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Baghdad's a Ghost Town, Fleeing Journalists Report : Iraq: In the bomb shelters, the mood among residents changes literally overnight. Some feel betrayed.

January 19, 1991|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AMMAN, Jordan — After nearly 48 relentless hours of surgical cruise missile strikes and bombing runs, Baghdad resembles a ghost town, its inhabitants having fled or in hiding, its sprawling residential districts largely intact but empty.

According to more than a dozen journalists who fled the embattled Iraqi capital and arrived in Jordan by land Friday, the regime of President Saddam Hussein still appears very much in control, despite more than a dozen direct hits on key government installations throughout the city.

The president's main palace was destroyed in a cruise missile attack that Hussein survived, several of the journalists said. The Soviet ambassador to Iraq, Viktor V. Posuvalyuk, said he met with the Iraqi leader in his command bunker Friday.

The journalists, virtually all of them television journalists and the only Western eyewitnesses to leave Baghdad since the war began, confirmed that Hussein's Defense Ministry has been demolished and that the satellite dishes on his main communications tower have been disabled. At least two military airfields in the city were also taken out of operation.

The eyewitness accounts, more than likely the last independent and uncensored descriptions of the scene inside Baghdad for days to come, went beyond picturing a city under siege and psychologically devastated by pinpoint destruction. Their sketches also hinted at the prevailing mood among the Iraqis themselves: a mixture of dread, despair and, in some cases, a sense of outright betrayal by a leader once viewed by most as invincible.

"Even in the bomb shelters, the mood changed literally overnight," said Nigel Baker, a producer at Britain's Independent Television Network, who spent nearly 15 hours crossing the Iraqi and Jordanian deserts in a mini-convoy to reach Amman on Friday morning.

"When the attack began early Thursday, the (Iraqi) parents in the shelter were leading their children in handclapping chants of 'Palestine belongs to the Arabs, Kuwait belongs to Iraq.' But in the morning, after hours of explosions outside, they ended the night frightened into silence, their children clinging to them and crying.

"Another Iraqi friend told me almost in tears, 'I never thought this would happen.' It was as if they'd suddenly become so afraid, realizing perhaps for the first time that this wasn't going to be another great victory for Saddam."

Anthony Massey, a British Broadcasting Corp. producer who left Iraq on a similar desert road journey Friday, added: "The city appears virtually undamaged because of the accuracy of the cruise missile . . . but it is completely deserted.

"This is really the final straw" for many of Baghdad's 4 million residents. "They're leaving as fast as they can."

Larry Doyle, a veteran producer for CBS-TV, drove through several hours of antiaircraft barrages and was forced to spend the night at the Iraqi border after it was closed just after midnight Friday. He illustrated the resignation and despair in Baghdad with the case of an Iraqi friend who works as a civil servant in a government ministry.

"This is a 33-year-old guy who spent all eight years of the Iran-Iraq War as an antiaircraft gunner in the Iraqi army," said Doyle, who has worked in Baghdad on and off for several months since the crisis began Aug. 2.

"Once, this guy was in a foxhole when an Iranian bomb landed 10 feet away and didn't go off. He thought he was truly blessed. But in the days before the war started, I reminded him that this war is going to be a whole lot worse than his last war.

"He said, 'It doesn't matter to me. I have no life. The eight years I spent in the army reduced my life to nothing.'

"Then, he came to see me Thursday morning after that first night of bombing. He was pretty shaken up, but he just stuck out his hand and said, '1956. Good-by.' That was the year he was born. He had just been called up to the army again."

Such accounts from inside Baghdad may be the last until the 40 or so Western journalists who remain in the capital decide to pull out as well. The Iraqi government impounded all cameras and other video equipment Friday from the foreign television crews.

Strict censorship was imposed, and the television reporters who have been the world's only independent eyes and ears at the front lines since the first missile hit were barred from leaving their government hotel. In many cases, they were forced to remain for hours in the basement bomb shelter by police guards carrying assault rifles.

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