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Officials defiant despite attacks

Advancing coalition troops and repeated air attacks aren't enough to still the pace of daily life in Iraq's capital.

[AP photo]
Plumes of black smoke waft over the horizon near Baghdad.

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 23, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Senior Iraqi officials struck a posture of defiance Saturday in the face of advancing coalition troops and a night of punishing air attacks on Baghdad that reduced many of Saddam Hussein's most prized palaces and other crucial government buildings to hollowed-out, smoldering wrecks.

But for the rest of the citizens of Baghdad, life must go on, bombs or no bombs. As they never tire of repeating, it's not like they've never been bombed before.

By any measure, the attacks on Saturday appeared to find Hussein and his ruling elite in Baghdad in the tightest spot since the Iraqi leader took power in 1979. But far from acknowledging that Hussein's days as an absolute ruler might be numbered, the government went into a mode of insistent denial.

After daybreak, as parts of the city burned and officials assessed the damage of a night of bombing, children emerged to play soccer and ride their bicycles. Street sweepers went to work, cleaning up glass and other bombing debris. Automobiles moved about the city. Red double-decker buses traced their routes, picking up passengers on street corners and taking them to work.

Small restaurants opened. So did greengrocers and bakeries. Barber shops were open.

Most of Baghdad's rich have gone, taking refuge in the relative safety of the countryside or in neighboring Jordan and Syria. Those left behind in what ordinarily would be a metropolis of 5-million are mostly the poor, and even when their city is under attack, the poor must work to survive.

They've become accustomed to it.

At a cafe off al-Saadoun Street, a policeman armed with a Kalashnikov burst in and sat down to a glass of tea. He told other patrons how two warplanes swooped down on an air-defense position in southern Iraq. The patrons listened attentively, then resumed their conversation.

As patriotic songs blared from a television tuned to the main state channel, the cafe patrons casually discussed the events of Friday night.

First came the familiar wail of air raid sirens.

Then white and gold tracers from anti-aircraft guns streaked across a clear sky. An instant later, the crackle of the guns filled the night with what, to Baghdad residents, is a familiar sound.

And then the missiles fell.

"Do we really have anything that warrants so many rockets," wondered one, seated on a wooden bench under a portrait of Hussein in Arab dress.

The attacks have punched a huge hole in Hussein's prestige and the aura of personal invincibility he has cultivated through years of harsh rule.

Some 300 Tomahawk cruise missiles tore into this vast, fabled city on the banks of the Tigris River. The toll in human life is not yet known, but with each explosion, the city shook violently.

Many buildings symbolic of Hussein's power, including the Republican Palace that serves as the Iraqi equivalent of the White House, and a huge new palace named for his wife, Sajida, appeared to have been so severely damaged as to be uninhabitable, and possibly even unrepairable.

In practice, the Iraqi capital appeared to be an open target range for American attacks, with the Pentagon free to pick off any building it wanted, at any time.

In political terms, Iraqi officials appeared to be in a bind, describing the air attacks as "the barbaric bombardment of Baghdad" and taking reporters to a hospital with wards filled with many of the 215 Iraqi civilians said to have been injured in the attacks, in addition to three civilians said to have been killed.

Against this, the officials seemed reluctant to acknowledge the full extent of military casualties from the attacks, or the physical damage, perhaps in an effort to say nothing that could set off a downward spiral in the prestige -- and ultimately the power -- of Hussein.

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