'It's now a spectator sport'

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE WHITE flame from the tail of a cruise missile, normally invisible in the night sky, moves steadily over the park which houses Baghdad's zoo. A few bursts of anti-aircraft fire vainly pursue it. It disappears, and there is a flash of light and a pillar of fire somewhere to the south. Seconds later comes the roar of the explosion.

Actually to see a cruise is not common, and from a nearby window high in the Al-Rashid hotel an American television correspondent is giving an excited commentary. He says the blast of the explosion pushed him back several feet from his window, but this is an exaggeration. I only feel a strong puff of air ruffle my hair.

The bombing of Baghdad has become a spectator sport. In the press centre of the Ministry of Information an Iraqi journalist is watching a television which is showing a Pentagon briefing. The officer in charge is displaying film taken from the plane with night vision equipment which shows everything in shades of green. As the journalist watched the bomb strike the centre of a large building, he said: "Foreigners must think Iraqis are all coloured green. The only time they see us is on gun cameras."

It is a strange war, fought at night. The air raid sirens howl and there is a pause. Sometimes nothing happens, and after a few minutes there is the steady note of the all-clear. More usually, there are a few red and white speckles of anti-aircraft fire. Then the missiles or smart bombs strike, and government buildings erupt in flames.

In the morning, journalists sally out to look for damage, which seems meagre compared to the fireworks of the night before. It is possible to work out which buildings were hit, but not whether they were in use at the time. Iraqi ministries have had alternative headquarters since the city was hit by Iranian missiles in the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988.

Iraqis are resigned, almost detached, from what is happening to them. "I suppose we are used to it," said one Iraqi friend. "People consider it as part of life. They feel that being hit by a bomb is like a car accident. It could happen to anyone, but isn't very likely."

This man, an intellectual of independent views and now in private business, was also angry.

"This is not making the government weaker," he said. "People are becoming more anti-Western. We spent four centuries under the Ottomans then under the British. We are not going to be dominated by anyone." He admitted that Iraq was largely defenceless.

There is little anti-aircraft fire compared to 1991, when the sky over Baghdad was lit up by tracer-fire and missiles, but he pointed out: "The Iraqi dinar has strengthened in the last 24 hours. This means that even the speculators think the government is stable. Nobody here has any respect for the opposition abroad. They see them as scoundrels in it for the money."

Even if there was dissent, nothing is likely to come of it. At every street crossing there are soldiers backed by security men and members of the ruling Baath party carrying sub-machine guns. The country is divided into four military districts under the control of four lieutenants of Saddam Hussein, chosen for their loyalty.

The limited nature of the war is not obvious at first. Presidential palaces, and buildings with important-sounding titles, such as the headquarters of military intelligence, are easy to hit, but almost certainly all are empty. In the Gulf War, when the bombardment was far heavier, a senior Iraqi officer now in exile said: "We did not lose a single officer over the rank of colonel killed by the bombs. We knew we had to keep out of deep bunkers, because the allies knew where they were and they could destroy them."

Precautions are probably just as great today, but people are being killed. Driving down Saadoun Street in central Baghdad yesterday we were overtaken by a convoy of orange and white taxis with coffins strapped to their roofs. Yet the sense of resignation runs deep. In a typewriter repair shop in a run-down area next to Nasser Square in the centre of the city, Mr Jawad said business had been slow that morning. "This is probably because it is the first day of Ramadan [the Muslim month of fasting] and because of the bombing." He spoke as if both were equally commonplace, and inevitable.

The real danger for Iraqis is not death from the air. It is rather the overall impact of the crisis on an economy already crippled by eight years of sanctions. A UN survey in October showed that one in five infants in Iraq is suffering from acute or chronic malnutrition. This is in a country where the main hazard to infant health before 1991 was over-eating.

The infrastructure is collapsing: after a missile landed in the main street of the mixed Muslim-Christian quarter of Karada last week we noticed that electricity was off on one side of the road. We asked if this was the result of the explosion. No, said a man wearily, it was merely the usual power cut.

Most of the United Nations humanitarian staff left Baghdad last Thursday, after missiles landed near their headquarters in the Canal Hotel in east Baghdad. They had spent the night sheltering in a stairwell.

Among those who stayed was Philippe Heffink, head of Unicef, who has lived in Baghdad for three years. Yesterday he was trying to find if there were enough food stocks for the poorest children. Only two of the four main entry points into Iraq appear to be open, on the Turkish and Syrian frontiers.

One grim statistic is certain. If the pattern of the Gulf War is repeated, then far more people will die from the tight economic siege of Iraq than from the missiles and bombs.

Focus, pages 14-17