The 70-Hour War: The View From The Ground - `Do you think our soldiers were crazy enough to stay in barracks?'

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AFTER THREE days of missile attacks the tops of many tall buildings in Baghdad are cracked open like concrete eggs, the upper stories reduced to a tangle of twisted metal and broken masonry. But most Iraqis think the prime target of the bombing - Saddam's regime - is undamaged.

"It will all be rebuilt in two or three months," said an Iraqi friend. "After all, half the population is unemployed so we are not short of labour. Saddam knew he could take a limited attack like this and declare himself a winner. If the aim was to weaken the regime in Iraq then it was not serious."

Already yesterday, government officials were sounding a triumphant note. "We knew they could not go on firing three hundred missiles a day," said one. He refused to comment on military casualties but added: "Do you think our soldiers were crazy enough to stay in their barracks?"

The short bombardment showed that Iraq has no defence against cruise missiles. The anti-aircraft fire was meagre compared to the fireworks of 1991. But the fact that Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, is still in place at the end of the air assault seems to be evidence to many Iraqis that he has seen off another challenge to his rule by the United States and Britain - the elephant and the rat, in the unkind comparison of Tariq Aziz the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister.

Security in Baghdad is tight. Armed Baath party militia are on street corners. Outside the capital it is impossible to know at first hand what is happening. But the willingness of the government to take journalists to Basra, near the Kuwaiti border in the south, suggests that it is confident that they are fully in control, despite the fact that some of the bombardment was specifically aimed at destabilising Republican Guard units in the area.

It was not a war without victims. In the first two days the Iraqi Ministry of Health says 68 civilians were killed in and around Baghdad. Indirect casualties are likely to be far greater. Much of Iraq's 22 million people live on or just below subsistence level.

Unicef said that a survey it carried out in October showed that one in five Iraqi infants are suffering from chronic or acute malnutrition.

With so many people only just surviving from day to day it does not take much to push them below the breadline. For instance, every morning in normal times thousands of labourers gather in different parts of Baghdad waiting to be hired. They earn the equivalent of about one pound a day. For the last three days they have not been seen.

"People like that have nothing to fall back on," said Margaret Hassan, the head of Care International, the aid organisation in Iraq. "There are people here so poor that they cannot even afford the 200 dinars - 11 pence - which it takes to buy the official food ration. For a month, I was in a hospital in Kerbala (in the south) where they had no food to feed the mothers of newborn infants. Children over the age of one were getting a cup of tea and a piece of bread in the morning and nothing else."

In many ways Iraq has become less vulnerable to high technology attack because it has returned, after eight years of sanctions, to a pre-technological age. There is not a lot left to destroy.

In Saddam City, the huge working-class district of east Baghdad, a local doctor, who did not want to be named, said: "The economic collapse here even generates jobs. People no longer use the telephone, but send messages by hand. Street cleaning is done by men with buckets not garbage trucks. Of course they get paid very little money."

Amidst such massive deprivation a few hundred missiles - frightening though they are as they strike - make little impact on the lives of ordinary Iraqis. It is unlikely to make them rise up against the government, even if they were able to do so against such a tightly organised security system. This is the view of every Iraqi I have spoken to in Baghdad. One man summed up the views of all the others: "In the end, it was not really serious."