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WAR WITH IRAQ / AERIAL ASSAULT

They're Smart, But They're Still Bombs

Air war's precision emboldens some in Baghdad to watch from roofs, even as the attacks spark fear and horror.

March 23, 2003|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Mohammed Arawi, a 20-year-old computer programmer, was standing on the roof of a small hotel in south Baghdad on Saturday afternoon when he saw what looked like two comets streaking toward him.

"They had a tail of fire and were flying toward the palace," he recounted. "Then they kind of stopped for a second, pointing nose up, and turned down quickly. They fell right in the center of the palace.

"I have read about these 'smart' rockets, and now I have seen them in action."

His account of the incident summed up the U.S. air campaign here in Baghdad so far: The Tomahawk cruise missiles and Joint Direct Attack Munitions have been accurate, sowing destruction on the buildings and installations most closely associated with President Saddam Hussein and his government.

In the case of the bombing that Arawi watched with fascination, the target was a huge, ornate sandstone-colored mansion overlooking the Tigris River and said by neighbors to belong to Hussein's younger son Qusai, who heads the Iraqi president's Special Security Organization.

The munitions have been so on-target that many more Baghdad residents were willing to emerge from their homes and apartments Saturday, even as more bombings were taking place. In fact, curiosity drove some people -- such as Arawi -- to roofs to watch the spectacle.

And they have done so at some peril: When the rockets hit about 500 yards from where Arawi was standing, he said, the shock wave was so intense that he was knocked backward.

"Good thing I was standing next to a wall," he said. "I was pressed against it."

Of the more than 250 people who the Iraqi government says have been wounded in Baghdad in three days, almost all were hit by metal fragments and by the fallout of antiaircraft rounds. The Iraqi government's account was partially corroborated by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

As one Iraqi government spokesman here said: "This is war. Not a picnic."

But given the mayhem and destruction that rained down on Baghdad on Friday night and early Saturday, witnessed around the world on television broadcasts and still photos, one might be surprised that there have not been more deaths.

Health Minister Umid Midhat Mubarak told journalists that three people died in Baghdad from the bombing between 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday morning, in addition to one woman killed Thursday, the first day of the campaign.

Mubarak attributed the fact that not more civilians were killed to the government's foresight and medical preparations.

Officials are not providing total figures for Iraqi military casualties. It was still unclear to Western analysts whether Hussein and his sons were injured or killed in the predawn attack Thursday that started the war. The Iraqi government has denied that any of them was harmed.

Some people were unnerved by the bombing. They expressed feelings of gripping terror, especially those living closest to the targets, who raced to shelters and comforted their children.

"I think my children will never forget this fear," said Salman Jumeily, 50, who had taken refuge at a shelter in the basement of a small hotel in south Baghdad. "At one point, it felt as if they dropped a nuclear bomb on us."

Hoda Abbas, 41, hid at the same shelter with her husband and four children Saturday. Surrounded in the airy concrete basement by people stretched out on thick woolen blankets, many of them playing a game that resembles backgammon, she spoke of her family's ordeal during Friday night's bombing.

"When the first rockets fell, we were already in the shelter, but it was still so scary, as if they were dropping on our heads," she said. "The walls were shaking around us. [The children] screamed and cried every time a bomb hit -- I was afraid that they would die of fear."

When her husband went back to the house Saturday, she said, he found rubble and metal fragments inside, windows broken and furniture toppled over.

"I am horrified to think what could have happened if we had stayed," she said, vowing to remain in the shelter until the war ends.

Saturday saw the first daytime bombing of Baghdad. A sense of doom and foreboding was generated by a dozen oil fires set by the government in trenches on the edges of Baghdad that sent thick plumes of black smoke over the city, obscuring it to make things more difficult for the attackers.

Late Saturday night and early today, deep booms rattled the city at intervals, apparently the result of bombs dropped just outside the city.

Still, the electricity, water system, telephones and televisions kept working, and the streetlights' reflection still twinkled on the river.

If one ignored the sandbags at intersections and the smoldering, jagged and charred government and military buildings of the Old Palace compound struck repeatedly in Friday's ferocious onslaught, one could almost forget for a moment that this was a capital at war.

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