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Baghdad's bravado vanishes in fire and smoke

Times wire services
Published April 3, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The passengers on the upper deck of bus No. 4 turned their heads in unison to look at the wreckage left by the missile attack on the Bab al-Moazam telephone exchange. Many shook their heads in disbelief, and some stared with their mouths agape. But no one said a word.

The air campaign on Baghdad and the advance of U.S. troops toward the Iraqi capital have left the city's 5-million people torn between resignation, indignation and fear.

"What does Bush want from us?" screamed an Iraqi woman in a black chador, standing next to the ruins of the Baghdad telephone exchange. "Saddam is our choice, and even if he will have us survive on just bread, we still want him.

"Would Bush do this to his people or his family?"

The daily air raids on Baghdad, carried out by Tomahawk cruise missiles as well as bombers, have hit a range of targets. Some, like residential areas and phone exchanges, touched the lives of ordinary people.

Others targeted Saddam Hussein's regime - presidential palaces, intelligence and security complexes - or military targets like camps of the Republic Guard to the south of the capital.

Many of Baghdad's residents like to say that, after two wars and countless bombings over the past two decades, they are used to bombs and missiles raining on their city. But two weeks into the U.S.-led air campaign on Baghdad, this bravado has all but disappeared.

Overall, the bombing has been precise. But with so many bombs and missiles falling and antiaircraft fire being returned, there are nearly daily reports of markets and homes severely damaged or destroyed. Hundreds of dead and wounded are taxing Baghdad's medical system.

Adding to the gloom is the unnatural sky, now slate gray with the thick smoke of oil fires set by Iraqi officials, apparently in an attempt to scramble weapons' guidance systems or obscure satellite photography. The smoke doesn't waft away. It hovers in bands over the city, sometimes rising in the sky and at other times settling across neighborhoods and highways. The grimy mix coats the nostrils. Coughs are growing more common.

Despite the siege or perhaps because of it, government control seems tighter than ever. In the past, some Iraqi officials would cut corners as a favor or for a fee. Now, any dereliction of duty or any straying from the rules would be taken as betrayal of the state.

Explosions at two crowded Baghdad markets last week - which Iraq said killed more than 70 people and injured scores - brought the reality of war ever closer.

U.S. officials have suggested that the explosions were caused by Iraqi missiles falling on Baghdad, and witnesses told Cox News Service that they saw a Scud missile launcher in the neighborhood.

Despite the fear and destruction, Baghdad's resilience remains evident. After the initial shock of the war's opening days, life in Baghdad has steadily crept back to normalcy, albeit after a fashion.

There are traffic jams in many parts of the city. Markets are crowded and shoppers are out in the thousands. Garbage trucks are back at work and municipal workers hose down Hussein statues and other landmarks to remove the coat of sand left by a two-day sandstorm last week.

- Information from the Associated Press and Cox News Service was used in this report.

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