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WAR WITH IRAQ / THE VIEW FROM BAGHDAD

A Cloud Of Tension Amid The Dust

Wind-whipped sand slows the U.S. advance, but bombing reminds Baghdad's residents that a battle is brewing.

March 26, 2003|John Daniszewski and Sergei L. Loiko | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Two storms -- one natural and one man-made -- swept through this waiting capital Tuesday, stirring up the dark imaginings and late-night fears just below the surface. Like an eerie reprieve before a momentous event, they gave people in Baghdad time to reflect on the upcoming battle for their city.

"I have told my parents that I am ready to die," said Hussam Hussein, 23, a skinny university history student wearing a helmet too large for his head and wielding a rocket-propelled grenade launcher that he dropped as he gestured.

Accentuating the sense of portent, the wind raged and the sky turned a sickly yellow light that was neither day nor night. Pedestrians leaned into the gusts as they struggled through nearly empty streets, their lungs tightening and their eyes stinging.

Elderly residents of Baghdad said they could not remember a sandstorm so fierce. At least some thanked God for it.

"This storm, this rain [of sand], is our new weapon against their new weapons," said Hasan Uad Ahmed, a street volunteer from the ruling Baath Party, referring to the U.S. forces bearing down on Baghdad.

"It is God sending us a signal that he is with us, and that we are doing the right thing," Ahmed said as he took shelter in a sandwich shop in the center of the city.

The sandstorm's wrath was matched by another fury. The steady bombardment of Republican Guard compounds to the south and east of Baghdad created thunderous rumbles that rolled over the city like the crashing of waves.

As if the wind, the sand and the thunder of explosions were not enough, the city remained swathed in smoke from more than 20 flares of oil -- house-size pits dug out with bulldozers, filled with petroleum and set afire. Near these fires, the air is not merely dim -- it is black, the color of the sky before a tornado, and the flames shoot up wildly.

Cars kept their lights on at midday, and the soldiers and volunteers, who in the last few days had kept busy digging still more trenches and foxholes, huddled in doorways or behind sandbags to get out of the lashing wind.

In the midst of the storm, about 30 Japanese activists suddenly appeared parading near the Palestine Hotel. They waved banners and shouted into the wind: "No to war! No to war!" Aside from a few news photographers, no one paid them any attention.

Elsewhere, people shopped for last-minute survival rations -- sardines, tuna, long-life milk and, for foreign journalists at least, the odd bottle of whiskey for the difficult days ahead.

"I have lived in Baghdad all my life, but I don't recall such a storm," said Amira Ali Mehdi, 68, her beautifully wrinkled face shrouded in a black chador as she walked on Palestine Street. "This is how God shows us that he is angry with other Arab countries because they are not helping Iraq.

"God decided to intervene himself and send this sandstorm," she said, in the presence of government minders. "This should be an omen for America."

Government ministers continued their steady march before television cameras, expressing defiance of the U.S. and its allies and predicting victory at any cost.

Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan expressed outrage at Arab governments for not doing more to help Iraq.

"Why don't they decide to suspend oil exports to the states who are launching aggression against us?" he asked. "Why don't they close the embassies of the states who are committing aggression against Iraq? Why don't they block their waters to American and British vessels and why don't they close their airspace to American and British warplanes and missiles?"

Yet at his news conference, Information Minister Mohammed Said Sahaf insisted that Iraqis are not fazed by the advancing American and British forces. They will be eager witnesses, he said, to "how the American game of shock and awe will fail."

Others in the city expressed apprehension. "We need peace. Everybody is afraid," said one professional, straying from the official line of defiance. "How can you not be nervous?"

In the upscale Arasat Hindia neighborhood, a family could be seen preparing for its flight, packing a station wagon, young boys helping with the heavy bags. They would not stop to speak with a reporter.

At the checkpoints around the city, through all the brave words, a hint of fear crept in.

"I could see piles of dead bodies lying on top of each other in every street," said Handi Mohammed Nidaui, 33, a stocky policeman.

Even Ahmed, the Baath volunteer who saw the hand of God in the sandstorm, harbors his own nightmare. "They may roll their tanks down our streets, but only when our last defender dies," he said. "Then, their tanks will roll on our dead bodies."

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