Iraq Special Report
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  Baghdad Hides Its Wounds

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 20, 1998; Page A45

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Dec. 19—The taxi was a high-riding GMC Suburban, outlined in flashing red lights with a big chrome grill that could push anything smaller into a ditch. It was a velvet ride at 100 mph. It played "The Macarena" when the transmission was in reverse.

Leaving Amman, Jordan, bound for Baghdad the night U.S. bombs started dropping, the driver pulled to the shoulder to confer with his passengers.

"Iraq! Boom, boom! Problem?"

No problem.

At the border crossing, a complex of one-story concrete buildings with a cafeteria and duty-free shop desolate in this era of trade sanctions, Iraqi officials ushered along a parade of foreign journalists with a casual shrug and little hassle.

The dying ember of a pre-Ramadan moon faded over the Iraqi desert. The clipped English of BBC Radio brought the first details of what had happened during the past several hours, a "serious and sustained" air bombardment, as President Clinton called it, against a nation that seemed for hundreds of miles to be little more than Bedouin tents and herds of goats.

Eventually the sand gave way to lush date groves and farms fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and then to Baghdad itself. Approaching the city just hours after the first raids stopped, there was no visible evidence of the military action, no downed power lines or flaming factories or shell-pocked roads. The strike existed behind a scrim never fully unveiled.

Twenty years of conflict does not wear well on a country. After battling Iran for eight years, and struggling with the Persian Gulf War and international sanctions for another eight, Iraq today is a place that is both remarkably welcoming and inherently suspicious, more open than might be expected in some senses, bafflingly bureaucratic in others, particularly during periods of conflict.

Cautious in their words and actions when it comes to politics, the people are otherwise generous in their encounters with Americans and others from the West and free in discussing their ambitions for themselves and their country to reintegrate into the world. It would be nice to take a vacation, they say. It would be nice to buy a new car. Stone-faced soldiers smile brightly when smiled at, and even the harshest critics of American policy make a polite, and seemingly sincere, distinction between the U.S. government and its people.

So it was the week that the bombs once again fell on Baghdad. At the al-Rashid Hotel, desk clerks and incoming journalists greeted each other like classmates at a reunion, the handshakes and smiles dissonant in their sweetness, given the circumstances. The same atmosphere maintained at the press office of the Iraqi Information Ministry, the agency responsible for overseeing foreign journalists in Iraq.

Almost festive, it seemed more the start of a vacation than a military conflict.

That tone changed when it came to business. Conscious of the images and words being sent to the outside world, Iraqi authorities kept most bomb- and missile-damaged sites off-limits, approving only specific forays to specific neighborhoods when it was well known what would be seen and heard there.

Assigned a minder from the ministry, a combination overseer and translator, reporters roved the city in groups of two and three to approved places that seemed to bear little connection to the ferocity of the previous night's bombardment. There was a large hole in one street; there was a house damaged reportedly from an impact of some sort.

Thursday night, the potential costs of this standoff became more clear with the first cruise missile explosions. Greeted by red tracer fire as elegant as a shooting star, the brilliant yellow flash illuminated a rising dust cloud, while echoing percussive shocks bounced through the city like some manic spring, its kinetic tension finally free to wander.

If there was a clear path, a breeze brushed past.

Dozens of missiles have fallen around Baghdad over the last three nights. Each flash, each bang, each echo, triggered a human reaction. At the open plaza set up for reporters at the press center, the boldest grabbed cameras and scrambled to the roof. Iraqi guards rushed to close gates, though it was unclear against what. Others wandered, caught between the nagging curiosity to see what would happen next, and the more fundamental wish for a place safe from flying glass or falling shrapnel.

Friday morning brought a fresh round of tours. The day before, hospital officials had told reporters of a 13-year-old boy said to have been killed by a piece of falling metal on the front steps of his house in a neighborhood called Al Jihad -- a word that carries fearful connotations in the West of Islamic holy war but that is in fact more broadly translated as a struggle for good.

There was, however, no official appetite for unleashing a hunt for the bomb site or for a family or neighbors who could explain what had happened. It is still unclear where the shrapnel may have come from; as with so many of the civilian casualties in this attack, the suffering seen in hospital beds exists outside the scrim, behind which, somewhere in Baghdad, is a presidential palace or factory or military site that has been destroyed.

Instead, the tour that day included more hospitals damaged by nearby explosions, Friday prayers at local mosques and the Museum of Natural History, where missile fragments reportedly punched a hole in the roof and damaged some displays.

Mohammed Kazem Mohammed, a director of the museum and assistant professor of biology at the University of Baghdad, escorted visitors around the site, mystified himself where the fragments originated.

Outside, behind the museum, Mohammed pointed out a patch of ground used by his students for plant research. It flourished with broad beans and onions.

"At this point," he said, "we just grow them to eat."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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