Raids Leave Capital a City of Contrasts
By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 20, 1998; Page A49
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Dec. 19They were scattered and relatively inconspicuous, hard to identify except for such telltale signs as blasted windows, sagging roofs or burn marks.
After three nights of U.S. and British airstrikes against the Iraqi capital, there were no smoking piles of rubble, collapsed bridges or severed highways. The city and its people continued to function quite normally.
But tucked away near highway overpasses or wedged behind apartments and office complexes was the evidence of the cruise missiles that came thundering in from planes and ships in the Persian Gulf: A series of government buildings, thought to be critical to the Iraqi regime, that appeared largely intact from the outside were likely in tatters within.
En route to spots around the city, one caught an occasional glimpse -- of a security complex, for example, struck by as many as three missiles near the U.N. headquarters outside Baghdad. The roof of one building had collapsed onto the top floor in one corner, while the walls of a second were charred and windowless.
The top floors of a military-industry office complex were also windowless, although little other damage was apparent from the small portion of the building that was visible from the road outside the al-Rasheed Hotel.
The extent of the damage caused by U.S. and British missiles could not be described with any accuracy. Iraqi officials have not allowed journalists to tour any damaged structures and were providing only a partial list of targeted sites.
But diplomats with more freedom of movement around Baghdad said the air raids had created an eerie contrast between the unimpeded flow of daily life in the city and the heavy pounding of the past three nights. There has been no major disruption of electricity, water service or commerce, a state of affairs that to some here seemed hardly possible given the noise and seeming chaos of each night. The attacks resumed tonight. At about 9:30 p.m., intense antiaircraft fire filled the skies above Baghdad, followed by the impact of what seemed to be two cruise missiles. Witnesses said the missiles appeared to hit in the center of the city. [In all, a half-dozen loud blasts rocked the capital, indicating missile hits, the Associated Press reported].
"What struck me as remarkable is that Baghdad seems to be a different city by day than what we see during the bombardment at night," said Prakash Shah, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's special envoy to Iraq. "People move freely. There does not seem to be any panic at all despite the intense bombardment."
It is wrong, however, to say that things are normal here, and the strangeness of the times made itself felt at unexpected moments.
Outside U.N. headquarters -- where the windows had been taped carefully to prevent injuries from shattered glass -- spent shells, apparently from Iraqi gunners, fell from the sky at midday.
"We are having an instance of antiaircraft shells falling," a security guard said over a loudspeaker. "Please remain indoors."
Shah and the few humanitarian workers who remain in Baghdad -- most were evacuated by Thursday night, after the departure of U.N. weapons inspectors on Wednesday -- said they are committed to keeping the blue U.N. flag raised throughout the conflict, even as they cram together to sleep in a designated "safe" corridor of their building each night.
"We are staying because as far as the United Nations is concerned, when bombing is over, we have a role, and the healing process of diplomacy has a role," Shah said.
For now, however, diplomacy is taking a back seat here to anxiety over what each night will bring. On the first full day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Baghdad residents were awakened at about 4 a.m. by the wail of air raid sirens, followed by the dull thud of Iraqi guns and perhaps 10 or more large explosions, whose shock waves could be felt throughout the city.
By about 4:10 a.m., silence had returned, though occasional tracer fire could still be seen on the outskirts of Baghdad.
Twenty minutes later the noise began again, as the low-flying cruise missiles painted brilliant streaks across the sky, each terminating in a dazzling yellow flash. The second series included at least seven large explosions and was over at 4:39 a.m.
Along one main street today, a caravan of taxis carried 68 coffins that officials said represent the civilian death toll from the air raids thus far. The coffin-bearing taxis joined a procession of protesters that stopped in front of U.N. headquarters, chanting slogans against the United States and the international trade sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
"Baghdad mourns today 68 martyrs who fell due to the criminal military action committed against our peaceful people," Sultan Shawi, a member of Iraq's National Assembly, told the crowd.
At a news conference tonight before the attacks resumed, Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan charged that heavy bombing in southern Iraq and the distribution of U.S. propaganda leaflets there proved the military action has less to do with U.N. weapons inspections than it does with dividing the country and toppling President Saddam Hussein.
President Clinton is the world's "number one liar," Ramadan said. "Aggression has been pre-planned. It has nothing to do with the subject of cooperation" with weapons inspectors.
"Its mission is to find cover" for dividing the nation, he said, adding that by enduring this assault, Iraq "will possess freedom . . . and the sanctions will be lifted, and the spies will be evicted."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company