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WAR WITH IRAQ / READY AND WAITING

Dark Mood Descends as Baghdad Shuts Down

March 21, 2003|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The city was silent as it waited to be bombed.

Cars were idle. People stayed indoors. Only the yapping and howling of dogs broke the stillness, carrying for miles because there was no other sound to drown them out.

The silence ended just after 9 p.m. Thursday when another round of U.S. bombs and cruise missiles crashed into the Iraqi capital, striking the Planning Ministry on the west bank of the Tigris River and several buildings nearby.

While not the major bombing assault that the United States has warned is coming, it was enough to get the attention of this city of 5 million.

Initial reports, which could not be confirmed, indicated that the buildings struck were the home of Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz and part of the Old Palace, a presidential compound.

The attack on the Planning Ministry in the center of Baghdad, where five-year plans are formulated for the nation's centralized economy, was a spectacular display of pyrotechnics. Up to six bombs and missiles appeared to crash simultaneously, sending flames and sparks and debris arching outward crazily. The strikes combined into one momentous boom, with a huge ball of fire erupting from the lower half of the 10-story structure. It looked as if a comet were flying out.

The lower part of the building was in yellow flames for hours, as white plumes of smoke and an acrid smell drifted across the city. Orange tracer rounds from antiaircraft guns drifted above, like sparks from a Roman candle before it explodes on the Fourth of July.

Then, just as suddenly, the silence returned.

The eerie calm in this usually vibrant city underscores the foreboding felt by most who live here.

Iraqi Information Ministry officials "guiding" -- the preferred euphemism for monitoring -- foreign reporters, photographers and television crews seemed to have their own sources of information about when things would turn dangerous. "Stay inside tonight. Do not go out on the streets," they warned their charges confidentially.

On a quick driving tour of the city center just as darkness came, the city was so empty that cars were able to speed at 60 mph down nearly deserted streets.

The only life was small clumps of soldiers and police, accompanied by ruling Baath Party volunteers in olive-green uniforms without insignias, who stood guard at many corners. Shops and restaurants were padlocked against looting, and trucks mounted with heavy machine guns kept vigil outside police headquarters, appearing poised to deal with civil unrest as much as the bombs and missiles expected from U.S. warplanes and ships out on the Persian Gulf.

But one small supermarket stayed open, its bright lights a beacon in the night, doing a steady trade with the police and soldiers who had nowhere else to go.

"We have to stay open," said the proprietor, Ahmed Ismael, 38. "This is our land and our country. How can we close now?"

Ismael, an engineer by training, loaded up an American visitor with batteries and candy bars.

He threw in a few extra as a gesture, he said, of goodwill to the American people -- though he was harshly critical of the U.S. government for the bombing campaign.

"It may be tonight," he said. But he was not afraid, though his children were.

"We have faced the same thing in 1991," he explained, "but my children are very young and they do not understand."

Ismael had watched President Saddam Hussein's speech on television earlier in the day, after the first bombing strike. "He was good, calm," Ismael said. "Even if all people do not agree with Saddam Hussein, now they are with him."

Iraqi radio confirmed Thursday that the first U.S. missiles to strike Baghdad early Thursday -- "the missiles of the reckless criminal Bush and his lackeys" -- were aimed at Saddam's home, as well as the homes of his wife and two daughters.

The city's only luxury-class hotel, the Al-Rashid, was abandoned by its usual clientele of business executives, diplomats and international journalists after rumors that it was a potential target.

Two tanks stood vigil a few blocks away, the only heavy weapons in sight, near where a pair of soldiers pushed a broken-down car to try to get it started.

On Rashid Street -- the city's oldest commercial thoroughfare, which is lined with a pillared arcade built by the Turkish governor early in the 20th century -- an old man sat at a card table piled with cigarettes and matches, waiting for customers despite the empty sidewalk.

As the city girds for war, women seemed to have disappeared. One of the few spotted by a Times reporter during the day was Zakha Khasun, 62, the mother of six. She was walking in Jadriya, an eastern district.

"I went to the end of the street to buy bread and fruit, but all shops are closed," she complained. "My children love fresh bread. Now they will have to wait until the war is over."

On the bright side, there are a lot of foreigners in town, so her husband -- a taxi driver -- has made good money.

Another stalwart was Azet Said, 39, a shop owner in the Taktariat district who sells aromatic tobacco and oriental water pipes, known here as nargilas.

"I opened my shop at 9 and I will trade until dark," he said. "War or no war, people should get some pleasure from life. And my pipes can make them forget their worries for a while."

Disabled, with no legs, he was sitting outside his shop with his crutches.

"I will still be selling my water pipes when the Americans come here," he vowed, within reach of a crutch, "and then I will fight them with this."

*

Special correspondent Sergei Loiko contributed to this report.

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