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WAR WITH IRAQ / INTELLIGENCE

Where All the News Is Good

In Baghdad's view, the war is a long string of successes, with no word of Iraqi military deaths.

March 28, 2003|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — For a full hour Thursday, Iraqi Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad Jabburi Tai took time out from the war to extol the success of his fighters. Take, for instance, the allied bombing of Iraqi military camps south of the capital. "Even if the bomb fell 10 meters away," he said, "it does not do anything to the soldier."

With relish, he accentuated the setbacks suffered by U.S. and British troops. As Jabburi Tai described it, the allied forces have been repelled at every turn -- unable to fully control even the tiny port town of Umm al Qasr far to the south after more than a week of fighting.

He analyzed the vast battlefield city by city as an aide, pointer in hand, stood next to a gigantic map and other officers lined up respectfully near the dais.

But before and after Jabburi Tai spoke, this city was again being pounded by bombs that blasted key symbols of Iraqi power, rattled buildings, stymied the telephone system and left anyone nearby running for cover.

And in this latest in a series of bullish news briefings, there was one subject Jabburi Tai would not be drawn into: Iraqi military losses since the war began eight days ago.

Although he repeatedly spoke of "heavy casualties" among the foreign troops, he would not discuss in any detail Iraqi troop casualties. State television and radio have been similarly reticent -- there has been no mention of the hundreds of Iraqi dead and thousands of Iraqi prisoners of war seen in Western newscasts or reported by journalists traveling with allied troops.

The result is that most Iraqis -- or at least those without access to satellite television or shortwave radio, and there are many -- have a one-sided picture of how the war is progressing.

Fed a regular diet of patriotic music and reminders of the U.S. "defeat" in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, many Iraqis have the impression that their military is defeating allied forces wherever they are engaged and that U.S. and British troops have been forced to linger in desert areas and avoid populated areas.

Jabburi Tai told reporters that the Americans and the British are suffering heavy casualties from regular troops and irregular fighters from formations such as the Fedayeen Saddam and the Baath Party militia, with tanks and armored personnel carriers captured, Apache attack helicopters shot down and a number of troops killed or captured.

He made it sound as if the daily heavy bombing south of Baghdad of Iraqi military camps had not had great effect, calling Iraq's losses "very minimal." He said troops were well protected in small foxholes.

Jabburi Tai acknowledged that he expects Baghdad to be encircled by allied forces within five to 10 days, to be followed by street-to-street fighting. But he predicted that Iraq would be victorious.

"They have to come into the city eventually.... God willing, Baghdad will be impregnable. We will fight to the end and everywhere," he said. "History will record how well Iraqis performed in defense of their capital."

At another point, he said, "Baghdad will become a cemetery where the enemy will be buried."

His military pronouncements were laced with allusions to God and his belief that a higher power will give victory to Iraq. He said that the heavy sandstorm that swept much of central Iraq this week was a "divine gift to tell the aggressor that he is an aggressor."

In contrast to the relative silence about Iraqi military casualties, officials here freely discuss civilian deaths.

"I can tell you that from the beginning of the war, more than 4,000 people have been injured and more than 350 have been killed," Health Minister Umid Midhat Mubarak said at a separate news conference Thursday. He accused allied forces of using cluster bombs and of deliberately striking civilian areas "to decrease their morale."

Reporters and photographers were taken Thursday to the district of Youssefiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, where a group of houses for families of employees of the Military Industrialization Authority was struck by explosives earlier in the day. Residents said 10 people were killed and 25 injured.

The aluminum-sided bungalows had collapsed and were riddled with holes. In one house, the breakfast of tea and bread that a family had been eating was still set neatly on the floor.

With the weather much clearer after the two-day sandstorm, heavier bombing resumed in the capital Thursday, the heaviest since last Friday night's "shock and awe" onslaught.

Allied bombs and missiles struck telecommunications facilities, and telephone service was cut off for much of Baghdad. And in an overwhelming display Thursday night, two bombs hit a building in the Republican Palace presidential complex on the west side of the Tigris River, creating a huge fireball and massive plumes of smoke. Also struck, for at least the second time, was the new palace known as the Peace Palace on the same side of the river.

For the first time in several days, Iraqi air defenses seemed to have come alive -- at one point launching surface-to-air missiles that whizzed to the sky like giant Roman candles chasing allied aircraft flying too high to be seen with the eye.

Despite the Iraqi defense minister's upbeat assessment of his forces' chances, it was clear that for now U.S. air power is the most potent factor in the city.

Journalists who were assembled for a 3 p.m. news briefing from a defense spokesman at the Information Ministry fled the building when a bomb fell about 700 yards away and antiaircraft fire erupted from several nearby buildings. Due to circumstances beyond the Iraqis' control, the briefing was temporarily postponed.

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