Iraq Bombings: The missiles come so close you feel the warm gust of air on your face

Baghdad Assault
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BY DAYLIGHT they looked like large black aerial torpedoes moving surprisingly slowly towards their target. By night they are invisible until they explode. They are the cruise missiles which have been falling on Baghdad for two days, sending fire into the air.

Already war in Iraq has its routine. The first warning of an attack is the howling of the air-raid sirens. The United States and Britain say they have wiped out Iraq's air defences, but some radar must still be operating because the sirens are usually right in predicting an attack.

The streets start emptying in the Iraqi capital soon after dark. This is a city where life is traditionally nocturnal. Shops and restaurants stay open late. No more. Even in districts like the mixed Christian-Muslim neighbourhood of Karada, which is known for its night life, most shops put up their metal gratings at an early hour. There are still cars in the streets but they drive fast and ignore traffic lights.

Some minutes after the sirens sound come the first specks of anti-aircraft fire. Red balls of fire drift upwards slowly. Then the anti-aircraft shells burst into flecks of white light. There is little tracer fire, though occasionally you hear the rattle of a Kalashnikov machine-gun, as if an Iraqi was firing into the air in frustration.

It is not like the V1s which hit London in 1944. There is no sound from the incoming rockets. The anti-aircraft fire weaves uncertainly across the sky, as if the gunners were unsure of their aim, and a ball of light expands on the horizon as the missile strikes.

For a moment the tall buildings in Baghdad are illuminated by the flash. Then, depending on the distance from the explosion, there is the crash of the rocket's detonation. When the missile strike is close, you feel the warm gust of air from the blast.

This is a televisual war. The camera crews, gathered on the roof of the Iraqi Ministry of Information on the banks of the river Tigris, provide a graphic but somewhat deceptive view of what is happening. Their night vision equipment, amplifying ambient light, makes the explosions look even more spectacular than they really are.

Most of the missiles are falling on the outskirts of the city. But the centre is also being hit. One fell on the Military Industry Ministry near the Al-Rashid hotel.

The "surgical strikes" are not as surgical as the Ministry of Defence in London, or the Pentagon in Washington, make them sound. One missile landed on a substantial house in the Hail Adel district, sending shrapnel into the head of Dr Jallim Geylan, a wealthy engineer.

We saw him later in hospital wrapped in a green blanket. His sister was sitting beside him. She said his wife and children were in another hospital. Dr Geylan's house is in a residential district, so it is difficult to see what the bombers were aiming at. It seemed more likely that the rocket was off course, or had been shot down.

The misery caused by the missile attack is not only a matter of the dead and wounded. In the middle of the night we went to see the Baghdad Teaching Hospital, a vast complex. It had not suffered a direct hit but an explosion had blown in the windows and brought down some ceilings. Treading gingerly through the shattered glass windows on the ground floor we went downstairs into a warren of grim halls and passages under the hospital which serves as its bomb shelter. Since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, all big buildings in Baghdad have shelters.

One man with a bloody bandage and a stump for a right leg was being moved downstairs by doctors. In Iraq, a member of a patient's family often stays with him in hospital. In a large tunnel deep underground women in traditional black cloaks were crouched around beside family members, while the hospital staff manhandled big, black bottles of oxygen into the shelter. It had not been used for some time and water dripped from the ceiling and mixed with blood on the floor.

Fridays are holidays in this Muslim country so most shops were shut. The vast market in Shurjah in the centre of the city gave an effect of normality. Everything was on sale - spring clothes, rice, carpets, radios and second-hand pieces of equipment. In one part of the market, people were buying and selling songbirds, which the Iraqis often have in their homes. In another street, traders sold dogs as pets or for guard duty.

But elsewhere in Baghdad it was clear that Iraqis thought it safer to stay at home, even though there have been no raids in the middle of the day. In a normally busy restaurant on Saadoun Street there were a few farmers wearing the head dresses and traditional robes of the Iraqi countryside. Only two other tables were occupied. "What do you expect?" said the proprietor in despair.

In Soukh al Sori, the book market, intellectuals come on Friday to sell old volumes for a few dinars. The books are often remains of a university career in Britain.

An Iraqi acquaintance, walking in the market said: "Things could be worse. We are used to being hit by rockets. Saddam will be stronger after this."

This is not quite a true reflection of what Iraqis generally feel. Another Iraqi said: "Iraqis fear that a game is being played over which they have no interest. They feel they are always the victims, whether it is sanctions or bombs. The forfeit is horrible. Young and old people feel frightened, but in a way we are used to it. Just staying alive takes a lot of effort here."

It is also not quite as dangerous or devastating as the Gulf War. Then the allies destroyed the city's power station on the first flight, dropping metallic strands on the power lines to fuse the wires. The telecommunication towers disappeared entirely and the telephones ceased to work. Refineries were destroyed and there was no petrol in a country which has some of the biggest oil reserves in the world.

None of this has happened this time. There were queues at petrol stations in the first day of the bombing but these have largely disappeared. The government has not introduced petrol rations. Curiously the dinar has slipped in value only slightly against the dollar, indicating that Iraqi money-changers do not think this economy, crippled by eight years of sanctions, is finally going to collapse.

Nothing angers ordinary Iraqis more than to hear that they are not suffering from real malnutrition because of international sanctions. Dr Al Bayauni, a scientist, said yesterday that he had just heard Tony Blair claim Iraq was a food exporter. "What do we export except a few dates?" he said with disgust.

But although the bombing is not as bad as 1990-1991, Iraq is weaker than it was. Malnutrition rates are close to those of impoverished Mali in Africa, according to United Nations humanitarian workers. The limited export of oil since 1996 has brought in more food but has not brought down the death rate among children because the infrastructure has collapsed. In much of the country clean water can no longer be pumped, so people drink straight from the rivers.

A problem for Britain and America is that they want at all costs to prevent pilots being captured by Iraq. Therefore they rely heavily on missiles rather than piloted aircraft. These look impressive on television and are effective against large, fixed targets. But these targets are not at the heart of the Iraqi government. So far, at least, the United States and Britain have been carefulabout what they hit. The fact that Baghdad is not suffering missile strikes during the daytime means that people are at home when most of the damage is done.

If daytime raids begin, the casualties will immediately go up. But the lesson of the Gulf War is that for all the vaunted accuracy of missiles in the use of allied fire power against a heavily inhabited city - Baghdad has 3.5 million people but there are 5.5 million in its metropolitan area - it usually ends in disaster. In 1991, the allies hit the Amariyia shelter in the city, killing 400 people. Most of them were women and children.

Cruise missiles and "smart" bombs are an attempt to win a war on the cheap. The missiles themselves are expensive, but because they allow the US and Britain to attack without any casualties to their own side, they are politically cheap. The problem is that they are unlikely to achieve their aims.