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SPECIAL REPORT: WITNESS TO WAR : Memoirs From the Battle Front, the Diplomatic Front and the Home Front : The Air War : 'Hey, Michael, Your Brother Just Bombed Baghdad' : Americans took pride in the precision of the air campaign even as some questioned the morality of war. For Iraqis, 'collateral damage' was a euphemism for terrible anguish. And Israelis and Saudis felt the sting of Scuds.

March 12, 1991

BAGHDAD

The same British cameraman who noticed all the Baghdadis at the races now witnessed an extraordinary thing. From his window on the fifth floor of Baghdad's luxurious Rashid Hotel, he became the first known civilian to watch a cruise missile speeding down the street of an enemy capital.

The air war had begun.

It was well after 2 a.m. on Jan. 17, and the terror was almost unimaginable.

First came deafening, staccato explosions that shot orange plumes into the night sky like vertical flamethrowers. Next, piercing antiaircraft fire, a wrenching and never-ending chain saw ripping through the blackness with red, green and white tracers, like Christmas lights amid the fires of hell. Finally, the lights of Baghdad went out, neighborhood by neighborhood, and the winter air filled with the sound that was to be the city's grace note for weeks to come--the gut-tearing wail of the air raid sirens.

So it went, night after terror-filled night, as air strikes systematically and surgically sent Saddam Hussein and the many instruments of his regime back in time, decade by decade. The endless rain of missiles and laser-guided bombs demolished power plants, factories, military camps, oil refineries and storage depots.

It shocked the people of Baghdad into reality.

"We never thought it would come to this," one merchant told a Westerner after the first several nights of bombardment. "It's madness. Madness. Kuwait isn't worth this--not to us or to you. How long can this go on before the world finds its sanity again?"

Longer, as it turned out, than any Baghdadi could have imagined.

Night after night, the missiles and planes returned, again and again, hunting the modern targets of Saddam's powerful police state. As the night strikes increased, though, so did their margin of error. The remarkable, surgical accuracy of the first few nights of U.S. missile attacks soon gave way to what the Americans called "collateral damage." To the Iraqis, that was a euphemism for terrible anguish: ancestral homes in ruins, entire families dead.

"You can't imagine what it's like when the sirens scream," said an Egyptian refugee who fled Baghdad after the first few weeks of bombing. "The people run to the shelters, but the shelters are already full. If you can't get in, you curl up near the entrance, just thinking you're safer there. And the next day, you hear, 'So and so family is dead,' or 'The such and such building is gone now.' "

Soon, Baghdad was little more than an open sewer. Garbage and human waste rotted in the streets for the first time in anyone's memory, a byproduct of the loss of power for Baghdad's 252 sewage-treatment plants. No one had been able to shower or bathe for weeks. With no power to drive pumping stations, Baghdad's 3,700 miles of modern, underground water pipes were all but dry, and so were the taps in every house. Worse, flush toilets broke down. Gastroenteritis and other diarrheal diseases spread rapidly.

It was against this reeking, desperate human backdrop that the United States and its allies inadvertently gave Saddam what he and his advisers instantly thought would be a public-relations bonanza -- an image so powerful it would break the coalition and end the aerial assault. It came just after 4 a.m. on Feb. 13. Two laser-guided bombs from a U.S. aircraft blasted their way into a building packed with civilians in suburban Amariyah. The first bomb smashed the entrance shut and trapped more than 400 men, women and children inside. The second punched through the roof and created an underground incineration chamber that burned and vaporized hundreds as they slept.

Dozens of Western television cameras and journalists--by now permitted back into Baghdad with their sophisticated, portable satellite dishes--were on the scene within hours. And the images of charred pieces of what once were people beamed instantly around the world. A man whose entire family of 12 was torched beyond recognition wailed with genuine hysteria: "My God! My God! All of them are dead. Why? Why? Why are you killing all the Iraqi children?" Even the journalists were sickened. Several retched, some cried. A sign visible from the ground labeled the building as a civilian shelter, and Saddam's information machine assumed that, finally, President Bush had made his first, perhaps fatal, error.

But in the end, it mattered little that hardly a single Western journalist in Baghdad that day believed Bush and his spokesmen when they insisted the Amariyah facility was a military command-and-control bunker. Certainly, no Iraqis believed the United States when it said Saddam deliberately stuffed civilians into the bunker to embarrass the coalition.

Again, Saddam had underestimated not only allied resolve but also how sincere the allied cause was perceived to be. The air war went on, and Baghdadis solemnly beat their chests, shouted "Death to Bush!" as they buried their dead, and then fell silent amid the continuing wail of sirens.

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