© St. Petersburg Times, published March 20, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- President Saddam Hussein accused the United States of committing a "shameful crime" by attacking Iraq, urging his people in a nationally televised address Thursday to "go draw your sword" against the enemy.
Hussein's speech was broadcast a few hours after explosions thundered over a city still sleeping. The Iraqi president, wearing a military uniform, vowed that "Iraq will be victorious" against the U.S.-led campaign. It was unclear where or when Hussein made his remarks.
"This is added to the series of their shameful crime against Iraq and humanity," Hussein said, describing the U.S. president as "little, evil Bush."
The attacks caught Baghdad by surprise. Most had expected the bombs to land at night, not as dawn revealed a gray morning.
Prior to the bombings, Baghdad was a ghost town, with the only signs of life from stray dogs wandering downtown streets and the occasional truck, taxi and car speeding along the banks of the Tigris River. But it was fully illuminated -- even the oldest of Hussein's presidential palaces. The soft murmur of the call to prayer drifted across the city that had been bracing for an attack for days.
The U.S. attack was aimed at targets on the southern and eastern outskirts of the city. No destruction was visible from the heart of the capital.
The capital's transformation into a ghost town had begun the day before. On Wednesday, the eve of the attack, heavily armed militiamen of Hussein ruling Baath Party fanned out across Baghdad, strolling the streets, manning sandbagged positions and keeping nervous watch over a capital that increasingly resembled a ghost town.
Some Iraqis made last-minute purchases of vegetables and gasoline, but most stayed at home or plotted their escape to the relative safety of the countryside.
Hospitals reported that they had cleared their wards of all but emergency and chronic cases to make way for casualties. Expectant mothers were scheduled for Caesarean births to reduce birthing time.
Lines at gasoline stations stretched around the block. Residents everywhere were in a last-minute rush to buy provisions, and many found, with most neighborhood shops shuttered, that they had waited too long to buy more canned food, bottled water, candles, flashlights, car batteries and plastic containers.
Rumors swirled of high-level defections, even as Iraqi officials maintained that U.S. forces faced "certain death."
"In this conflict, no matter what technology the American armed forces have, the will of the Iraqi people and the determination of the armed forces will prevail, God willing," Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said at a news conference arranged hastily to dispel rumors that he had fled to Irbil, in the Kurdish-controlled north.
Aziz promised that he and all other Iraqi officials would remain in Baghdad during a war. Death, he said, would come by martyrdom if necessary, and he again dismissed the prospect of exile for Hussein and his two sons as demanded by President Bush.
"How could a courageous leader like President Saddam Hussein, a historic leader, leave his country in such circumstances?" Aziz asked. "And how could the courageous Iraqi people and the courageous Iraqi armed forces allow the U.S. Army to invade Iraq?"
But the institutions of the Iraqi government, dominated by the authority of his Baath Party, pledged to resist U.S. invasion. "We are dedicated to martyrdom in defense of Iraq under your leadership," said Iraq's parliament, an organ without authority but often convened to deliver official statements. Its speaker, Saadoun Hammadi, called Hussein's exile "absolutely unthinkable."
"He will be in front of everyone," Hammadi said. "He will fight and guide our country to victory."
Despite the anxiety in the street, Iraq's leadership maintained a largely uniform appearance of confidence and swagger, even as some Iraqis predicted in private that authority might crumble in days. While lower-ranking officials acknowledged that Iraq faced overwhelming odds, the information minister, Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf, promised a long, bloody war launched by an overconfident U.S. government.
"They are deceiving their soldiers and their officers, that aggression against Iraq and invading Iraq will be like a picnic," Sahhaf said. "This is a very stupid idea they're telling their soldiers."
In Iraq's highly controlled society where little if any dissent is tolerated, reading the mood of the government was next to impossible. But Sahhaf and Aziz's comments provided a window at least on what the government wanted to portray.
Sahhaf boasted that Iraq stood shoulder to shoulder with world opinion. He said Iraq was so confident of victory that the government was trying to decide whether to bury the corpses of U.S. soldiers in mass pits or individual graves. His comments, echoed in another state-sanctioned statement, seemed designed to reassure officials themselves as much as to rally Iraqis for a fight.
Aziz was more somber and reflective. In his brief news conference, he suggested that it was a matter of Iraqi pride to resist a U.S. invasion. Dressed in the green uniform of the Baath Party, Aziz said this conflict would differ from the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In that war, he said, Iraq was driven from Kuwait, territory that was not its own. In this war, Iraqis would be defending their own land. He pointed to the experience of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, much of it fought on Iraqi soil, that left 1 million people dead and wounded on both sides.
"When an invading army comes to an independent country and that independent nation fights within its own territory, within its own national soil, the determination of the fighters, the will of the fighters is going to prevail," he said.
In that, Aziz suggested Iraq's hopes for a victory -- that its army would perform far better than it did in the Gulf War and that the government would succeed in appealing to Iraqi nationalism to make a war costly for the United States.
-- Information from the New York Times, Washington Post and Associated Press was used in this report.