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Maybe the fight has gone out of Baghdad.

After a ferocious battle yesterday on the grounds of a presidential compound and around one of the main bridges into the city, there are signs that organized resistance to the U.S. advance in the capital may be crumbling.

Baath Party members are taking off their uniforms, and streets that a few days ago had been filled with activists vowing to fight to the death are suddenly empty. Even the pro-government demonstrations periodically orchestrated for the benefit of the international press corps are getting smaller and smaller.

State television has been silenced, and the information minister spoke to journalists for only a few minutes yesterday morning before vanishing for the rest of the day - far removed from the thrice-a-day news conference pace he maintained as recently as last week.

While no official here is commenting on the bomb strike Monday that U.S. officials say was aimed at eliminating President Saddam Hussein and his sons Odai and Qusai, the lack of an official statement that Hussein is safe and well and pursuing his duties was also telling.

In place of official proclamations, there were murmurs on the street that the curtain call of the regime is here.

The mood was reflected by Hussein Saad, 37, who was watching over an electronics shop on Sadoun Street, one of the main commercial thoroughfares, where almost every business is shuttered.

"Who are you looking for? The soldiers? The party men? They are all gone. It is finished. All finished. All the party people gone. They ran away. I saw them drop their guns and things. It America now," he said.

"All the soldiers are gone. They don't want to fight. They all have big families," agreed Mohammed Sulaniyah, 23.

At the government press center set up in the Palestine Hotel, fewer of the drivers and "minders" - government escorts that journalists are required to have with them when they conduct interviews - have been coming to work each day, and more senior officials in the ministry appear to have vanished.

Also, there is a sense that the portion of the city under Iraqi government control is getting smaller and smaller.

U.S. forces first seized the airport over the weekend. Then they staged a foray into the southwestern edge of the city, including a key highway overpass, the Saddam Bridge.

On Monday, they seized the showcase presidential palaces. And yesterday, after the fierce battle that lasted from about 4:30 a.m. until noon, U.S. tanks appeared firmly in control of the area just north of the presidential compound as well - including the ministries of Planning and Information, and the western end of the Jumiriyah Bridge, the main bridge across the Tigris into the downtown area.

From the center of the city on the east bank of the Tigris, with telecommunications and state radio and television crippled by U.S. bombings, it was hard to calculate exactly how much of the western half of Baghdad the U.S. Army now holds. The only certainty was that it is a sizable chunk and growing.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Marine column that fought its way into Baghdad from the southeast is ringing the eastern edge of the city and moving northward. It also has taken over the Rashid Military Airport.

If the two services link up, as seems likely, Iraqi resistance would be reduced to fighting for survival in just a few pockets.

From their balconies in the Palestine Hotel on the east side of the river, journalists who have been covering the war from Baghdad can look out on the west bank at the Rashid Hotel and the Information Ministry. But going to those old haunts, barely five minutes by car, is impossible because it would require crossing the new military frontier.

A sense of defeat was written on the face of one Arab volunteer for Iraq, lying on his stomach in the emergency ward of Al Kindi Hospital yesterday with a wound on his backside.

But Information Minister Mohammed Said Sahaf, in his one brief appearance yesterday, did not retreat from his boundless hopes for an Iraqi victory.

"We are going to tackle them and going to destroy them," he said. "They are going to surrender or be burned in their tanks."

John Daniszewski writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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